Daunting task for Down against All-Ireland champions

June 17, 2013

Down football faces a very daunting task on Sunday at Kingspan Breffni Park when the Minors and Seniors will form a double header, with both underdogs, to advance to the Ulster Final. Down, fresh from their win in Derry Down face All-Ireland champions Donegal in the Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final at 2pm on Sunday, preceded by the Minor Championship semi-final between Down and defending Ulster Champions Tyrone, which throws-in at 12.15pm.

The big match is a repeat of last year’s Ulster Final when Down went in with high hopes of annexing the first significant silverware of James McCartan’s tenure as manager, that wait goes on.

Down show significant changes since last July, a third of that starting fifteen are gone v Derry – Darren O’Hagan, Dan Gordon, Aidan Branigan, Aidan Carr and Liam Doyle – and none of the three subs who came on in the Final – Daniel Hughes, Eoin McCartan and Conor Maginn – figured for Down in Derry.

However Donegal remain a tight knit bunch with just Eamon McGee and Neil Gallagher replacing Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh for their 2013 opener v Tyrone and both Lacey and McHugh came on as substitutes, their omission from the starting fifteen perhaps tactical as much as anything.

This match will give a good indication of Down’s standing and indicate how much if at all Down have progressed since Clones 2012. Remember that Final was very much about systems of play and on the day Down’s was clearly second best to that of Donegal. Though Down had nine different scorers they trailed at the interval despite playing with the breeze, their ultra cautious approach slowed the game down and allowed Donegal to play very much within their comfort zone. Once Donegal got in front they bossed the remainder of the match, performing very much like a well oiled machine. At the time James McCartan talked up his side, feeling a favourable bounce here or a different decision there could have impacted on the result; he clearly believed that while the match was close Down were in with a shout. After the Derry game a few weeks ago there was further talk of tweaking the system to get things right in the second half. Down has assembled extensive backroom experience this season, they got it right in Celtic Park but this is the ultimate test – the All-Ireland Champions in their second defence with them having already put Tyrone to the sword.

When the teams met in Ballybofey in the League, Donegal won pulling up. Everyone knows how Donegal will play; they will defend in numbers and counter attack at speed making use of the best full forward line in the country in Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden. If they get the chances Derry did it is unlikely they will be as wasteful, so Down need to be on their game from the throw-in and not slacken during the seventy minutes. It won’t be as open as the Derry match but it could still be as absorbing a contest and if Down play with pace and get the breaks who knows how it could turn out.

The Minors have it all to do against the defending Ulster Champions but will be encouraged that Tyrone only managed 1-9 in Donegal and the home side shot some twenty wides so Down’s opponents could have been Donegal on nine out of ten other days. Down scored 3-10 in Derry and are the biggest Down Minor side in quite a while, so if that opening experience in Celtic Park stands to them Down could go all the way to the Ulster Final.