DOWN teams have always historically been associated with a certain type of football: fast ball, kick-passing, good scoring forwards, playing on the front foot – some people would describe it as swashbuckling.
The rise of Down started with their 1960 All-Ireland football win, Down had a level of team-play never seen before at Croke Park, with even the first glimpse of a tactical innovation to create space in the forward line.
It was a triumph filled with flair, confidence and belief coupled with a supreme level of physical fitness. It was a very strategic plan that had originated a few years previously after a first round loss to Armagh in 1957 and the county secretary at the time, Maurice Hayes, had a vision and a direction of how he wanted the county to go.
It culminated in a first Ulster title in 1959 before losing to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and eventually toppling the mighty Kingdom in 1960 to start a decade of three All-Ireland title wins, making the Down team of the ‘60s one of the most iconic sides to ever play the game.
I remember one member of that side, one of the greatest forwards of all time, former Newry Mitchel’s man the great Sean O’Neill, coming into our changing room (Newry Mitchel’s) just before the 2001 in the Junior Championship final. He talked about the great Mitchel’s teams of the ‘60s which coincided with Down’s success and won four senior championships, and how important the role of tradition played in those days.
It was fantastic to hear such valuable words from a Newry man who also happened to be the only Down player ever to make the GAA Team of the Millennium. As powerful as Sean’s words were, another Down great from the ‘90s words were even more powerful just before we left the changing rooms. Ross Carr was our manager at the time. I absolutely loved Ross as a player, his free-taking ability was a sight to behold and I remember in the early ‘90s as a young lad getting his number 10 onto the back of my jersey. Ross told us just before we left the changing room, “history and tradition are important, but you have to make your own.”
That’s what this current group of Down players need to d – they need to make their own tradition and find their own ways to win football games, whch is exactly what they did on Sunday past.
Before Sunday, the four games between Division One and Division Three sides this season so far in the championship have resulted in comfortable five, 10, 13 and 20 point wins for the Division One sides, so Down fans assembled in Newry more in hope that expectation.
What unfolded though was a win for Down that was secured through careful planning, organisation and high levels of self-belief throughout the squad, a throwback to the vision of Maurice Hayes in the late ‘50s.
Down had a very careful plan. One thing Conor Laverty has tried to find this year is players who are flexible: players who can defend in numbers but can equally transition with pace and have good ball retention skills, players who can play in a wide variety of roles.
It was less than three minutes into the game and Down had every single player inside their own half. There was an emphasis on marking narrowly to stop Donegal’s offensive patterns coming off the sideline. There was also a higher level of contact on the ball in the middle third from a handful of specific players and their role was not to allow the pop pass inside that Donegal like to exploit and have their strike runners coming off the shoulder.
Donegal did get in for an early goal but it came about as a collision between two Down defenders. The other Donegal goal chance came from the one moment you would have described as the Donegal of old, a huge hit on on Miceal Rooney who carried into the spider’s web on their defensive ‘D’, and from there a hard running game saw Donegal cut Down open through the middle in the 28th minute only for a brilliant save from Niall ‘Bobo’ Kane while the game was still level. A goal at that stage in a cagey first half would certainly have given Donegal a huge boost.
I predicted one notable tactical ploy from Down and it was obvious in the lead up to the game, the battle of the restarts. Down were very content to allow Donegal to have their own kick-out, but rather than completely drop everyone off, there was a very obvious tactical ploy to leave two or three forwards up with the intention of slowing Donegal down and making them change the angle of their development from defence. It also allowed Down to get their set defence organised. It was a masterstroke as it took away Donegal’s huge superiority physically around the middle. It will be interesting to see if they do the same on Sunday but the fear and the threat of the Shaun Patton kicking range was removed by employing this strategy.
Offensively, Down still have that raw individually brilliance that sometimes you just cant defend against. The likes of Liam Kerr, Ryan Johnston, Pat Havern and Shane Annett are all blessed with blistering pace and direct hard running, and can hurt you if given a chance, as was saw with the first goal and the move for the penalty with those players at the heart of both.
My only concern for Down from an offensive point of view is that they may be a little one dimensional in their attack. Obviously it will take time, but there were ample opportunities on Sunday for more cuts, looped runs and hard runs off the sideline, but they didn’t really unfold.
Down still rely on opposition turning the ball over high up the field and Down need to play a team that is chasing the ball, not facing the ball. Against a really rigid defensive organisation, Down may struggle to get scores, and that was evident in the first half when Donegal weren’t chasing but were facing.
Down picked off some valuable scores late on, but if you analyse the scores from Daniel Guinness, Johnston and Danny Magill, they are all from a quick counter-attack with Donegal chasing. A team that doesn’t choke up cheap possession to Down in around the spider’s web will have a lot more success and Down could struggle to get scores.
Whatever happens this Sunday, we might not see another team from Division Three beat a side from Division One again this season. As bad as Donegal were, Down still had to win the game and they were fully deserving winners. It wasn’t like the revolutionaries of the 1960s but as we know, history and tradition are one thing but making your own is more important.