By Shaun Casey
IT’S a long way to Tipperary, but it’s a longer trip home if the journey isn’t worthwhile. That’s how Down fans will feel this weekend as they flock in their droves towards Munster to support their team, and finally things are starting to look up.
After a bleak, winless 2022, the Mourne men are already much improved under Kilcoo legend Conor Laverty, and he’s only been in charge for three games.
His Down side are unbeaten inside 70 minutes and enjoyed a positive McKenna Cup campaign which yielded two victories over Division One opposition, Monaghan and Donegal, and a semi-final showdown with Ulster champions Derry.
Penalties were required to separate the pair and it was Rory Gallagher’s team who progressed, but Down followers weren’t too disheartened. The McKenna Cup provided its purpose.
Two wins, a number of players showing potential and it looked as though Down were playing for the badge again.
It’s still early days and what happens in January won’t define anyone’s season, but there’s reason to be optimistic.
Donagh McAleenan and youngster Andrew Gilmore impressed, while more familiar faces such as Barry O’Hagan, Niall Donnelly and Pat Havern have looked really sharp.
Down were the highest goal scorers in the McKenna Cup, rippling the net seven times in three games. Derry are next on the list with four, three of them coming in the McKenna Cup final against Tyrone.
In the entirety of last year’s National League, Down only raised a green flag on four occasions, so their scoring rate has already improved this season.
Not only were they not scoring enough, but they conceded too much.
Only Offaly failed to hit the Down net, while their average concession was 13 points a game, which ultimately saw them demoted to Division Three, which is the perfect place to begin a rebuild.
It’s a slower pace, but it’s fiercely competitive. Tailteann Cup winners Westmeath, 2020 Ulster champions Cavan and Offaly, who were relegated alongside Down last season, are all pushing for promotion.
Throw in the Ulster derbies with Fermanagh and Antrim, along with ties against Tipperary, who are minus their 2016 All-Star Michael Quinlivan, and Longford and there’s certainly no easing in period for Laverty.
But he’ll thrive in that environment. As a player, Laverty gave his all for the red and black cause and he’ll be no different as a manager.
Tipperary is a long way away, but Down will be determined to return home with two points in the bag and a bright season ahead.