Conor Laverty has been in and around the Down panel for seven years, but it is only in the past three that he has really made his mark.
In 2010, When Down reached the All-Ireland final, Laverty made three championship appearances as a sub, including a late cameo in the decider against Cork.
Last year, he played in all five of their Championship matches, the only game he didn’t start was their defeat against Armagh, that was also the only Championship match he didn’t score in.
He has an Ulster u-21 medal under his belt, and also a club championship medal won with Kilcoo.
Down’s attacking hopes this weekend are pinned on Conor. A small, speedy attacker who loves running at defences, he is the classic Mourne hit man. This week he fills Gaelic Life in on how he tried to get the inside line on Fermanagh, which Down player is the best craic, and why an Ulster title is the hardest, and best to win.
Ronan Scott: How will you be approaching this weekend’s game against Fermanagh?
Conor Laverty: It is like anything else, I am looking forward to the start of the Championship, that is why you train hard all season. The league is just preparation for the Championship. It is a different pace and intensity than the league, but I love playing Championship football. It is a great feeling.
RS: How do you think you played during the league?
CL: As a team we were a wee bit inconsistent in some of the games. We would be happy enough with the way we beat some of the bigger teams. But we were inconsistent against other teams. When we played to our potential we were happy enough.
RS: Why were you not able to play to your potential in every game?
CL: It is just the fact that if Down go in with the right mentality to a game they can produce good displays and win the game. If we go to Brewster Park with the right mentality, then we can produce a good performance.
RS: So if it is all about having the right attitude then how does James get that attitude from this team?
CL: He encourages us to play what we see, and be hungry for every game. It is just about the players themselves having the right attitude when they go out onto the pitch. We’re under no illusions, this is going to be a really tough game. If we don’t play to our full potential we will not win the game.
Any Championship match is going to be tough. On any given day, anybody can beat anybody, but especially in Ulster. Knowing some of the Fermanagh players and the quality that they have in their squad, it is not going to be an easy game.
RS: But they played division four this year, and you played Division one. Surely that counts for something?
CL: I don’t think that really counts for much. Divisions don’t really count for anything when it comes to Championship football. Yes we were playing in Division One, and they were playing in Division Four, but it does not matter when that ball is thrown in. It is just two teams that want to win a Championship match. The two teams will be going for it at a frantic pace. League doesn’t really come into it. They had a good winning run in the League, and a winning habit is hard to beat.
The winning run carried them through, and they will be in good form, but we feel that if we play to our potential and work hard we will come away with a victory.
RS: What way do you expect Fermanagh to play?
CL: Funny, I was talking to Tomás [Corrigan] yesterday and he wasn’t giving away too much. He’s at Trinity where I work [Laverty is the GAA development officer in Trinity]. He called up yesterday and it was a very reluctant chat between the two of us. There was nothing given away. It was very cagey. It was hilarious, because I had managed him in Trinity this year, and this was the whole craic as soon as the draw came out. It was very friendly, and the two of us would have the craic. I said to him, ‘Who are you going to be marking?’ But there was nothing given away.
I expect Fermanagh to play the way they have all throughout the League. They seem to have got a great work ethic. When they lose the ball they all seem to work very hard. They are going to be very hard to play against.
RS: What are Down’s strengths?
CL: Down will look to move the ball nice and fast, and once we lose the ball we will try to work hard. It is very simple, but that is the way that Gaelic football should be played. When you have the ball you should be moving extremely fast. Once you don’t have it you work hard to try and get it back as quick as you can.
If you go into a Championship game then you can’t have many concerns. You should be confident in everyone around you, and confident in your own ability. If we go out and play to our full potential then we should come away with a victory. So there wouldn’t be any concerns at all. Down have played some great football this year, and we are looking to put that together again.
RS: How has the Down team changed since you started?
CL: Especially this year, there are a lot of new faces coming on to the panel. I came onto the panel at a stage when Benny [Coulter], and Dan [Gordon], and Danny Hughes were there. They are still there so there is still a lot of familiar faces there as well. There is more confidence there. The run to the All-Ireland final gave Down football a massive boost. That definitely helped, but we still have no silverware and that is one thing that Down need. Down need to get some silverware on the table for all the football that they have played over this past two years.
RS: What, do you think, is your role on the team?
CL: I like to see myself as a person who would be a creative player in the forward line. Also, when we lose the ball, all the forwards work hard to get it back.
RS: What about as a personality?
CL: My communication would be a lot better now than what it was then. But I think that that comes from being there for a few years and being more experienced now. I try and communicate a bit more. But we would all be encouraged to do that. The whole panel are encouraged to talk at all times.
RS: What is the craic like on the panel?
CL: Well that would probably be my role, to maybe keep the craic going.
If you are to have a good strong panel then you definitely have to have a bit of banter and a bit of craic. There is good craic there now. It is a laugh a minute on that bus, with some of the boys that are on it. There is always something to get at somebody about. The last day I got a text message late on at night to say that Kevin McKernan had been in a Mexican restaurant with a lady friend, the night before. That was a bit of banter to get at McKernan over that. It doesn’t matter what happens you can always slag McKernan about something because he is always doing something, and he always bites. He would always snap back at you.
RS: What is your experience of playing against Fermanagh teams?
CL: They are always a very physical strong team who work awful hard. Especially in Brewster Park, or as Tomás [Corrigan] would call it, Fortress Brewster. It is going to be extremely tough and we are going to get nothing easy. It is going to be a battle, and whichever team wants it the most will come out as winners.
They are always well up for the game, and a committed bunch of players. Always a never-say-die attitude and always played till the end.
RS: How important would a Championship medal be for you?
CL: I suppose out of all the provinces an Ulster medal, and winning the Ulster Championship is the most competitive. I won an Ulster Championship medal with the Down u-21s, I’ve won nothing with the Down seniors so it would be nice to say that in your career you won a senior Ulster Championship.
RS: Has the success of Down’s u-21 teams benefited the Down team at all?
CL: In our forward line there Mark Poland, Aidan Carr and Eoin McCartan would all have been on that team. Ambrose would have been on that team, so was Kalum King. So there is a good strong mix from that u-21 team coming through. u-21 football is definitely a good stepping stone.
RS: What did you learn from u-21 football?
CL: Probably just the different pace and intensity of the step up, because you were playing against senior inter-county footballers at that stage. We played Galway and a lot of their players were playing senior football at that stage. Similar to some of ours. There was five or six of us who were playing senior football.
RS: What lessons have you learned from last year?
CL: We probably took the eye off the ball a bit. We are a more focused team this year.
That’s because of our training and the fact we have learned that we don’t want to go out of the Championship the same way that we did last year. We have learned from any mistakes that we made. We take it one match at a time, and don’t go looking ahead of ourselves.