By Niall McCoy
HERE’S the thing about drawing a line in the sand – over time the wind can blow it away. When Down travel to Clones on Saturday night to face Monaghan, it’ll not just be a test of their talent, but also their commitment, their pride in the red and black jersey since the now pretty infamous training weekend in Malahide earlier this month.
The events are not totally clear, and probably will never be, but what we can surmise if that some (not all) of the Mourne County squad behaved in a manner not befitting an inter-county squad leading manager James McCartan and his management team to inform officials that they were done.
Those same officials held crisis talks with the manager and although originally unsuccessful, further conversations facilitated the return of the entire coaching staff with the players holding their hands up and accepting blame. McCartan stepped into the role when Down were struggling to get anyone to fulfil the job. He is a legend in the game and it would have been a shame for it to end like that.
It didn’t and that line was drawn. Over the last three weeks the players have had the opportunity to respond in kind, and at St Tiernach’s Park we will see the fruits of that labour.
In some ways, events in Dublin have taken away the free hit element of the game. Having been relegated to Division Three and almost certainly the Tailteann Cup, few would have expected them to maybe get within eight or nine points of Monaghan and not much would have been said, but now the microscope will be on them.
It should be on their fans too. Their league clash with Clare on Mother’s Day in Newry may have been a dead-rubber, but the turn-out was pathetic with estimates of 300 there.
The argument that the fans will show when the team give them something to show for is a fair one, but how encouraging would it be for the players to see Down tops on display this weekend to demonstrate that they will be there through thick and thin.
And if anyone is going to give them a sniff even with a broken nose then it’s Monaghan. Down know that themselves having shocked them in the 2017 semi-final under the late Eamonn Burns. The next year the Oriel County were back at the same stage and red-hot favourites once again, this time against Fermanagh.
‘We’ve learned from the Down loss’ was the message, but it got decoded somewhere because they lost out again. Throw in a Qualifier loss to Longford in 2016 at Clones and they are a team susceptible to getting caught.
While that is one trait, Seamus McEnaney’s side have continually shown that they are a panel laden with character and no shortage of fight too. Their league survival acts over the last two years have been things of beauty with Jack McCarron consigning Galway and Dublin to the second tier when Monaghan looked destined to drop.
McCarron has long held the label of being a ‘league player’ but performances in Ulster last year against Armagh and Tyrone started to shred such notions and for maybe the first time in a decade, an opposition team will be spending as much time trying to work out a way to quell the Currin man’s threat as the irrepressible Conor McManus.
The Clontibret ace has only played from start to finish three times this season – against Kerry, Donegal and Kildare – although he did also start against Armagh before being sent off early in the second half.
Monaghan fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of a McCarron-McManus partnership being unleashed on the 2022 All-Ireland Championship.
Down fans, meanwhile, will be playing the guessing game right up until the team is named. Since the league, they have lost Liam Kerr, Jerome Johnston, Ceilum Doherty, Anthony Morgan and Finn McElroy from their panel.
The odds are stacked against them and it’s impossible to make a case for victory. But what needs to be produced is a full-hearted display and 70 minutes of effort. If they give that, then nobody will complain too much.
It would also mean a fall into the Tailteann Cup. Down’s last silverware was the 2007 Dr McKenna Cup – 15 years ago – and their last meaningful trophy was the 1994 All-Ireland – 28 years ago. If they lose this weekend, then that line in the sand should extend to giving everything to become the first ever winners of the tier- two championship.