By Shaun Casey
IN four Tailteann Cup games, Conor Laverty has given game time to 34 different players as the Mourne men prepare for a quarter-final clash with the competition favourites Cavan.
That’s a huge chunk of Laverty’s 42-man panel, with the likes of star forwards Barry O’Hagan and Jerome Johnston on the sideline through injury at the minute.
But Laverty, in his first year in charge of his native county, has created a winning formula that keeps all the players hungry, the intensity on the training ground high, and the results on the scoreboard positive.
Down have already beaten Waterford, Tipperary and Longford to reach this point, although they lost out to Meath in the final round of the group stages and their tally of 17 wides didn’t help their case.
But still, there’s a positivity and an optimism around the Down camp that has been non-existent over the last number of years and the emergence of youngsters such as Ross Carr, Odhrán Murdock and Danny Magill means the future is bright.
“Training is that intense,” said half-forward Ceilum Doherty, one of only nine players to feature in all four of Down’s Tailteann Cup games, after their eight-point win over Longford.
“In the A vs B games, you never know, whoever puts their hand up will be in that weekend and that’s the way it’s always been. It keeps everything honest, and everyone knows they have an opportunity if they perform and that’s a good thing.
“We’re probably in the first year of our journey so it’s finding our feet and finding different people. We know there’s a great club championship so there’s a lot of good talent in Down.
“You have to go on form because if somebody’s on it, they deserve to be playing because they’re the people with the confidence.
“That’s the way it’s dealt with and whenever that actually happens and comes through, then it gives the other boys more confidence that they have an opportunity of playing and I think that’s the best way.”
Goalkeeper Niall Kane has been in and out of the starting team. After Charlie Smyth and John O’Hare started between the sticks against Waterford and Tipperary respectively, O’Kane got his chance against Meath and Longford.
The Kilcoo net-minder insists Laverty nailed his intentions to the wall early on and everyone in the panel understands his way of thinking, although injuries and sickness have forced his hand on occasion.
“We’re rotating a lot and boys are just picking up niggly injures and there’s a bit of a bug going about, and a couple of players got it this week and they just weren’t ready,” added Kane.
“Ryan Johnston has probably been our best player all year and he’s picked up a knock and just can’t shake it. This game is probably just a week too soon, then you have Shealan (Johnston) and Jerome (Johnston) but I think we’re building steadily.
“Conor’s a clubmate of mine and I’ve played with him, I don’t even know how many years, but he said it to everybody that there’s no loyalty here, there’s no friends, if you’re playing well then you’re in and that’s it.
“I think that’s brilliant because it keeps everybody honest, and the trainings are nice and intense because of that. It has to be like that, if you’re coming to training and you’re only giving 80 per cent then you know where you’re going to be sitting.”
That’s the way it has to be and in Saturday’s triumph over Paddy Christie’s Longford, another series of players put their hands up with impressive performances off the bench.
Magill hit the decisive second-half goal after coming in while Rory Mason (0-3) and Carr (0-2) also got on the scoresheet.
“The boys off the bench, Eamon Brown, Rory Mason, Miceal Rooney as well, those boys put a lot in and we don’t call them substitutes, we call them finishers and you need finishers in a big squad. Thankfully they came in and saw the game out,” explained Doherty.
Fitness told in the end as well and Doherty puts that down to the hard yards the players have put in all season, but also the change in mentality at half time.
When the short whistle sounded, Down marched into the changing rooms trailing by three points and it could, and probably should, have been much more. Longford missed three gilt-edged goal opportunities in the final ten minutes of the first half alone.
“We probably didn’t start the way we wanted to start, and Longford are no bad outfit,” suggested the 25-year-old. “They’re a very good team, they have very strong runners, and they were probably unlucky to go down from Division Three.
“At the end of the day, we knew they were a very good outfit, and we gave them that respect. We had to grow into the game and it’s something, we tried to hit the front foot, but we didn’t and that’s the thing, when something is not going right you don’t back down.
“You have to keep going and thankfully in the second half we knew that getting the first few points on the board and getting a foothold in the game, then hopefully coming down the stretch we’ll have enough energy in the tank.
“Whenever they (Longford) came through it was very open (in the first half). We just had to see what was happening there and then get men back and really put pressure on the man on the ball and I think we done that.
“Whenever you do that, you force a mistake so I think at half time we rectified that and then we knew with the hard training and the energy we had in the legs that we could keep going.”
Kane needs no reminding of Longford’s only three-pointer. When Joe Hagan’s tame shot ricocheted off a chasing Down defender, it brushed off the post and dribbled past the Mourne shot stopper.
But Kane had to put that mistake behind him and within 60 seconds, rectified that blunder with a superb save.
“The goal they did get, our boy blocked it and it was just spinning and whatever happened, I went to save it and it hit the post and went in,” he said.
“I’ll hold my hands up, but I felt after that, I parked it well and I pulled off three or four vital saves. I made up for it and as a goalkeeper, you have to park those mistakes as quickly as possible.
“It’s not easy, it is tough but it’s just one of those things mentally, you just have to park it. Thankfully I did that because two minutes later, I think I made up for it when he (Hagan) was one-on-one, and I saved it. They scored a goal they shouldn’t have scored, and they missed one they should have scored.
“We felt towards the end of the first half that they were starting to tire, and they were going to leave themselves open so we tried to really go after that in the second half and when the boys started to chip the points over, you could see they were getting tired.
“They were making tired decisions and they’ll probably look back and say it shouldn’t have happened but that probably cost them in the end,” added Kane.
Now, Down are eying up an Ulster derby with provincial rivals Cavan and a spot in the Tailteann Cup semi-finals, and a Croke Park outing is the prize on the line for the winner.
It’ll be their fourth game in five weeks, but Laverty’s side have no issue with the compact schedule, “Games, games, games, nothing beats match fitness and pushing on,” determined Doherty.
“I think it’s better; I honestly do think it’s better,” added Kane, echoing the thoughts of his club and county team-mate.
“I’m one of these people, I know it’s different for every player, but I just like games, I like playing games. I think it’s better for us as a group that we’re out next week again.
“Nothing’s easy at this stage. It’s a quarter-final, it’s football and it’s dog eat dog. We just have to recover well now and get ready for next week.”