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Can Down produce the passion of the semi-final?

July 10, 2017

USC Final – Down v Tyrone Sunday 16th July at 2pm in Clones

Tyrone will be attempting to win back to back titles as they previously accomplished in 2009/10. Tyrone have reached this final after victories over Derry 0-22 to 0-11 and Donegal 1-21 to 1-12. Tactically they outfoxed their opponents favouring a crowded middle third, forcing turn overs and running the ball. They had 12 different scorers the last day and possess a bench full of players who would get on any other Ulster team. Skipper Sean Cavanagh in his final season has rolled back the years with majestic performances leading the line with authority. Conall McCann has emerged as a super centre field player and Colm Cavanagh has come out of the shadow of older brother Sean to impress in a deep play maker role. In Niall Morgan, they have a keeper who plays as a sweeper. Ronan McNamee, Peter Harte, Niall Sludden and Mattie Donnelly are players experienced well beyond their years.

For Down, it’s all about can they reproduce the passion, work rate and refusal to be second best of the semi-final, can play on the edge and bully the Tyrone players as they did against Monaghan. Certainly, there will be no surprise element, Tyrone have had three weeks to come up with a plan to thwart Down. But if Down can bring the same all or nothing attitude to this final as they did in the semi, they can cause another upset.

About the players

Like all teams Down have key players who make them tick, individually and collectively.

Kevin McKernan as sweeper gives the defence additional support and covers for wing backs and midfield to attack while still able to get forward and kick invaluable scores.

Gerard McGovern and Darren O’Hagan are specialist man markers who can restrict the key scorers or play makers on any opposition.

Wing backs Darragh O’Hanlon and Caolan Mooney shuttle up and down the side lines and O’Hanlon is a placed ball expert while Mooney is a key man under kick outs whether to call a mark or pick up a break.

Niall Donnelly and Niall McParland bring an edginess to the team, they are the hard men who patrol the Down half and have the legs to turn defence into attack.

Peter Turley plays with great passion, Eamon Burns has attributed Down’s defeat to Monaghan last year to his black card describing him as the team’s heartbeat, and now with the likes of McKernan, Donnelly and McParland to support him, his careering runs into the opposition half carry a real threat.

Shay Millar, in his debut season has taken Man of the Match accolades because of his refusal to be second best in any situation, his work rate and his ability to kick a score.

The Johnstons, Ryan and Jerome, bring genuine pace to the attack and that is something no defender likes in a direct opponent. They play with the cockiness that all winners possess and the football skill to justify it.

Conor Maginn is the playmaker, he’s about a long time now and can dink the passes that open up defences and take a good score himself.

Connaire Harrison is the man of the moment, a brilliant semi-final on the much-lauded Drew Wylie with three inspirational first half points from play has propelled Harrison from bit part to main man.

There’s experience in Aidan Carr and Mark Poland and quality in Donal O’Hare and David McKibben waiting in the wings and don’t be surprised if Eamon Burns pulls one from left field as he did with Anthony Doherty v Armagh or Niall McParland v Monaghan; the panel has been beefed up with some good players since the Armagh victory and there could well be a surprise inclusion.

The Down 2017 story so far.

Down’s season has been an unexpectedly successful one no matters what happens on Sunday. Survival in Division Two of the National Football League, a first competitive win in two seasons, and an Ulster Final appearance. Most supporters would have hoped for maybe one out of three so three out of three is a huge vindication of the management and players efforts during a most difficult time for Down football.

The season did not begin too promisingly with a home defeat to Fermanagh followed by a loss in Clare. Then on the 25th February, Saturday night football in Newry, a watershed moment for this group with victory over Meath and it got better with back to back wins following the visit to Celtic Park to play Derry. A step up in quality of opposition meant successive losses in Newry to Kildare and Galway followed by widespread rumours of discontent in the camp before a trip to Cork to secure survival and it went right down to the wire with an injury time free earning Down the draw which kept them up after other results went in their favour.

