Mourne no longer a soft touch

Coming out of Páirc Esler on the afternoon of February 28 2016, Kerry felt let down when they should have been chuffed.

The 0-22 to 0-6 victory over their Down opponents followed defeats to Dublin and Roscommon and turned out to be the start of a six-match winning stretch for Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s men.

But what the hosts had mustered up in Newry that day was feeble. Kerry officials could scarcely believe this was the same county who troubled them so in championship fare.

As Kieran Donaghy, who made his seasonal return that day, recalled in his autobiography, “I can’t take last Sunday on its merits because Down were so bad.”

As powder-puff as Down were in Newry, they were nowhere near rock bottom. That loss was their fifth straight defeat in a run that would stretch to 14.

There was no heart to their performances and little in the way of grit. They were conforming to the stereotype as a nice but dim team.

The intervention came following last February’s reverse away to Clare, 0-11 to 2-11.

Darren O’Hagan, also referencing their Division 2 opener at home to Fermanagh, in which they were thumped 0-10 to 1-16, said:

“The way the first two games went, we were probably in a bit of a predicament. We had to sit down and have a wee chat. We talked about things we had talked about before the first two games and we got everybody to buy in.”

It wasn’t that Down felt that they had to add a darker element to their game, but then they knew there needed to be a change of mindset.

“Everybody knows Down for their football and not their physicality,” acknowledges O’Hagan.

“We are still nowhere near the most physical team in Ireland. It has helped us over the last two games when we have upped it, but if you look at Tyrone, their physicality is far stronger than ours. They are way down the road on that from us.”

Down’s newfound aggression, particularly in the semi-final win over Monaghan, has been the topic of much discussion, some of it inaccurate, according to manager Éamonn Burns.

“At the end of the day, a referee can flash a red card at you pretty quickly!” laughs O’Hagan. “We play the game as it is played: it’s physical and hitting hard. It’s the way Down used to play football, they were physical and in teams’ faces. They hit hard and they play football.

“I didn’t think we were too bad against Monaghan. Monaghan probably hit us as hard as we hit them. It’s probably something that has been lacking in Down this last couple of years, a bit of physicality.

"I think we brought that to the table, the last day against Armagh as well. It helps the team. Maybe a good hit or a good tackle is as good as a score at the other end.”

The development in Down’s game is more natural than anything conceived, he insists. “I suppose the likes of Niall McParland, Peter Turley, Niall Donnelly, they are big physical lads and that’s the way they play football.

"We have those sizes of lads around the middle area and they won the tackle count. They aren’t playing dirty, it’s just the way they play football.”

As a bricklayer and part-time dairy farmer, the physical game also suits O’Hagan but where there were man-marking responsibilities asked of him in the wins over Armagh and Monaghan, Tyrone’s challenge may prompt different duties.

“The way they play, they get a lot of boys back. Anybody can be a forward. If you are named to mark a man, mark him. You have to play it as you see it sometimes as well on the pitch.

"I will probably stay inside and at the end of the day, my job is to stay in around the full-back line. I wouldn’t have the best feet in the world going up the field!”

No Mickey Harte Tyrone team has lost to Down in the Ulster SFC but then on three occasions they’ve required two bites of the cherry. O’Hagan expects they will be prepared well for tomorrow with that history in mind.

“Everyone is saying to me, ‘Sure, they are giving us no chance’. But sure why should we have a chance? We struggled to stay in Division 2 and people looked at Armagh, and even Monaghan in the top division.

“In my mind, the media wasn’t doing anything wrong. They were right. Everybody got it right. Monaghan should have been hot favourites going into that game. I don’t think Monaghan underestimated us either. In 2012 we came back from nine points down to beat them in the Ulster semi-final.

“Tyrone will definitely not underestimate us. They’ll be going in as hot favourites and rightly so. They are among the top teams in Ireland.”


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