THERE’S a feel-good factor around the Mourne County in the build up to their Ulster Championship opener this weekend.
Conor Laverty’s Down host Donegal on Sunday afternoon, a side they haven’t beaten in the championship since 2010.
Donegal have dominated the recent history between the two teams, winning the last four meetings, including the opening round of the 2021 campaign, which they won handsomely in the end, 2-25 to 1-12.
But their fortunes have dramatically changed this season and it’s safe to say they are no longer the provincial powerhouse they once were. Donegal were relegated from Division One, changed their manager mid-season, and have now lost Ryan McHugh, who has relocated due to work commitments. It’s not ideal preparation for the championship.
Meanwhile Down have been quietly plotting away in the background, preparing for an ambush and coach Marty Clarke, who scored 0-3 when Down last defeated Donegal, believes home advantage can help them do that.
“I feel that those home crowds against Antrim and Westmeath (in the league) were significant parts of getting us over the line late in the game,” said the 2010 All-Star. “We had such momentum, the noise, it was a long time since we heard Newry rocking as it was.
“And then after the game as well, getting the young fans onto the ground and after the Westmeath game, some of the players didn’t get back to the changing rooms for 35 or 40 minutes.
“It’s a small thing but it’s also an important part of where we want to go on the journey as a management team and as a county.
“We want these players to understand that we have a responsibility to try and get the county going again and to spend time with those young supporters and put smiles on their faces and give them players to look up to.
“The home advantage against Donegal for us is significant. On top of the home fans and everything else, to be able to train in the dimensions and the environment that the game’s going to be at, for me, it’s a massive thing.
“That’s a big thing and an underrated thing with home advantage I feel.
“Yes, Donegal have played in Newry this year already in the McKenna Cup, they came down in 2021 and put 2-25 on us in the first round of the Ulster Championship. They know the ground but we’re going to know it better and thatgives us that little bit of an advantage.”
Donegal have had a rough 2023, but when it comes to the hard facts, they’ve being played at a higher level than Down, competing two divisions above Laverty’s side.
So, Clarke is under no illusions that they’ll be circling the wagons and aiming to get back on track.
Down pushed hard for promotion from Division Three but ultimately failed, losing twice to Cavan and Fermanagh, the two teams that did eventually go up.
But focus has fully turned towards Donegal and causing an upset.
Despite all the turmoil in Donegal, having replaced their manager Paddy Carr before the end of the league, Clarke expects a reaction from a side that still includes the talent of goalkeeper Shaun PattonHugh McFadden, Jamie Brennan, and Michael Langan, all of whom played in that 16-point mauling back in2021.
“We’ve only just switched on to Donegal mode. The National League has only concluded so we have a lot of things that we want to fix ourselves within Down, we understand that our team is far from settled, our panel is far from settled,” added Clarke.
“We’ve enough on our plate to really be worrying too much about what’s happening in another team but of course, it’s never nice to hear of a GAA manager leaving in the middle of the year but those problems are something we can’t really influence.
“Less than two years ago, a lot of these players came to Newry and put 2-25 on the board in and Ulster Championship game, playing in Division One for a number of seasons now, at a much higher level than all of our players have been and they’re a proud county as well that’s going to have a response.
“From the little bits that I have seen they’ve been written off and had their mindset questioned and things like that.
“Anyone that has that, there’s only one way to go, you grind your teeth, and they’ve had four full weeks now to go and prepare.
“They certainly won’t be coming to Newry fearful of Down and that’s understandable, they’ll be clear favourites.
“We have enough to worry about ourselves between now and then to prepare and plan and get right and we’re under no illusions that Donegal will be coming to take us down.”