National Football League Division Three
Tipperary v Down
Sunday, Clonmel, 2pm
TIPPERARY have already provided Down with one big lifeline for the 2020 season, and they could be the source of more help if the Mourne county can leave Clonmel with two league points on Sunday.
If it wasn’t for Tipperary’s motion at last October’s Special Congress, Down would have been playing in a tier two championship later this summer unless they reached the Ulster final. The rider provided by Tipp, however, means that the participants in the new tournament will be decided after the 2020 National League rather than before it.
So, the promotion race takes extra significance this season for both these sides, and for Down their league (and championship) picture could be framed in the first three games.
A home match with Derry is sandwiched between trips to Tipp and Cork, three opponents who are expected to be pushing towards the promotion spots rather than the relegation berths.
While nothing can be taken for granted following last year’s fumble against Louth, Down manager Paddy Tally will know that a good start in the first three games will leave them in excellent shape.
January was a positive month in trying circumstances. Tally was without a number of players due to Kilcoo’s run to the All-Ireland final as well as the Sigerson Cup.
Despite that, wins over Fermanagh and Antrim secured a first McKenna Cup semi-final appearance since 2013.
They were well beaten by Tyrone in that last-four match but the management would have been pleased with their vast improvement in the second half.
The opening 35 minutes were a reminder of the gap between Division One teams and Division Three sides as Tyrone led 1-12 to 0-4, albeit with the winds at their back.
Down were much improved in the third quarter and Cory Quinn’s goal cut the deficit to just four points with nine minutes remaining, but Tally’s native county finished strongly to win 2-16 to 1-10.
Quinn once again showed glimpses of class in January having become a fan favourite with his robust style last year. Pat Havern has also started the season well in attack while Jonny Flynn has performed promisingly in midfield. Youngsters like Liam Kerr and Ross Carr could also get some minutes in Clonmel given the amount of players currently missing.
The Kilcoo contingent are expected to miss the first two rounds of the league at least while Caolan Mooney will miss the majority of it after suffering an alleged assault in Newry earlier this month.
Niall Donnelly remains a few weeks away from being fully fit while Pierce Laverty will definitely miss out having picked up a bad injury against Tyrone.
Tipperary will also have one big absentee in the form of Michael Quinlivan who is away travelling.
David Power, who managed Quinlivan as Tipp won the All-Ireland Minor title in 2011, has taken over from Liam Kearns and he will be hoping that they can somehow fill that particular void. Easier said than done, though.
Power’s backroom team has a bit of an Ulster feel to it while his trainer Paddy Christie should also be able to provide some information on Down.
The former Dublin star was part of Paddy O’Rourke’s Burren backroom team last season and worked closely with the likes of Kevin McKernan and Donal O’Hare.
Donegal natives Charlie McGeever and Michael McGeehin are also part of the management team as Tipp aim to start the league season with a home win.
It may only be round one but this game feels like it has a lot attached to it. Down started their Division Three campaign in poor fashion last year as they lost at home to Laois. Given that those two sides finished level on 10 points and the O’Moore county were promoted, it proved to be a damaging result.
A loss in Tipp could be equally as hurtful, but if Tally’s men can escape with a win then their season’s ambitions will look a lot brighter even this early – and not just in the league.