By Shaun Casey
THE 2022 season was a roller-coaster ride for Down hurling and was quite literally a year of highs and lows. The Mourne men topped the Division Two league table but produced their worst performance of the year in the league final against Westmeath.
A huge win over Kerry followed in the McDonagh Cup, but a three-game losing streak wiped out any aspirations of reaching the decider. Still, for manager Ronan Sheehan, 2022 was a year he’ll look back on fondly.
“Realistically we were very happy with the year overall,” said Sheehan. “I think the opportunity to get to a league final was a big thing for us and we played very well to get those opportunities.
“We were disappointed with the final performance. We played well up until then and then getting to the biggest day, we didn’t play to the best of our ability or certainly left a lot of chances behind us, I think we’d 19 wides that day.
“A bit of disappointment but really pleased to see how we progressed in the league. We topped the league table, which was a big thing for us particularly when it was only our second year in that division. The McDonagh Cup, we retained our status which we were very happy with but probably disappointed again in one or two of the performances.”
That league final was just Down’s second defeat in the competition, along with a one-point loss to Kildare in round three, but no one could have predicted what the league final against Westmeath, who Down had already beaten, would produce.
“We had a very good start,” recalled the Down boss. “We were up 5-1 and had a number of other chances that went wide and with every wide you could see the confidence seeping out of the team.
“Then they got a very good goal just before half time through Davy Glennon, who’s a very good player. He’s played with Galway and is an All-Ireland winner and he was effectively the difference that day, he scored three goals and was very hard to handle.
“But when you hit 19 wides, you’re not going to give yourself a great opportunity of winning any game. When we looked back on that game from a stats perspective, the expected score was a three-point win for Westmeath as opposed to a 14-point victory.”
Heading into that encounter, Down had conceded just five goals in five league outings. By the end of that 60 minutes, that number had doubled. “That was the frustrating thing, that we got to the biggest day and reserved our worst performance for that day.
“But those things happen in hurling, that can happen sometimes. Hurling can be a very unforgiving game when it starts going away from you a wee bit.
“That can happen in matches, sometimes teams can get a run on you and the game became very open and there were goal opportunities there for them that they took. They showed that wee bit of class, but Westmeath were probably the favourites at the start of the year to go up.
“While we had beaten them in Mullingar and played very well to do so, they probably regrouped off the back of that defeat, refocused and they were fully deserving winners on the day.”
The McDonagh Cup started with a bang as Down travelled to Tralee and defeated the Kingdom by four points. But things started to unravel from there.
“There was nothing fatal about that (league final) defeat, we just learned from it, picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and moved on to the next day. We went down and we beat Kerry in the McDonagh Cup in the next game we played after the league.”
Antrim came next and the Saffrons were much too strong on the day. Sheehan feels that if the fixtures had panned out a little differently, it could have made a big difference to their year.
“I think you always look back on matches and campaigns and think if we’d done this differently or done that differently. I remain convinced that if we had played Offaly etc, after the Kerry game we probably would have got a result against Offaly.
“The Antrim game kind of knocked the stuffing out of the boys for a while, just the manner of the defeat. They got a goal right at the start of the game, so we had to fight our way back into it, then we lost a man.
“It was the only time last year that I saw a man sent off for a similar tackle or the fact that he pulled a man down going for goal and I’m not sure he was anywhere near the goal to be honest,” explained Sheehan.
“That curtailed our comeback and opened up a bit of daylight between the two teams and Antrim kicked on. The McDonagh Cup, there’s nothing between the teams and the way the games drop, whether or not you get the home venue can make a big difference.
“I think maybe if the order of the games had been slightly different then we probably would have had a good chance to get to the McDonagh Cup final, but you can’t dwell on that too much. Once it’s done, it’s done. Our primary aim in Down is to maintain our McDonagh Cup status, that’s what we did.”
That will once again be the focus for 2023 as Down look to push on from this season.
“The year was very positive, but I think when you look at the overall nature of the games that we played last year, there was very little between any of the teams in the league. There are very thin margins between success and defeat and I don’t expect it to be any different in 2023. Last year is last year and it’s brilliant for us to have done as well as we did but the focus very quickly turns to next year.
“We’re only starting back this week, so the reality is, in terms of what are targets are, our target is to stay in Division 2A and to maintain our status in the McDonagh Cup. Once we have obtained enough points to guarantee our status, then we’ll look at, can we push to a league final? Can we push to a McDonagh Cup final?
“The reality is that the vast majority of teams that are in Division 2A and in the McDonagh Cup, their number one focus is staying in the competition because it doesn’t take a lot to lose a few games and find yourself in a relegation playoff.
“We’ll go into the year very much focused on getting two or four points as quickly as we can in the league. The league is going to be very difficult and very tight for us particularly given that Eoin Sands is going travelling, he won’t be available for the league, either will Donal Hughes, he’s travelling in Australia.
“They’re a couple of big blows to us, although we have some good young players coming in and Ruairi McCrickard is back.
“ I think our focus is very much on retaining our status and if we manage to sneak into a league semi-final and then give ourselves a chance of pushing on from there, then that’s brilliant.”