TAILTEANN CUP SEMI-FINAL
Down v Laois
Sunday, Croke Park, 4pm (LIVE ON RTÉ)
By Shaun Casey
EVERY youngster’s dream is to strip out in their county’s colours and run out on to the Croke Park turf. Liam Kerr will get the chance to fulfil that ambition this weekend as Down take on Laois. And it’s been a long time since the red and black flag fluttered inside Headquarters.
The Mourne men haven’t been there since a 2017 qualifier, which they lost to Monaghan. They earned promotion from Division Three in 2020, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, league finals weren’t played.
So, for the majority of the players in Conor Laverty’s panel, excluding the Kilcoo contingent, they’ll be experiencing Croke Park for the very first time.
While nerves will surely play their part, Burren clubman Liam Kerr can’t wait.
“After we lost in the Ulster semi-final it was kind of our aim to get to Croke Park first,” said Kerr, who kicked 0-4 against Cavan.
“We got through the group and then we had a good win against Longford, and we knew we’d have to step it up big time to beat Cavan. I think the last three times I played against Cavan in championship football, we’ve lost all three, so it was great to finally get a win.
“The Kilcoo boys have played there but I’m not sure if they have with Down, I know I haven’t anyway and I’m sure a good portion of the boys are the same.
“I think personally, Croke Park will probably suit us, a big open pitch, a great surface, I’m really looking forward to playing there for the first time.”
Kerr is an essential part of Down’s game plan that they can mix up to great effect. Against Cavan, Down floodedbodies behind the ball and frustrated the Breffni forward line, and on the break, they move at speed.
There’s the long ball option of Odhrán Murdock and Pat Havern inside, but when that’s not on, Kerr leads the running game and along with Ceilum Doherty, Daniel Guinness and Danny Magill, they break the lines at lighting pace.
“We just got the mix exactly right [against Cavan]. Even at the end there, when they were hitting us with a lot of pressure, we were very composed back there and we weren’t just kicking long and hoping for the best.
“We were working it out, just getting the right boys on the ball to run the ball out and I think it showed with Shane Annett’s point at the end there. The amount of boys we had going ahead of the ball right at the end to finish the game was great.”
Cavan were undoubtedly Down’s biggest challenge to date and in overcoming the competition favourites, they’ve taken the tag on their own shoulders. But Kerr insists they’ll pay little attention to the bookies’ odds.
“I think that’s what we needed. Maybe we had the eye off the ball last week (against Longford), but I think we needed a good challenge just to bring the whole level up of everyone.
“We’ve never worked as hard, and we followed it through right to the end and we ended up with 1-17 and that’s great scoring that’s worthy of winning most games, so we’re happy with that.
“Every game you just have to play as you are, underdogs or whatever it doesn’t really matter.
“We were bookies favourites against Meath, and they beat us, and we were underdogs against Cavan, and we won.
“To be honest we don’t really read into that, we just focus on ourselves and that’s something we’re getting better at, and I think it’s all coming to the fore now. We’re getting the mix well and hopefully we just keep that going.”
Conor Laverty’s impact on the squad has been clear to see and in just one year, he has completely transformed their fortunes. Kerr paid tribute to the Kilcoo man and his management team.
“Every single player in the team has full faith in Conor and anything he asks of us we do it and we do it to the letter of the law,” added Kerr.
“I think the whole management team has been great, they each have their positive influences.
“I’m just glad that we’re moving in the right direction and hopefully we can push on here and see where we can get to.”
Saturday’s semi-final will be Down’s sixth outing in seven weeks and while that presents its own challenges, Kerr is enjoying the run. “It is enjoyable, but I suppose it’s tough as well, I was very tired after that game.
“At this stage we’re just getting into a flow and the games are coming, we’re recovering well and we’re still able to do the running. Next week hopefully we can give it a good shout again and then who knows what happens after that.”