Fresh start for Down’s new faces

A COUPLE of days can make such a difference. On Sunday, October 16, Donagh McAleenan and Conor Laverty went to war as their two tribes, Warrenpoint and Kilcoo, battled it out for the Frank O’Hare Cup.

Kilcoo, the Down kingpins, claimed their tenth county title in 11 years while the ‘Point left Páirc Esler empty handed, with thoughts and regrets of what might have been. A few days later though, McAleenan and Laverty crossed paths off the field.

Laverty, now thinking with his red and black cap on, wanted McAleenan to make the step up to county level as he tries to rebuild the Mourne County team.

“They beat us in the final and he gave me a phone call a few days later, I wasn’t ready to talk to a Kilcoo man at that stage,” laughed McAleenan, excited by the prospect of inter-county football.

“But no listen, I got talking to him and we had a bit of craic about the final and seeing what my plans were and since then I was looking forward to getting started. But that’s how it came about, just a phone call out of the blue.

“Conor has been brilliant. He’s given, as you know, everything he has to Down the past couple of weeks and he’s great amongst the lads in getting us together and getting us to gel, so it’s been great.

“I just know him on the football field. When you’re playing these boys for years you get to know them, I would have bumped into him a few times off the field. Obviously, I have great respect for what he’s done on the football field, I kind of just know him in that way, in other regards we’re not that close.”

Down suffered a horrible, winless 2022. They were relegated to Division Three and crashed out of both the Ulster Championship and the Tailteann Cup at the first hurdles. But Laverty, along with some fresh faces, including McAleenan, carry none of that baggage into 2023.

“A few people asked me about last year but I’ve no experience of it, I wasn’t there. There are a lot of new faces on the panel, as I’m sure there are in other county squads too.

“That always brings a bit of freshness, and newness and excitement to it. I suppose new energy is always good to have in any panel, so it’s been really good and there’s a great spirit in the team.

“There’s a good blend of really young people in the squad and then older ones too. With the likes of Kevin (McKernan) and Benny McArdle stepping away, it’s a good chance for those boys to push on and make themselves leaders in the team. So, it’s been really good for people to challenge themselves.”

Pre-season training has been tough, as you’d expect, but the Down squad is looking forward to the competitive action that’s just around the corner. It’s the McKenna Cup up first, starting on January 4, and Down have been drawn into the same group as Monaghan and Donegal.

“I suppose it has been a step-up (from club level). Everyone there is a good player. The standard that way is so high but it’s good because it makes you challenge yourself and helps you improve.

“It’s been tough. There’s been a bit of running and a bit of tackling and drills, but we’ve played a lot of football too, which is good because you want to have a mixture of both.

“It’s been enjoyable to get the ball in the hand too, we’re looking forward to getting the games started and seeing what we have.

“I’m only new to the panel but I’m hoping to get a bit of game time. It will be a great experience to actually put on the Down senior jersey and play in competitive games. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do so I’m looking forward to that.”

Whatever happens in the McKenna Cup, the league is where Down’s main focus will lie. They’ll compete in a fiercely competitive Division Three that includes fellow Ulster sides Antrim, Fermanagh and Cavan along with Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Tipperary.

“We just want to have a good campaign. There are some big teams in Division Three, you have the likes of Cavan, Tipperary, Westmeath, those boys were fighting for the Tailteann Cup and that showed how well they did. It’s a really competitive league, as they all are, but we’re just looking forward and putting full focus towards it.

“It will be good to challenge against teams like that. You want to come up against the best.

“You just want to get momentum built from an early stage and hopefully, if you’re able to do that, carry it on for the rest of the year.

“So, we’re just looking to get an early start and do as best as we can in every game.

“That’s the way we’re approaching it.”

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