FACT OR FICTION?

Abused, bullied and harassed in Tyrone, Armagh and Derry, the skilful forward is a protected species in Down. Which might explain a few things, suggests Paddy Heaney

IS DOWN’S famous swagger in Croke Park real? Or is it just another stereotype that doesn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny? Like most stereotypes, they exist for good reason. For instance, let’s consider the Irishman’s reputation for being able to drink, sing and tell a decent yarn. Have we been so cruelly typecast?

Or are there other political leaders in Western Europe like Brian Cowen who can knock back a few pints, blast out a rousing rendition of The Lakes of Pontchartrain and keep the party swinging with funny anecdotes and comical impersonations of Micheál O Muircheartaigh?

Like we said, stereotypes aren’t created by accident, and while it’s foolish to accept them as a universal truth, there is generally an element of truth behind them.

In the same way that not all Irishmen drink and sing, not all Down footballers are brimming with confidence in Croke Park . The caricature of the cocky Down man certainly doesn’t extend to their defenders. Down’s All-Ireland victory in 1991 continues to be a landmark result. They beat Meath 1-16 to 1-14. It remains the highest tally conceded by a winning team for the past 19 years.

Down’s wretched defending is the main reason that there has been a 16-year gap since their last appearance in an All-Ireland final.

Truth be told, Down’s legendary swagger has generally been exhibited by their legendary forwards. In the Sixties it was Paddy Doherty, Sean O’Neill, James McCartan and Colm McAlarney. And in the Nineties it was Greg Blaney, Mickey Linden and ‘wee’ James McCartan.

If Down are successful on Sunday, then it will be yet another two forwards, Marty Clarke and Benny Coulter, who will join the Mourne pantheon. The ability of the county’s marksmen to strut their stuff most certainly isn’t an illusion. Clarke and Coulter are very real.

But perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: how does the county keep producing such gifted forwards?

The answer might lie in a conversation that I once enjoyed with an aficionado of Kerry football. While discussing the Kerry divisional championship system, he informed me that a different type of football is played in the various regions of the Kingdom.

In North Kerry they play a tougher, more abrasive brand of football, and hence that area produces a tougher more abrasive type of footballer.

In contrast, South Kerry remains the home of the purist, the place where open, fluid football is protected and revered.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But consider the footballing deities that have sprung from South Kerry. Mick O’Connell, Jack O’Shea and Maurice Fitzgerald. Can it be a coincidence that three of the most aesthetically pleasing footballers of the past 50 years came from the same rocky southern shore?

And surely it is no coincidence that these three princes embodied and espoused all that is noble and sanctified about the game.

At a recent discussion night in Brackaville, Co Tyrone, Jack O’Shea said that he derived great pride from the fact that he was never sent off for a dirty blow.

Meanwhile, Maurice Fitzgerald continues to draw immense pleasure from the simple act of kicking a ball. Where other ex-players go to the driving range, he meets up with a friend to spend an hour indulging in the age-old tradition of catching and kicking.

When I interviewed Mick O’Connell two years ago, he voiced his disappointment at the way Peter Canavan dragged Colm Cooper to the ground in the closing minutes of the 2005 final. It wasn’t just the foul which annoyed O’Connell. If it had been committed by an agricultural defender he might even have understood. He simply couldn’t countenance how a fellow artist like Canavan could commit such an ugly, cynical act.

For O’Connell, it was more than a foul. It was like watching a painter slash his canvas.

Such an idealistic philosophy isn’t unique to South Kerry, but it seems more prevalent there than other places in the country. It would be impossible to quantify the influence that these three princes would have brought to bear on their local landscape.

A similar culture exists in Down. Club football in the Mournes is unlike any other in Ulster. In the other northern counties, the defender gets the benefit of the doubt.

In Down, the opposite applies. In the Mournes, the forward is king. Abused, bullied and harassed in Tyrone, Armagh and Derry, the forward is a protected species in county Down. And judging by the players the county has produced, it seems forwards flourish in such an environment.

Nourished by the confidence garnered from club football, the Down forward has few doubts about his ability, hence the swagger! Of course, it’s not a perfect system. While it might produces cocksure forwards it also yields pretty nervous defenders.

But, Down supporters, who carry the greatest swagger of all, aren’t complaining. With their record of five wins from five appearances, it has proved to be a perfect system for All-Ireland finals.


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