By Niall McCoy
KILCOO joint-manager Conleith Gilligan has backed new Down manager Conor Laverty to be a uniting force for the Mourne County as they attempt to bounce back from a difficult few seasons.
When the new season comes around, it will be 29 years since they last tasted Ulster success. Their last piece of silverware was a 2008 Dr McKenna Cup.
Over the last few months they have dropped down to Division Three and lost championship outings against Monaghan and Cavan, the latter in the Tailteann Cup.
Some players, including a number from Laverty’s own Kilcoo club, have opted against pulling on the red and black jersey in recent times, and earlier this year Magpies defender Eugene Branagan said “I’ve no ambition to play for the county. I think there’s a core of players who don’t know how to win. They haven’t the winning mentality.”
Gilligan feels that Laverty, who will have Martin Clarke and Declan Morgan in his backroom team with a third name to be confirmed in time, will be able to heal the wounds that has hampered the county’s progression.
He also said that it was a real positive that Laverty’s confirmation was a speedy one, with last season’s manager James McCartan being handed an almost impossible task with a November appointment.
“Last year Down couldn’t get anyone, didn’t get anyone and eventually James came in and did his best in very difficult circumstances,” Gilligan said.
“This is different. Down got it done early, that is very important.
“Conor will know every player in Down from 18 to 35, 36 and he’ll be determined to hit the ground running when the new season starts.”
“The job is something he spoke to Richie (Thornton, Kilcoo joint-manager) and myself about, he told us he was going for it,” the former Derry attacker added.
“It’s something he is hugely passionate about, Down football has been a big part of his life for more than a decade.
“He left Monaghan to take over the Down u-20s because he felt it was something he needed to do. It’s really close to his heart.”
In the 2020 league, Down defeated Rory Gallagher’s Derry by a point – a result that ultimately would secure promotion from Division Three at the Oakleafers’ expense.
Since then, Derry have just missed out on back-to-back promotions to Division One and claimed the 2022 Ulster title before losing an All-Ireland semi-final to Galway.
Gilligan believes his native county can provide a template for Down – but he has warned that patience will be key.
“Derry have shown what can happen in a short space of time, but they are still probably a couple of years ahead of Down, that progress was three years in the making.
“Derry showed what can happen if you get players physically right, but that can’t happen over one season. Yes, you can make big strides but it takes time.
“There’s still no reason why Conor can’t have a hugely positive first season though.
“ It’s new and fresh and there’s a lot of excitement about him being manager now.”
In what will be tough news for other clubs vying for honours in the Mourne County’s top tier, Gilligan also confirmed that Laverty will be about for the defence of their county title.
“Conor Laverty is going to play in the Down Championship, whatever happens after that is a decision for Conor.
“He owes Kilcoo nothing. He played at the top level, and has coached and won so many things at underage in the club too.“Whatever needs to happen to make it easy for Conor (will happen).”