James McCartan will only have a skeleton of last season’s team for the National Football League Division One opener against Donegal on Saturday night.
Two years ago Down came within a kick of a ball of winning a first All-Ireland since 1994 when they lost out to Cork by a point - but last July but there was a sobering return to Croke Park to take on Conor Counihan’s side, who ran out 2-20 to 0-14 winners in a fourth round qualifier.
Down’s achievements on the football field have always been cyclical, rolling in and out with the tide, but after an All-Ireland final appearance in McCartan’s first year they expected more from last summer.
Cork, against Mayo in the quarter-final, proved to be a lot shoddier than people might’ve thought but by then it was too late for Down.
That loss wasn’t the end of McCartan’s problems, more like the start of them. From the team who lined out that summer’s evening in the Dublin sunshine only a handful are expected to start under the glare of the Pairc Esler’s floodlights on Saturday night.
Marty Clarke has returned to the AFL with Collingwood, where he is joined by teenager Caolan Maloney. Peter Fitzpatrick has immigrated to Australia to find work over the winter and Kevin McKernan is currently unavailable having been Down Under himself on holiday.
Free-taker Paul McCummiskey is out with a sore back, while defender Damien Rafferty has a groin injury, Brendan McArdle a knee problem and corner-back Gerard McCartan, wing-backs Conor Garvey and Declan Rooney are all suffering with ankle bother.
After Down’s loss to Armagh in the Ulster championship last May, John Clarke hung up his inter-county boots and there has been no episode of the Prodigal Son. Anton McArdle last week lost his appeal against a six-month ban imposed for playing 10 minutes as a substitute for Burren’s U-21 team while already suspended having been sent off for the seniors against Crossmaglen Rangers in the Ulster club championship.
And with Kalum King, who started the New Year in excellent form, missing for the first two league games having been red-carded in the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final loss to Derry in Armagh a fortnight ago, McCartan’s problems have stacked.
None of those missing on Saturday are expected to return until at least the third game of the league series, when Down welcome Kerry.
“The timing hasn’t been good to us as we have an awful lot of boys injured and unavailable,” McCartan said this week.
“We’ll not complain and we’ll just have to get on with it. People will be looking at our team sheet on Saturday night and think it’s very inexperienced but that’s what we have.”
Donegal folk will certainly hope the Dr McKenna Cup isn’t a worthwhile indicator of early season form, although in Down’s case there might be a difference of opinion.
They started the year on a high with a 2-12 to 0-10 win over neighbours Armagh in Newry with Ryan Brady and Laverty the goalscorers.
That explosiveness continued against Monaghan when King scored two first half goals and another one from Dan Gordon gave McCartan’s team a 12-point lead at the break, 3-6 to 0-3.
The irreplaceable Benny Coulter added a fourth and Down sauntering toward a 4-12 to 0-11 win, one that would’ve been even more impressive had Monaghan not scored the concluding eight points of the afternoon to save some face.
A 1-5 to 0-8 draw against St Mary’s in their final group game, with King netting in the first half, clinched progression. But for all the talk of Down’s stereotypical expansive forward play there was little evidence of it against Derry in the semi-finals at the Gaelic Park, according to the manager.
“If you had seen Down playing last week against Derry there weren’t too many thinking of them as a dynamic and forward-thinking team,” McCartan added.
“It was a bit defensive last week and it’s not really what we want to be like. Of course we’d prefer to be a bit more entertaining but it’s all about results.
“We thought the game against Derry was going to give us a better gauge as to where we are at because they had a - I’m not going to say first choice - but a more experienced team on. To be honest we were caught short.”
Daniel Hughes, Mark Poland, Paul McComiskey and of course Coulter are expected to be Down’s key forwards again this year. McCartan gave a number of newcomers to his panel their chance to impress.
Arthur McConville could well emerge as a viable option in centre-field as could Peter Turley, while the versatile Marcus Miskelly has already served notice.
Seventy minutes of championship football failed to differentiate Donegal and Down the last time they met - the season before last - but by the time extra-time had ended the foundations for the summers could not have been radical. Donegal were the first team knocked out of the championship that particular year and Down were to be the very last.
Jim McGuinness has since restored Donegal’s stock and there’s an Anglo Celt as proof of the resurgence.
The margins are thin again, even if there is a polar opposite in terms of perceived policy. “It should be a decent game but who knows with the way teams are setting up these days,” McCartan said. “In fairness to Jim he has set out his stall and he’s not going to waiver from anything so fair play to him.
“I see Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden are not expected to play but they have good quality to come in with the likes of Paddy McBrearty and Dermot Molloy.
“In a funny way, Saturday’s game might be a little more important for us than it is for Donegal.
“We’ve only three home games in all and that’s a thing that disappoints us as it was the same last year. After Donegal, our next two games are Cork and then Kerry. We just want to survive in the division.
“If you were able to pick up points early and get a couple of wins then you might re-evaluate and raise the bar but initially survival is what we’re looking at.”