McCartan’s mighty Mournemen prove they are learning all the time

FOLLOWING his classy display against Kildare, Martin Clarke refused to accept RTÉ’s man-of-the-match award.

When RTÉ asked Clarke to come out of the changing room for the presentation and short interview, which is screened on The Sunday Game, he declined. By way of an intermediary, Clarke informed RTÉ that he wasn’t the man-of-the-match, and that he wouldn’t be accepting the award.

While Danny Hughes was my personal choice for the individual award, Clarke was a very close second. The former Collingwood recruit made something happen on almost every occasion he had the ball in his hands. But it was only when I came home on Sunday night and watched the game again that I really noticed three incidents which were most untypical of the An Ríocht star. His run of errors began with an off-target shot which he booted into Hill 16. The free-kick that he miscued in the 72nd minute was from about 40 metres, but it was still well within his scoring range. Martin Clarke would have been angry for wasting an opportunity that would have put Down three points clear. He was also probably livid with himself for getting dispossessed by Hugh McGrillen in the 69th minute.

These three gaffes were all committed during the critical phase of the game when Down desperately needed to hold the ball and keep it away from their under-siege defence. For all his sublime passing and precision free-taking, those errors were probably bugging Clarke in the immediate aftermath of the contest.

Good footballers tend to be their own harshest critics, and Clarke isn’t the only Down player who indulges in rigorous self-assessment.

By his own admission, big Kalum King took a “wee time-out” from county football that lasted seven long years.

In January, the former amateur heavyweight boxer tipped the scales at 17 stones. After the match he recalled a training session on a frozen pitch in Ballymartin. Wee James was “beating” him “up and down the pitch“. The 25-year-old, who isn’t training this week because he is sitting chartered accountancy exams, confessed that he thought he might take a heart attack.

Nearly eight months later and King is almost two stones lighter. His finger-tip reflex save has put Down in an All-Ireland final. Given his meteoric rise from inter-county obscurity to probable All Star nominee, you would think King would have been happy to just savour the glow of Sunday’s victory.

Think again. When asked about his commanding performance, King expressed disappointment with his slow start. He was annoyed at how Kildare bossed midfield during the first 10 minutes.

The refusal of the Down players to get carried away by their victory is no coincidence. Their manager, James McCartan, lectured them at some length after the game.

McCartan’s byword is caution. If Down won a game 1-18 to 1-3, the Mourne manager would focus on the goal that was conceded. Although ‘wee’ James tends to concentrate a great deal on what went wrong, it would be inaccurate to describe him as being a negative manager. His players are full of confidence and they are clearly encouraged to express themselves.

The key feature about Down under McCartan is that they have improved with almost every game.

Some of the changes have been radical. If Jack O’Connor started a nationwide trend by putting his beanpole midfielder into full-forward, then McCartan could establish a similar pattern following the successful deployment of Dan Gordon at full-back.

Kieran Donaghy, Longford’s Ryan Kavanagh, Offaly’s Niall McNamee and Kildare’s Alan Smith have all been marked by Gordon. Smith is the only one to have registered a point.

Down’s defeat by Tyrone provided them with a huge learning curve and the lessons from that game have been absorbed.

When faced with a wall of 12 jerseys, the Mournemen looked clueless. While Kildare employed a similar system, Down looked dangerous every time they attacked. Of course, it’s easy to learn from defeat.

The key challenge is to learn from victories. Kerry exposed Down at midfield when they won nine consecutive kick-outs in the first half. During this phase of the game, Down really struggled to find an outlet for possession in the forward line. Poor kick-passing was a key problem.

It was notable how much Down had improved on that aspect of their display against Kildare. They kicked diagonal balls into space, and when the pass wasn’t on, players like Danny Hughes and Kevin McKernan penetrated Kildare’s defence by running in straight lines.

The challenge facing Down is to keep improving for the final. Although they broke even with Kildare at midfield, they still conceded a worrying 1-14. Given their lack of strategy for kick-outs, they could really struggle in this sector against Cork.

They might need to set a new scoring record if they want to defeat the Rebels. But don’t rule anything out. Fans of the red and black have reason to be optimistic. Yes, the county will go crazy during the next three weeks, but wee James will have the Down players so obsessed with correcting the mistakes they made against Kildare they’ll not have time to get distracted by the hype.


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