BY KIERAN LYNCH
DOWN got back to winning ways on Sunday, as they overcame Sligo 2-8 to 0-9 at Páirc Esler, following a disappointing league opener the week prior.
Peter Lynch and Caoibhe Sloan’s side lost by 16 points against Kildare on matchday one, so the importance of defeating Sligo – the only other Junior Championship side in Division Three – wasn’t lost on the Mourne ladies.
“It’s good to test ourselves against quality teams, and Kildare are one of the best teams in the league,” said Down captain Meghan Doherty.
“But it was still a shock to the system to start our league that way. But the girls did class against Sligo, because we knew that we needed to win.
“It was our first home game and Sligo are in the Junior Championship with us this season, so it was definitely important to go out and bounce back with a good performance.”
Wing-back Natalie McKibben and goalscorers Aoife Keown and Sarah Dougherty were stand-outs, but the story of the game for Down was substitute players coming in and impressing, with a number of usual starters out.
Down had to make six changes from their Kildare starting 15 to the one that lined out against Sligo, and lost goalkeeper Kate McKay five minutes into the game. However, the win was a good indication of their strength in depth – which Doherty feels every team needs.
“With the shortened season there’s not really much rest,” she said.
“We had quite a few injuries in the game against Sligo too – I was one of a couple of the girls who started against Kildare who were out. But we have a good panel, and when you’re playing week-in-week-out, you need that strong panel.
“The starting 15 doesn’t matter as much as it used to; it’s more important who finishes out the game for you, especially with the games coming thick and fast. That’s why you need to have quality coming on off the bench.”
Up next for Down is an away trip to Wexford, a team they have had battles with in each of the last two seasons.
Last year, Down led the Division Three semi-final by six points early on, but the Yellabellys overpowered them to run out eight point winners.
In 2021, the two sides met in the All-Ireland Intermediate quarter-final, and on that occasion, Wexford held on against a late Down surge to win by one.
“They’ll definitely be a challenge; they’re very physically strong,” said Doherty.
“We have come up against them a couple of times in the last few years, so we do know them well, but we just need to train hard this week and focus on our own strengths.”
With Lynch and Sloan returning this season to the management positions they held between 2019 and 2021, there is optimism of a good season within the county.
That has been further fuelled by the additions to the backroom team of Down 2010 All-Ireland finalists Kevin McKernan and Mark Poland, and Doherty says that they bring something different to the set-up.
“When we got the news that they were coming in, I think all the girls were delighted,” she said.
“Their drills and their advice are brilliant, the girls really engage with them, and I think everyone is eager to impress them. They just bring a completely different aspect to people’s games in terms of their experience and the lessons that they have learned.”