By Shaun Casey
IT’S a wet and dreary Tuesday evening, but even the drizzling rain can’t dampen the soaring spirits around Páirc Esler.
Ahead of the Tailteann Cup final showdown with Meath and a return to the theatre of dreams that is Croke Park, Down are holding an opening training session where fans of all ages can gather on the Newry turf for selfies and signatures from their county stars.
The roundabout just in front of the stadium is surrounded by swirling red and black bunting, while inside, where the media event is taking place, portraits of the past glories from the 1960s and 1990s are draped all over the walls.
There’s a splash of other occasions represented as well, including images of the 2010 All-Ireland final against Cork, the only All-Ireland final that Down surrendered the Sam Maguire Cup, losing by the minimum of margins.
There are posters plastered around the entrance of Newry Shamrock’s home ground, noting a culture that is not only constructed upon the historic years that have gone by, but one that is gathering momentum for the future.
‘Building on a great tradition’ reads one of the billboards.
Conor Laverty’s mission since taking hold of the bainisteoir bib at the start of the season has been to interlink the golden era of yesteryear with the bundles of ability bursting through the current squad.
“We’re very fortunate in Down to be part of a county that has great tradition,” said Marty Clarke, Laverty’s right-hand man who played alongside the Kilcoo legend on that faithful day in 2010. “Some great men have walked up the Hogan Stand steps and there’s no question that it does count for a lot.
“The people of Down have that experience, there’s many great people in this county that have won the All-Ireland and I know myself as a child, having watched the greats of ’91 and ’94, it was a big impact on my sporting career.
“I think within Down, it’s there, everyone’s always aware of it. It’s not really a burden, you meet people from other counties, and they have a lot of respect and admiration for Down, for Down people and for Down football.
“We’re aware of that, we’re aware of the brand of football that Down are associated with but we’re also looking to the future with this group as well. A lot of these players weren’t around even in ’91 and ’94 to experience that, never mind what the boys did in the ‘60s.
“We feel that, while it’s always great to see the Sam Maguire being hoisted in the dressing rooms here when you see (images of) the five captains, this is our time now to make a little bit of history over the next couple of years.”
Pierce Laverty wasn’t even born when the Mourne men last captured Ireland’s most sought after sporting prize, but come Saturday, he’ll be the seventh Down skipper to parade his team around Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
The Sam Maguire isn’t up for grabs this time however, but the Tailteann Cup is still a national title and provides a gateway to next year’s All-Ireland series. It still means a lot.
Laverty will be filled with the same nervous tension that jangled through the bodies of former captains, Kevin Mussen, Paddy Doherty, Joe Lennon, Paddy O’Rourke, DJ Kane and Benny Coulter. Legends of the game and Down’s most famous sons.
“I suppose you see some of the photos coming up the stairs in Páirc Esler here, there’s good days in Croke Park and lifting trophies in Croke Park, that’s what we aspire to be. We want to be a Down team that’s winning championship games in Croke Park.
“That’s why this competition is crucial to the development of this team, and we are where we are because, I couldn’t sit here and say we have a right to play in the Sam Maguire when we aren’t getting promoted out of Division Three.
“We fell short, and it was in our own control, but we want to be winning games in Croke Park and we’ll try to put ourselves in a good position to win this game.
“Everybody deals with it in different ways, everybody will get butterflies, there’s some boys a wee bit more relaxed but that semi-final game in Croke Park where maybe it wasn’t a full house was a good way to break yourself into your first experience of Croke Park.
“I know myself it was a good way to try and break myself into it. There’ll maybe be a bit more in the stands this time around, but I’ll try not to think about that. I don’t really get too stressed out before games; I’d be pretty relaxed.”
The great team of the ‘90s that book-ended a golden age of Ulster football has strong links to the current lot. Ross Carr’s father of the same name kicked 0-30 in the 1991 season as Down landed the ultimate prize and claimed a second Celtic Cross three years later.
Danny Magill’s dad Miceal was part of that ’94 team that downed the Dubs and Miceal’s nephew Ryan is also part of the present Down panel. Rory Mason’s father Brendan and uncle Gary have All-Ireland medals as well and played on Jones’ Road in the biggest of days.
“That’s a brilliant thing to have,” added Clarke. “You have people who have been there and done that who are supporting us in the stands, who have sons there and nephews and everything, so I do feel tradition is an important part, there’s no doubt about that at all.
“It’s great to be back in Croke Park. As I said before we hope to be back there more regularly over the next few years but hopefully, we can get over the line against Meath and get back in that stadium as often as possible.”
The Royals reaped the rewards of some wayward Down shooting when these sides faced off in the group stages, a day when the Mourne men kicked 19 wides, and like Down, Meath have their own ties to the past within their changing room.
“Meath are the top ranked team in this competition but having watched that particular day in Parnell Park back again, they absolutely deserved to win the game.
“Again, that word tradition, they have plenty of that as well with Sean (Boylan) and Colm (O’Rourke) in the management team, but we would feel that on that particular day, we just didn’t have the required energy levels or application of what we were looking to do.
“Some personnel have changed on our side as they have in Meath in those weeks, but we certainly feel that it was a performance that we wouldn’t have been particularly happy about, and hopefully we can get right on Saturday.”
Inspiring the next generation of Down greats racing through the ranks is another role that captain Laverty and his teammates have played this year, and it’s been nothing but enjoyable.
The smiles of the all the youngsters in Páirc Esler getting jerseys signed, photos taken and mixing with the best their county have to offer create memories that will last a lifetime.
But Tuesday evening isn’t the first time the children of Down have been afforded such an opportunity. Flocks of fans, both young and old, filled the Páirc Esler field during the league and Tailteann Cup games, engaging in meet and greets with the current team.
“You can see there’s flags all around the county and you bump into an auld fella down the street or a few locals and your mates in the club and that, and they’re dosing you with questions and all that sort of craic,” added Laverty, speaking of the build up to the final.
“People you don’t even know are wishing you good luck and I suppose there is a bit of a buzz when you see someone you don’t know, when they’re going out of their way to send you a message or give you a pat on the back. That is something special and you do feel there is a bit of an atmosphere around the county and that’s great to see.
“We saw throughout the league and even the McKenna Cup, the amount of kids out on the field is unreal. I suppose it’s not something we’re really used to, there has been a good support throughout.
“The pitch is packed at half time in most games and even after, you’re standing about for 20 minutes signing kids jersey’s and stuff like that, it’s something special to see that you’re inspiring them.
“I remember myself even going to Down games and you’re staying about after games and now to think that I’m playing for Down and signing some other wee fella’s jersey, it’s something special.”
Something special. Memories worth remembering. Win, lose or draw on Saturday, it’s only the start of Down’s new journey that’s creating a path to the future, while remembering what had gone before.