In praise of the county of Down…

Today is All Ireland final day, and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s last post. He did his first big GAA match (a Railway Cup final between Munster and Leinster) in 1949 at the age of 19, as he filled the shoes of the late Mícheál Ó hEithir… It also the day Down get to test out their special invulnerability suits (5 finals, 5 wins).

I doubt any of them will be banking on getting a helping hand from history today, but without over egging it, the inclusion of the 22 year old Martin Clarke seems to have gelled a team that was already brimming with youth and talent.

Yet, as Peter McGrath notes in today’s Sindo, Down plays with a style all of their own:

The philosophy on how the game should be played and the kind of players that club football produces will have a Down club football has always been quite non-physical — I am not saying they are all meek — but club football generally favours players who can express themselves and it wouldn’t be overly physical or dour and is quite open and expansive. Possibly in these other counties there is more physical play and more emphasis on stopping the opposition rather than playing to your own strengths, and maybe over time that has nurtured a certain type of player in Armagh and Tyrone and a different type of player in Down.

And:

He [McGrath] lists off the minor teams that won All-Irelands in 1999 and 2005 as having been “distinctly Down” with a style of play was “very much conducive to the individual.” They were teams that did not require painstaking coaching. “If you look at Kildare (this year), they were notching up quite big scores, but I could see looking at that team that their forward play, well, you could see the coaching — a certain amount of regimentation and they were playing to a pattern. Whereas Down would be playing to natural instinct.”

And there’s this take on the Down mentality from Paddy Kielty:

There is another view worth bearing in mind. Paddy Kielty, the comedian and television personality, feels that because Down’s first three All-Ireland wins preceded the Troubles this may have contributed to a separation of the two experiences, leaving a clearer demarcation line between sport and politics.

“It’s a theory that may be right or may be wrong,” he says, “but because Down won three All-Irelands before trouble began in the north, we always felt we were part of the GAA family; we felt we belonged to the other 31 counties in a sporting context. And I think when we won again in ’91 and ’94 for us it was a continuation of a history rather than a breakthrough. We had established an identity. When Down teams go south I think they have a sense of belonging. We feel we do belong there, no more than any other county, but no less.”

No predictions from me on the result. I’m no natural Down supporter, even though it’s the only county in which I have played the game (we were in the south Antrim league, and shared our pitch with the local cricket team for a lot of that time). I was born in Antrim, but have since childhood been a resolute follower of my father’s native county, Donegal: especially when playing Down.

It will take more than Martin Clarke to play at his best today for this Down team and take Sam home for a sixth time.  Good luck to the People’s Republic of Cork, but a Down win – especially after Darren Cave’s magnificent try against Edinburgh on Friday night – would make this Holywood man a perfect sporting weekend.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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