THE meeting of Down and Monaghan looks fairly straightforward to call from the outside, but don’t write off Down just yet.
The last time these sides met in the Ulster championship, back in the 2017 semi-final, nine places separated them by the end of the league campaign.
Fast forward five seasons and the exact same league margin divides the two counties prior to Saturday’s opening round.
Down stormed the Athletic Grounds and sprang a surprise on Monaghan in 2017 to reach a first Ulster final since 2012. Darragh O’Hanlon was one of the stars of the show that day, top scoring for the Mourne men with a personal haul of 1-5.
“We were underdogs, but I think the players were quietly confident. We put in a first-half performance that was just unbelievable. I think we were eight points up at one stage,” recalled the Kilcoo native.
“Connaire Harrison was on fire that day in the first half, I knocked over a couple of good frees and then we got a penalty that was just after half time. It was a pressure kick and I scored it.
“Then Monaghan started coming back. They clawed it back to three and I remember Kieran Hughes hit a great point from near the sideline with the outside of his boot.
“There was a point in it, and it was really nervy, nervy stuff. I remember Mark Poland and Donal O’Hare came on.
“David McKibbon got a ball out of the defence and played it to Mark, and Mark played it to Donal, and he tapped over a free that left two in it to give us a wee bit of breathing space.
“The Athletic Grounds was packed and it was one of the real highlights of my Down career. We came from nowhere and it was live on TV and there was a massive crowd, we put in a real brilliant performance and there’s great memories looking back on that game.”
Similar to the current Down squad, the team of 2017 had a league campaign to forget, the difference being that a draw against Cork on the last day kept them in the second division.
That point, along with a first-round victory over rivals Armagh, was the springboard for the shock Down were about to produce.
“We had a poor league campaign, but we were playing real top teams, we were just coming up short. I think momentum is a massive thing, momentum is key in football, and we drove to Cork on Easter Sunday, a long trip down the road and our backs were against the wall.
“We stayed up by the skin of our teeth, I think Jerome (Johnston) scored a free kick to draw the game and keep Down up in Division Two. We got a result; we beat them by a point to stay up.
“There was real team camaraderie on the way home, everyone was buzzing. We had a night out, I think it was a month before the championship.
“Coming down the road on the bus we got a real sense of belief. We were playing Armagh in Newry and if you couldn’t get up for that game, you’re playing the wrong sport. We put in a brilliant shift against Armagh, it was a real battle. I just think it spring-boarded from then.”
Down quickly set the tone once they hit the field against the Farney men, who had competed in three of the previous four Ulster finals, winning two in 2013 and 2015.
“I remember in the first couple of minutes in the Monaghan game, a couple of big hits. I remember Gerard McGovern had hit Conor McManus, it was a real borderline one, it was a fair enough tackle, but it set the tone.
“Then I remember Darren O’Hagan over at the sideline one time taking the ball off, I think it was Conor McCarthy.
“The crowd were all in among you, you could really feel the championship atmosphere.”
The late Eamonn Burns guided Down to that Ulster final, and O’Hanlon credits his former manager as having a massive role to play and pointed to the inclusion of Connaire Harrison in the championship team as part of Burns’ great man-management.
“Things weren’t going right for us, and people were sticking the boot into the players and Eamonn at that time, but Eamonn was very good to us. I know myself; he’d install a lot of confidence into you.
“I’d be very friendly with Connaire Harrison, and he never played the whole league. In training coming up to the championship he was on fire and Eamonn threw him in and Connaire was one of the best players in Ulster if not Ireland that summer.
“During that league campaign we were getting a lot of stick and so was Eamonn, but key players and leaders in that team turned it around and definitely Eamonn did too. Eamonn was brilliant that summer, we all loved him as players, and we would do anything for him.
“When your backs are against the wall you need to show something, you need to show a bit of steel, you need to come together a wee bit if you’re going to turn it around. I just think, even in the short space of time, we did that that summer.”
Unfortunately for Down, Monaghan would eventually have their revenge. As fate would have it, the pair were drawn against each other in round four of the Qualifiers, in Croke Park. Monaghan had learned their lessons and came out on top.
“We played Monaghan in Croke Park then a number of weeks later and we were brilliant in the first half. Connaire Harrison was on fire and every ball we played in he won it; the second half we sort of crumbled a wee bit.
“It was a brilliant summer. I really, really loved playing for Down that summer and it was one of the highlights of my Down career, those three or four games we had.”
Comparing the clash of five years ago, O’Hanlon sees similarities. Nobody gives Down a chance this weekend, but then no one expected his side to get the job done either.
There’s always that expected Down swagger, especially come championship time and O’Hanlon isn’t writing them off just yet.
“Down teams have always notoriously got brilliant footballers and it’s just frustrating that it hasn’t come to fruition. Down teams on their day, especially come championship, they can put up a performance to beat anyone.
“That 2017 run we had; nobody gave us any hope. Even beating Armagh, nobody did. We went to the Athletic Grounds and people thought it was a foregone conclusion, Monaghan’s going to get to an Ulster final and play Tyrone.
“Down could upset Monaghan on Saturday. It’s maybe a wee bit different from back then, Down got relegated and didn’t win a game in the league and people are trying to stick the boot into James (McCartan) and the players.
“Not all of it is justified and a couple of players left, it’s not ideal preparation but you have to go with what’s there. (Niall) ‘Bobo’ Kane is one of my best mates and he’s doing best man for me on Friday at my wedding and he’s leaving the wedding early and he’s going to be playing against Monaghan.”
If Down can do it, it would be a bigger shock than the one they produced in 2017 admits O’Hanlon, who retired from football in December due to persistent injury concerns.
“It would be massive for them individually and collectively and as a county if they could pull it off. It would be bigger than what we did in 2017 to be honest with all the negativity that’s surrounding them at the minute.
“Down are going into that game with absolutely nothing to lose. People are saying, I hear it all the time and I try not to listen to it because I’ve been in their shoes before, it’s only a matter of turning up, Monaghan’s going to go to the next round and Down’s going to be in the Tailteann Cup and it’s going to be a short summer.
“Down have nothing to lose. If they just go out and take the shackles off and give it their all, God knows what could happen. There’s no pressure on them.”