So Down finished the league in a positive mood but faced into championship preparations less so as injuries effected team selections and results were accordingly disappointing.

However, the prospect of Armagh in Newry galvanised the group and they battled their way to a win. Then they faced Monaghan who had been in three of the last four finals winning two and a decent performance was all that was asked but Down delivered an unbelievable show of power and passion to knock the favourites out of the championship and reach Sunday’s decider.

Down’s Ulster Final appearances

THIS will be Down’s 28th Ulster final appearance since their first in 1940. They have won the title 12 times and on 5 of those occasions went on to win the Sam Maguire Cup. They have played Tyrone in 5 Ulster finals and won only once in 1994, the last occasion they have taken the Provincial title, also the last time they won the All-Ireland title.

2012: Donegal 2-18 Down 0-13

2003: Tyrone 1-17 Down 4-8; Replay: Tyrone 0-23 Down 1-5

1999: Armagh 3-12 Down 0-10

1996: Tyrone 1-9 Down 0-9

1994: Down 1-17 Tyrone 1-11

1991: Down 1-15 Donegal 0-10

1986: Tyrone 1-11 Down 0-10

1981: Down 3-12 Armagh 1-10

1978: Down 2-19 Cavan 2-12

1975: Derry 1-16 Down 2-6

1974: Donegal 1-14 Down 2-11; Replay: Donegal 3-9 Down 1-12

1973: Tyrone 3-13 Down 1-11

1971: Down 4-15 Derry 4-11

1969: Cavan 2-13 Down 2-6

1968: Down 0-16 Cavan 1-8

1967: Cavan 2-12 Down 0-8

1966: Down 1-7 Donegal 0-8

1965: Down 3-5 Cavan 1-8

1964: Cavan 2-10 Down 1-10

1963: Down 2-11 Donegal 1-4

1962: Cavan 3-6 Down 0-5

1961: Down 2-10 Armagh 1-10

1960: Down 3-7 Cavan 1-8

1959: Down 2-16 Cavan 0-7

1958: Derry 1-11 Down 2-4

1942: Cavan 5-11 Down 1-3

1940: Cavan 4-10 Down 1-5

Connaire Harrison will be fit for the Ulster SFC final but Barry O’Hagan won’t be available to face Tyrone. Harrison was star of the Mourne County’s thrilling semi-final victory over Monaghan last month but had to depart the Athletic Grounds early after picking up a hamstring injury, which placed his participation in Sunday Anglo Celt Cup decider in doubt. However, the powerful Glasdrumman clubman played a full part in Down training over the weekend and had been given the green light to feature against the Red Hands. But Clonduff clubman O’Hagan is definitely out of Down’s biggest game of the year to date after sustaining shoulder damage on club duty. In fact, pending a meeting with a specialist, it is feared that O’Hagan’s season could be over.

Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh will be fit for Sunday’s Ulster SFC final clash with Down. The Moy clubman was a doubt after suffering a knee injury in club action but manager Mickey Harte says scans have shown no ligament damage. Cavanagh will sit out training due to bruising around his knee but will be ready for action in Clones. Meanwhile, Ronan McNabb looks set to miss the Anglo Celt Cup decider, while Darren McCurry is a doubt after suffering a recurrence of a calf strain on Sunday. Harte accepts the situation “There is a lot of talk that it’s all about county or club. There is a generality that it is happening everywhere. I always felt that wasn’t happening in Tyrone. Tyrone players get lots of opportunity to play league football. They’ll play a minimum of ten club league games, and all the championship matches. I’m happy enough with that when we work together. Every player in the panel is getting competitive football and I think that is an advantage.”

