So it’s Down in the quarters for us next weekend. Going on the poll that was running here on the site prior to the draw being held earlier this evening they weren’t our opponents of choice – that honour went to Kildare – but I voted for them. Not because I thought they’re a soft touch (I don’t for one minute believe they are) but rather I felt that the Mourne lads would represent a different kind of challenge for us as well as a new departure for the both of us as this will be our first ever meeting in the championship.
I’d say most supporters are happy enough with the draw, but then again I’d equally guess that most Down fans will be happy enough that they’ve pulled us rather than facing Cork or Dublin. A semi-final date with the latter will surely be the reward for the winners of our quarter-final – Dublin are 1/9 with Paddy Power to see off Laois and I can’t in all honesty see any circumstances in which Pat Gilroy’s defending All-Ireland champions will fail to make it to the penultimate stage.
But the Dubs are for another day: instead we need to concentrate on the challenge that Down will present to us next weekend. We’re reasonably warm favourites to prevail – Paddy Power have us at 4/7 to do so – but if memory serves me correctly we were priced at similar odds when we went to post against Meath in 2009 so I wouldn’t read too much into that particular statistic.
Despite having never met each other prior to this in the championship – we had our three All-Irelands in the bag a fair while before they began to collect their haul of five – we’ve seen a good bit of each other in the league in recent times. Down were promoted to Division One two seasons ago and we drew with them in McHale Park in the opening round of the 2011 NFL while earlier this year they beat us by five points, also in Castlebar.
That latter match was made notorious due to the atrocious refereeing of it by Derry’s Barry Cassidy – who issued a straight red to Aidan O’Shea after just eight minutes and then proceeded to make a total hames of proceedings thereafter – but if our lads think back to it in sufficient detail they’ll know that they owe Down one for the way that match panned out for us. Nothing like a revenge mission to get the juices flowing, eh?
As it happened, this year’s NFL worked out quite similarly for both of us – we both made it to the play-offs and we both ended up getting clocked by Cork. They took a thumping from the Leesiders in the semi-final (the day we downed the Kerrymen) while we got ours from the pugilistic Donkey Ayters in the final.
Since then our form lines haven’t really been comparable, with Down battling through to the Ulster final (admittedly in the soft half of the draw) while we had only to get past the supine challenge of Leitrim to make our provincial decider. Down had a routine enough win over Fermanagh in the quarter-final but looked to be headed for the qualifiers at the semi-final stage when Monaghan led them by nine points just before half-time. The Mourne lads pulled off a remarkable comeback in the second half that day to win by the minimum margin and so reach the Ulster decider for the first time since 2003 but that was as good as it got for them in that part of the campaign. Ulster finals aren’t often lost by eleven point margins but that was the gulf between them and Jimmy McGuinness’s Donegal when the final whistle was sounded in Clones last weekend.
Down were fortunate to draw Tipperary in Round 4 of the qualifiers – seeing as they could instead have ended up with the likes of Kerry or Kildare – and, despite the fact that the Stone Throwers are an improving force in football, this no doubt helped them in today becoming only the second ever beaten provincial finalist to break the six-day turnaround hoodoo (Dublin being the other back in 2001). But it’s still a considerable achievement to have done this, one that will, no doubt, do much to erase the memories of that Ulster final drubbing and help them to get into the right frame of mind for Croke Park.
And let’s not forget that Down quite like playing in Croke Park at this time of year. I was there with the little lad the last time they did the shaking the jerseys routine at Kerry (that was in 2010, also in the quarters) and you could see how they got the wind into their sails after the positive start they enjoyed that day. We’ll need to be on our guard next weekend not to let them settle into the surroundings of HQ in the same kind of reassuring manner.
Although I wasn’t there to witness our own provincial decider at first-hand, I could see from the tape that we struggled for long periods to overcome Sligo’s massed defence. Down don’t take defending to the demonic lengths that their Ulster conquerors do but they’re still a Northern team and they use large swathes of the Nordie playbook so we can expect them to be equally tough to break down at the back. We’ll certainly need to have advanced our thinking on this front a fair bit since Hyde Park, not least because – with Ambrose Rogers and Kalum King at midfield – Down won’t be ceding as much advantage to us around the centre as the Magpies did.
The contrasting number of games the two teams will have played prior to next weekend could also be a factor. Down will be playing their third championship match in as many weeks, while we’ll be lining out for our first match in three weeks and our third in all. Will they be feeling the effects of all those games? Will we be too laid back and rested for our own good? It’s hard to tell where the advantage lies here but it is likely to be a factor all the same.
Overall, I think it’s a good draw for both counties and it gives us both a clean shot at securing a semi-final meeting (almost certainly) against the reigning All-Ireland champions. I think the working assumption that most will make is that our end of the draw presents Dublin with an easy enough run to the final, with all those hard chaws left to battle it out amongst themselves over on the other side. That may well prove to be correct but, as already pointed out, Down are rather partial to Croke Park in August and September and our win over the Dubs back in 2006 shows that we’re not averse to upsetting the odd applecart either. For all of us, there’s a place in the final up for grabs and – starting (and hopefully not finishing) with the Down match next weekend – we need to do everything in our powers to make sure we’re the ones that’ll claim this.