Down hurlers set to welcome the Kingdom

By Niall Gartland

THERE’S a fine line between success and failure and the Down hurlers will hope that the cards fall in their favour in their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign which gets underway against Kerry at Ballycran in Saturday.

Down only had a single point at the table when the curtain was drawn on their league campaign, narrowly missing out on relegation. But that wasn’t the whole story – barring a big defeat to Carlow where they conceded five goals, they acquitted themselves well and lost three games by a combined margin of five points.

Their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign will have a sense of déjà vu as they’re coming up against many of the same teams, starting with Kerry this weekend. A bit more luck and who knows where their campaign could take them.

Ronan Sheehan, who has returned as manager again this season, said: “The Carlow game was the big disappointment. Other than that we played well. When we left Austin Stacks after playing in our last league game, we said we could easily have wrapped things up with six points instead of one.

“We’d probably be a bit disappointed in an overall sense but at the same time slightly relieved as we still could’ve ended up relegated. So it was a mix of frustration and relief, but we’ve a lot to build on heading into the Joe McDonagh Cup. There’s not a lot between us and the other teams so we just need to play our best and see if we can get over the line in our games.”

Heading into their league campaign this year, Sheehan said his main ambition was staying up as they’d a number of strong players injured, newly retired or off on their travels. They’re still operating off a small panel but some key players have either returned or are set to return in the coming weeks.

“We’ve got Daithi Sands back on board which has been a massive boost to everybody. We still have a couple of knocks and niggles.

“Ruairi McCrickard came back for the Carlow game and picked up a bit of a knock. He hasn’t featured since and may not play against Kerry but will in our coming backs against Laois and Offaly. Saturday may be a bit early for him unfortunately.

“We should have Oisin MacManus back for Saturday’s game as well. Outside of the long-term absentees we should have a full deck in the coming weeks.

“Eoghan Sands was away travelling the world for six months and we’ll have him back for the Offaly game and two subsequent games and that’ll be a big boost for us, having a player of his quality.

“We don’t have a massive panel for a variety of reasons but the boys we have are mainly fit and ready. There’s a question mark over Caolan Taggart, he got a bad blow against Carlow, he’s played a couple of games since but aggravated his wrist injury so we’ll see how he gets on as well.”

Saturday’s game will be hosted by Ballycran, the subject of a mean-spirited tweet back in the Spring by Meath’s official Twitter account. It was subsequently removed but the comment still stung a little, says Sheehan.

“I actually was pretty annoyed about it. We played in Hawkfield earlier in the year and we got on with it, it’s essentially Kildare’s Centre of Excellence, Newbridge was closed at the time so it was the only place available.

“Ballycran has great facilities, they go all out to prepare for games. Look at their 3G facilities, they’re a credit to the club so we found the comments a bit insulting. To be fair to Meath GAA they removed the tweet fairly quickly. Sometimes people can be too quick to say these things on social media.”

Asked about his general expectations heading into the campaign, Sheehan said: “Well, let’s be honest. The Joe McDonagh is probably the most competitive competition in the GAA, there’s nothing between the teams.

“Your first aim is always to stay up and if you look over the last number of teams, Meath have been relegated out of the Joe McDonagh three times, Offaly have been relegated out of it, so have Kildare. Teams like Offaly, Kildare, Carlow, there’s not a bad team amongst any of them but one of us has to go down.

“Our aim of course is to stay up and once we get our first two points on the board, which for us will hopefully be Saturday, you start to think about the next two. Four points would definitely make you safe and the margins are wafer thin.”

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