Down ace Conor Maginn says the criticism the Mournemen endured over the last couple of seasons had a galvanising effect on the players after they provided the shock of the Championship by knocking Monaghan out of Ulster. Maginn, who was part of the 2010 All-Ireland final team that lost to Cork, revealed the players were stung by the negativity that surrounded them “Everybody, absolutely everybody, had written us off, we were gone from Division Two, there was no hope for Down this year and people saw us as a bit of a joke but it definitely brought us all together, The team and management said: ‘The only ones that can turn this around is ourselves’. We put a wee bit of form together at the end of the League and we got a bit of luck and stayed up. Our preparations were good and coming in under the radar maybe suits us.  It’s definitely been disappointing the last few years but, whatever it is, we always believe we’ll get to an Ulster final but it hasn’t happened. There’s a great camaraderie around the squad this year, maybe the run of losses bonded us, and it got better when we started getting over the line. I suppose the Derry game was important because that’s when we finally put a performance together and since then we’ve gradually got better. There’s more confidence and more bite in training. The negativity that was coming on top of us definitely had a galvanising effect on us, but the Derry match was the turning point. Going into the Monaghan match, I honestly have to say we were confident. Obviously, Monaghan are in the top five or six teams in the country and it was a massive challenge but we knew things were coming together well and we had a bit of confidence about ourselves. While the last few years haven’t been good we still hold ourselves in high esteem. We knew our players were as good as anyone and while we haven’t always shown it, just look at the boys we’re bringing on – Mark Poland, Donal O’Hare, David McKibbin – they’re coming on and winning us matches. We’ve been training for these days, we’re definitely going to enjoy it and now we’ve to take on Tyrone who are All-Ireland contenders. They were very impressive against Donegal. We’ll analyse them a bit deeper – but, on the surface, they’re an incredible team and Mickey Harte has them churning it out every year. Everybody knows it’s a massive challenge but this is what we’ve been playing for.”

Caolan Mooney has been one of the stand out successes in the Championship, he said “Down is a proud footballing county and it’s been a long time since we won an Ulster title, but now, we’ve got a 50-50 chance against Tyrone but no doubt we’ll go into the final as underdogs again after Tyrone’s performance against Donegal. We’ll just enjoy these weeks. The last time Down were in an Ulster final Marty Clarke and me were watching it in Australia, so it’s a bit surreal to be in one now. We just played to our strengths against Monaghan. We ran at them. We watched highlights of them and they were iffy when people ran at them. But our final product – myself included, I missed three chances that I would normally score – is something we have to keep working at in training because if you don’t get your scores against Tyrone they will punish you at the other end. It wasn’t the perfect game against Monaghan as there were still a lot of mistakes – but we’re in an Ulster final. We’d a lot to prove, we had a lot of fire in our bellies over the last couple of years – all the negative comments about us – so you just want to go out and prove to people that we are good footballers and we can compete with the best, and we did that against Monaghan. We can control what we can control. We can’t control what people write about us. People write whatever they want about us but we just have to do our talking on the pitch. There’s no point talking in the paper that you’re going to do something. We have belief and we are top quality footballers. As a team, we’ve got a bond, you can feel there’s a real togetherness and we just go out and play. We’d do anything for each other.”

Eamonn Burns says the keen physical edge that Down showed in their victory over Monaghan has been over-stated. The Mourne County demonstrated a real willingness to stand toe-to-toe with the Farney County in the physical stakes last month but – as they prepare to face Tyrone in Sunday’s Ulster SFC final their manager says they are a football team first and foremost “I think a lot of it is over-hyped. I’m not going to comment on the individuals but they were saying things that really weren’t there, our tactics are to play football at all times. Play it as hard as you want but as long as you play within the rules you’ll stay on the field, and I’ve always emphasised that to the men that I have. Even when I was coaching juveniles at my club I always emphasised that. There are very few dark arts. We like to play football but we know you have to be tough at it too. A lot of it comes from their will to win the game. I don’t think we’ve ever overstepped that mark in that respect. You’ve often heard it said that Down have a certain way to play and we do. I’ve made no bones about it that the defensive shield is not really something in our DNA and we find it very difficult to set it up, but we know if we are to make progress then we have to do it. We have to implement it but I wouldn’t be giving them set rules as such. They’re allowed to go out and express themselves. There is no shackle put on them but they know defensively they have to close the door and you have to keep the defence tight.”

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