IT’S just minutes after Down’s win over Donegal. The sun is out and the fans pour on. Ceilum Doherty had that pleasant smile across his boyish face. For a footballing fanatic, life is more than good. This is living. These are the days you kick against the gable wall for.
Soaking up every nugget of Aaron Branagan’s conditioning has been well worth it. Getting ready for Armagh and a day in Clones is something to be cherished.
Down’s league campaign came and went with both progress and failure. Under Conor Laverty, there are fingerprints of passion and a sheer hunger for success. It brought them far but not far enough.
That late Fermanagh goal saw Down gaze agonizingly from the wrong side of the head-to-head separator that will see Down begin 2024 in the third tier.
That’s for another day. The now is about Sunday.
“We put the hard yards in and we had that couple of weeks of the break and we really knuckled down and went to work,” Doherty said of their post-league training block.
An energetic link man in the Kilcoo engine, Doherty knows the Down club scene inside out.
The quality is there. It always has been, they just needed to put a bit of oomph into the jersey.
“Everyone started at the bottom and it was a clean slate for everyone, that’s what we needed,” Doherty admitted of the foundations for the 2023 season.
“I am just glad that a lot of the boys got their reward here in Newry,” he said, hinting at two years of dark days he was part of as the Down ship rocked in choppier waters.
Sunday was a welcome step up the ladder. Ryan Johnston kicked two marks in either half when Down needed a score.
It was a Doherty that unlocked Donegal’s rear-guard for one of them. He then made the incisive break before flicking the pass to Shane Annett in the move that saw Johnston fouled for the game breaking second Down goal – Pat Havern’s penalty for a 2-7 to 1-5 lead.
The first half was too lateral from Down. Doherty pointed to the second-half energy as Down’s key. Runners in space. Men on the overlap. Hard running. The KPIs were all there.
“That’s what we are good at, that’s what has been instilled in us,” Doherty said.
When Donegal cut the gap to a single point in the 61st minute, Down got a slice of fortune. On another day Oisin Gallen gets a free and it’s level pegging.
Down countered with purpose and added a point through substitute Andrew Gilmore before pushing on for a deserving win.
For all the split-season’s benefits, many point to a more crammed calendar. Not Doherty. Games week on week, this is what it’s all about. His facial expression doesn’t lie.
“It is a quick turnaround and you are out again, but why would you not love it,” he questions with a smile.
“Just look at this today. That’s why you want to play football, when you are a wee boy kicking against the wall, it is all you wanted to do and it feels special.”
The Armagh challenge is considerable. Doherty watched the Orchard County’s win over Cavan on the box and was impressed with what he saw. The Ulster Championship is “dog eat dog” and teams pull the best out of each other.
“Teams are pushing up, getting to Division One and playing at higher standards.
“That’s where we want to get to…that’s what we have our sights set on,” said an enthusiastic Doherty.
“Armagh have been there for a lot of years with Kieran McGeeney, they are really pushing hard and are a very good side so we’ll get our homework done. That’s where you want to play, Clones in the Ulster Championship…that’s what it’s all about.”
Is there more to come from this Down team?
“Absolutely” is Doherty’s impulsive response. And the desire for improvement comes from within.
“That is the good thing about this squad,” he said. “We are always demanding more of each other in training.
“We set the standards very high and if someone is not on it, it will not be long ‘til the boys beside you will be pushing you along and that is what helps.”
Playing alongside Laverty in the Kilcoo attack and now under him with Down. How do they match up?
“There is no difference,” Doherty said with a smile. There is always a call for more. It’s about digging for something greater. Nothing is ever perfect. He wants more and more and more, but that’s what you want in a manager.
“He is always driving the standards. When he sets an example, the players take the lead.”
The aggression they brought to the early season was an indicator. Going toe to toe with Derry in the McKenna Cup was the yardstick. Beating Donegal was another step. And now it’s Armagh.
“They had a very good result,” Doherty said of Armagh’s 1-14 to 0-12 win over Cavan, a performance that saw their defensive channel clogged up and the Breffni men reduced to pot shots.
For Doherty and Down, this week is about recovery, homework and getting revved for another afternoon on the championship roller-coaster. A place in the Ulster final awaits.