MUCH has been made of Down’s championship pedigree against Kerry since last Sunday’s draw but history of a more recent variety will have to change if the Ulster county is to maintain those bragging rights.
Down haven’t won a game at Croke Park since 1994, when they claimed the last of their five All-Ireland titles. They have played three times at HQ since, losing all three.
It took them a decade to return to Jones’ Road after that memorable win over Pat O’Neill’s Dubs 16 years ago and that particular afternoon ended with a defeat to Offaly in the National League. Three years later and it was the same disappointing result, with Wexford getting the better of them in the All-Ireland qualifiers and the unwanted hat-trick was completed earlier this season with a Division Two final loss to Armagh.
“It’s hard to believe that Down have not won a major match at Croke Park in 16 years but there it is,” said Benny Coulter. “We will not only be competing against Kerry, but against recent history.”
That last loss in the all-Ulster affair was, perhaps, symptomatic of Down in recent years in that — having negotiated the group stage undefeated and raised expectations, they were unable to follow through on their promise.
“We did not play up to expectations that day but Saturday’s is a much bigger game for us,” said Coulter. “We know Kerry tend to reserve their best form for the latter stages of the All-Ireland championship so we will have to be prepared for anything.”
That tendency to fall short was repeated in microcosm this summer when James McCartan’s men were suffocated in a depressingly manner by Tyrone after a scintillating first 20 minutes in the Ulster semi-final.
Few expected Down to shrug off the subsequent hangover and make it to the last eight in the championship.
Their record before now in the qualifiers has been abysmal but they have improved by degrees since.
Coulter recalled: “When we lost to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final we were not particularly looking forward to going into the qualifiers but those wins over Longford, Offaly and Sligo have given us a great lift.
“We can’t wait for Saturday to come round. All the players are very keen to prove themselves against Kerry. This is an opportunity for us to measure ourselves against the best.”
Sligo may have been dead men walking in Breffni Park last weekend but Down’s 3-20 tally was, nevertheless, an impressive one and it was achieved despite the fact that Coulter was forced off early through injury. The signs are that he will be ready to start against the All-Ireland champions tomorrow but he is far from the only man Kerry will have to worry about come two o’clock and throw-in.
The Clarkes, John and Martin, Danny Hughes and Mark Poland have all impressed this summer along with the midfield duo of Ambrose Rogers and Kalum King. Down’s defence has been singled out as their weak spot for some time, however Coulter still reckons that this is the best side he has played with in an inter-county career that stretches right back to the start of the millennium.
“There is a great spirit among the players. Everyone is very focused on his job and there are certainly no prima donnas,” states Coulter.
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