So we’ve been paired with the Mourne County in Round 2 of the qualifiers. Monaghan away would have been a far tougher assignment but this one is tricky alright. Winnable but tricky.
As it happens, Down are a county I’ve already seen in Championship action this summer, which is more than I can say of our own lads. Myself and the young buck went north last month to catch the Ulster SFC quarter-final tie between Down and Armagh at Páirc Esler and we got full value for the trip, in the form of a rip-roaring encounter that ended with Armagh squeezing through by a single point after extra-time, on a scoreline of 2-17 to 3-13.
The photo above, by the way, was one I took at the Newry venue that afternoon. I’ll come back to that match in a bit. First, though, let’s have some background on Down and how they’ve been getting on the last while.
Let’s take our most recent encounter with them as our point of departure here. That was in the League in April 2016 when we got the better of them in a nervy final round game that saw us secure our Division One status while Down ended their campaign with seven straight losses.
The most recent time we played them at Páirc Esler was also in the League. That was under the lights back in March 2013 when we lost a bad-tempered meeting by two points.
Our only meeting so far in the Championship occurred in 2012. Our paths crossed then at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and we fairly showed the Mourne County a clean pair of heels that day, winning with ease by 3-18 to 2-9. But it wasn’t all fun and games for us that afternoon, as we lost Andy Moran to the cruciate injury that ultimately proved a fatal blow to our hopes of landing the All-Ireland.
Turning the focus back towards more recent times, it’s clear that Down have been struggling of late. Having dropped out of the top tier in 2016, they narrowly avoided – on points difference – back-to-back demotions the following spring. They were goosed both on points difference and head-to-head last year, however, when finishing joint sixth in the table with Cork and so they played their football this spring in Division Three.
Championship hasn’t been a whole pile better for them, though they did – by dint of an excellent upset win over Monaghan – make it to the Ulster final in 2017. The previous year Monaghan thrashed them in the quarters and then Longford beat them in Newry after extra-time in Round 1 of the qualifiers. Having got their revenge over Monaghan twelve months later they were no match for Tyrone in the Ulster final and then Monaghan returned the favour on them in Round 4 of the qualifiers.
Last summer they had an easy win over Antrim in the Ulster quarter-final before Donegal crushed them in the semi. Cavan then beat them by two points in Round 2 of the qualifiers.
Which brings us to this spring, where they had, as you’d expect, a more productive time of it in Division Three. They won five games and lost two, finishing in joint first place with Westmeath and Laois on ten points but losing out on promotion on points difference, with just a single point separating them from Laois.
Laois beat them well, though, when they met in Round 1, coming away from Newry with a 2-15 to 1-12 victory. A 1-12 to 1-10 win over Sligo in Collooney got Down moving in Round 2 and they edged out Westmeath by 0-10 to 0-9 back at Páirc Esler in Round 3. They had a 3-7 to 0-8 win over Longford in Round 4 and a 2-12 to 0-10 success over Offaly at Newry in Round 5.
Their 0-15 to 1-11 win over Carlow at Cullen Park in Round 6 put them firmly in the hunt for promotion. Those hopes were unexpectedly dashed when they fell to Louth – at home to boot – in the final round, losing by a single point on a scoreline of 0-10 to 1-6. Interestingly, their two defeats in that campaign both came at Newry. We’re not the only ones, then, to find it a bit troublesome to dig out home wins.
We’re nearly up to date now so it’s time to arc back to that meeting with Armagh at Páirc Esler last month. I didn’t, in truth, think Down were great shakes that day: Paddy Tally has them well drilled alright and they’ve a very structured defence but they’re a limited enough outfit and it was only Armagh’s chronic lack of ambition – unsurprising on the day, as they hadn’t won an Ulster Championship game for five years – that saw the game go all the way to extra-time.
Down got back on the horse at Páirc Esler yesterday in Round 1 of the qualifiers as they beat Tipperary by 1-13 to 1-10 to record their first backdoor win since 2014. The visitors led by a goal at half-time in what was a cagey, defensive contest but Down finished strongly to win by three.
From our perspective, we simply have to get with the programme where it comes to playing teams who adopt ultra-negative tactics. Blanket defences on their own don’t win games but you’ve got to tailor your own approach when faced with fifteen-behind-the-ball tactics. What you don’t do is commit everyone to attack all the time and leave your own barely-defended full-back line open to counter-attacks.
There’ll be plenty more chat on tactics, of course, before we head North on the 22nd. In the meantime, though, let’s end with a poll – how do you reckon our Round 2 qualifier tie with Down will go?