By Shaun Casey
CONOR Laverty perhaps faces the most difficult period of his short managerial career this weekend as Down welcome Westmeath to Newry. The Mourne men are coming off a horrendously harsh defeat to Fermanagh and have to bounce back with a six day turnaround.
It’s the first time Laverty’s side have tasted defeat inside 70 minutes, with the only other blot on his record being a penalty shootout loss to Ulster champions Derry in the semi-final of the McKenna Cup.
Other than that, the Kilcoo star couldn’t have asked for a better start. They made it to the last four of the preseason competition with two wins from two and opened their league account with victories over Tipperary and Antrim.
And the latter really showed their character and fighting spirit when they were second best for most of the evening, but when it really mattered, they produced the goods to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
They were on the receiving end of such drama last weekend however, courtesy of a late Sean Quigley goal in the dying minutes of their round three clash with Fermanagh, leaving Down in midtable, joining the Erne men, Westmeath and Offaly on four points, with Cavan top of the pile on six.
From the start of the year Westmeath’s visit to Páirc Esler would have been earmarked as a tricky task and one Down needed to win if they wanted to be in the promotion shakeup. Now, it has all the makings of a must win.
If any team loses two on the bounce, they more or less seal their own fate and another season in Division Three is the probable result. But Laverty is a shrewd operator and he’ll have his charges well-tuned in.
There’ll be no pressure. Down will be focusing on getting a good performance and the result will look after itself. After all, it’s very early in his tenure and there were always going to be bumps in the road.
Westmeath, last year’s Tailteann Cup winners now led by their own county legend Dessie Dolan, are coming into the game in an almost identical situation. While they won their last two outings against Longford and Offaly, they did suffer defeat in round one to Cavan.
This has the potential to be a real cracker of a game as both teams have been in fine form in front of the posts. Across the three games, the pair have notched seven goals apiece and netted in each outing.
The stakes are high and the race to compete for Sam Maguire is well and truly heating up in Division Three. Home advantage will make Down favourites and they may just sneak through this one with a couple to spare.