By Michael McMullan
WHEN Conor Laverty talks football, there is very little fluff. He gets to the point. The words are clear. You immediately see how players buy into what he is selling.
The boom box vibes were echoing from behind the Down dressing door in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s Ulster final win over Derry.
The noise stops. There is silence. Then a rapturous round of applause before the victorious squad file out and away into life as an Ulster champion.
This weekend, they aim to go one better than 2021 and leave an imprint on the All-Ireland series.
One of Laverty’s regrets was the mere six days they had to soak up their Ulster win back then. He made a promise. If Down ever repeated the dose, he’d let the lads bask in the glory.
“It was in Covid time,” Laverty said of the week before their defeat to Roscommon.
“The lads didn’t get the chance to actually enjoy what they had achieved. I always said if it ever happened again, I’d make sure they really enjoy it after the time and effort they have invested in it.”
So, what does two Ulster titles in three years feel like for a county in the middle of a building phase?
“It is brilliant for this group of players,” came Laverty’s reply with total calm. Then he begins to slightly unravel the mindset.
“It was probably a major disappointment at minor level, they didn’t do themselves justice,” he said, hinting at their exit to Fermanagh. But the landscape is now different.
“It’s our job as a management team to help them on their journey and I am delighted we have been able to so.”
On Sunday, Laverty cut a frustrated figure as Down fizzled out of the Ulster senior race. They did so without their four u-20 players, including Odhrán Murdock who would’ve been a likely starter until a changing of the ruling forced a selection decision.
It was u-20 or senior, but not both. For Laverty, it’s not right. The u-20 grade, forgotten by many, needs the proper respect.
“I feel it is a very important age and a good stepping stone for lads to see if they are ready to test their hands at senior level,” he continued.
Derry manager Martin Boyle had the same opinion. The chance to balance their players’ load was taken away from those who know them best. It was the same for Cork u-20 manager Ben O’Connor and Leo McLoone in Donegal.
Lavery feels the greater GAA community have been “let down” by the leadership’s decision to change the rule.
“We are depriving our best young players of the chance of a lifetime,” he told Gaelic Life. “Nobody knows what it is around the corner and these lads are fit and healthy and are capable of playing two games in a week.”
Down’s stance is simple and with Laverty managing both senior and u-20 teams, balance was always going to be the word.
He looks on with frustration at how players lined out for multiple teams within a week earlier in the year. Down would have given Murdock every chance to recover between games. The farcical nature of Derry players being allowed to play u-20 and senior hurling in the same week because it is outside of tier one adds to the confusion.
Now it’s parked and Down are moving on. They met Kildare in a challenge game. Speaking after last Wednesday’s win over Derry, Laverty was aware of Kildare’s extra-time win over Dublin without delving into anything deeper than the result. Since Clones on Sunday, he’ll have swapped his senior manager hat for the u-20 one.
“They gave us a real trimming,” Laverty said of their earlier date with Kildare. “We would’ve been missing a few and they were very strong, they were beaten in last year’s All-Ireland final.”
Laverty knows what he will face on Saturday. A quality side and physically strong. He hails Kildare boss Brian Flanagan as a “modern day” coach.
“He will have them well drilled and set up; they are like a typical Kildare team. They will be fit, physical and they’ll come with serious pace.”
This week will be all about arming his Down side with the tools to engineer a way towards an All-Ireland final spot.
When you take a glance at Laverty, you are looking at a walking example of time management. A young family. A commute to Dublin for work. A senior inter-county manager. A farm to keep ticking over and it’s hard not to see him kicking ball for Kilcoo when their title defence begins.
How is it done? Football has to be something cherished and never a chore.
“I do love it,” he said, before giving an insight to the week of their Ulster u-20 final with Derry.
“I had targeted three games,” Laverty outlines. “We had our Primary School final last Thursday and there was a lot of pressure with it now. Luckily the lads won it, so that was the first.”
Then came victory over Donegal in the senior game. The performance wasn’t as they wanted, but it was a second result of the week.
“Tonight (the win over Derry) was the third of the three we had targeted and it couldn’t have gone any better.
“We knew coming tonight how difficult a task it was going to be. Derry were extremely well setup, as well setup a team a you’d come up against.”
Sunday was the other side. Defeat. And a tough one. Down u-20s were back in the gym last Friday and were scheduled back on the grass over the weekend.
When Conor Laverty switched into u-20 mode on Sunday night, Kildare and getting a performance would be the only show in town. And so, the story of a football fanatic goes in search of another chapter.