Has a sleeping giant started to reawaken?

The 428-mile round trip from Newry to Ennis doesn’t begin to do justice to the journey the Down footballers have been on these last two years.

Has a sleeping giant started to reawaken?

The county has had its nose pressed against the glass, like outsiders looking in on a game that has evolved beyond them for far too long, but of late they had hit a new low.

When they beat Meath at the end of February, it was their first win in league or championship since April, 2015.

A few weeks earlier, the six-point loss away to Clare was their 14th straight defeat in a row. It sparked, by Down’s measured standards, a bit of an uproar.

“Inter-county football can be a very lonely place at times,” says Kevin McKernan.

“When a group of players come together and try to do their best and it is not going their way, anything that is pushing against it is magnified by a couple of bad defeats.

“A bad run like that... it was over two seasons and we went through two changes of management, as well, which is not an easy thing to handle.

“If that happens to you in any walk of life, a change of management can change a whole lot of things, but Eamonn (Burns) and his guys have put in a massive shift.

“Those couple of defeats we had last year were heart-breaking for us, but it was heart-breaking for them, too.

“We give up four or five nights a week travelling around Down to different club pitches to train and then end up taking those beatings.”

Eamonn Burns was discovering that inter-county management was tougher than he ever imagined.

He couldn’t buy a win in his first year, 2016. In a county that rarely goes to war publicly, the criticisms and concerns, as they slided towards what looked like back-to-back relegations, this spring, were mostly done in private.

None of his All-Ireland-winning team-mates from 1991 and 1994 came out for or against, but a couple who played alongside McKernan in the 2010 All-Ireland final, most notably Danny Hughes, were scathing about the disarray in the county.

For those in the eye of the storm, things were a bit calmer than those outside realised. McKernan, a mature student, was pumped up after winning a Sigerson Cup with St Mary’s — another victory against the head — but his commitment to Down has never wavered, and inside the Mourne camp, no-one was panicking.

“I think we were only getting our team together early in the league. We were still trying to get back lads who were injured, at that stage, so we were nowhere near a full team.

“But we knew, coming towards the end of the league with a full team, that we were better than that.”

By the time Down next visited Munster, after the Clare debacle, they needed a result against Cork on the final day, to stay up, and for other results to go their way.

No-one thought they’d pull it off, but Jerome Johnston’s injury-time point snatched a draw to send Fermanagh and Derry through the trap-door instead. It was a significant moment in the life cycle of this group.

“No-one gave us a chance and, feeding off of that, we stayed in Divison Two,” says McKernan.

“And that was very important, because that is where this team aims to be, playing Division Two/Division One football. That draw felt like a win down there and we knew, then, we had something in reserve for big championship days.”

Despite Armagh’s failure to get out of Division Three, they were still big favourites to go to Newry and beat Down in the first round of the Ulster championship.

Kieran McGeeney, we were told, possessed a Division One full-forward line playing in a Division Three team, but Armagh spectacularly under-performed three weeks ago.

Instead, it was Down who looked sharp, Down who were at the pitch of the game, with newcomers Niall Donnelly and Shay Millar playing like veterans in a most encouraging display.

McKernan, whose versatility has always been an asset, said: “the onus was on us to get a result over Armagh”.

“We wanted to do that for ourselves, but we wanted to do it for the whole county, too, because we had been waiting for 25 years to beat them and that is a long, long time.

“Hopefully, we are now on our way towards that and banishing last year’s woes, and looking forward to this year with a bit more positivity,” McKernan said.

Down are again cast in the role of rank underdogs for this evening’s Ulster SFC semi-final against Monaghan, who hammered them by 19 points in the first round last year.

McKernan says that outside of the top four or five teams, there are another 12 capable of filling the rest of the All-Ireland quarter-final places and, regardless of how tonight goes, he thinks Down can be one of them.

“We would not be here if we did not think that we were going places.

“Only one team wins the All-Ireland; only one team gets to win Ulster.

“But we are hoping that we can pick a pocket somewhere along the line and I feel, honestly, that we can be a top-eight team in the next year or two.

“That’s our target. We are facing a Division One team now and they are going to have to be pick-pocketed.”

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