Former Down star Gregory McCartan
Down legend Greg McCartan believes his former team is capable of upsetting the odds against Donegal on Sunday – but admits it might mean having to adopt a more cautious approach.
The sides clash in Clones with a place in the Ulster SFC final up for grabs. Most pundits are tipping Declan Bonner's men to win through and set up what would be a fascinating reunion with former boss Rory Gallagher and his Fermanagh charges.
McCartan insists that Donegal are hot favourites. But feels Fermanagh's upsetting of Monaghan means that anything can happen at St. Tiernach's Park.
He told the Donegal Democrat: “When people think you're beat out the gate before a ball is even kicked... that should give any side motivation. It's something to pin to the dressing room wall. Eamon (Burns) will be quite happy to have all that talk centering on Donegal.
“No matter how it's dressed up, Donegal will go in as hot favourites. I know they went down but I was still very impressed with aspects of their play in the league. They are opening up and racking up big scores.
“I'd say only a fool would think about betting against Donegal. But the same thing would have been said about Fermanagh and Monaghan last weekend.”
McCartan – twice an All-Ireland winner with his county in 1991 and '94 – wore the black and red from from 1990 right up until 2004.
He believes that Donegal, going on how they've approached the league and, more importantly championship, will give the Mourne men space and time at the weekend. The big question for him is how will Down look to exploit it. One thing he is certain of is that they can't be as cavalier as they were in their previous 1-18 to 0-14 win over Antrim.
“Donegal are that little bit looser under Declan Bonner than they had been under previous regimes,” he added. “They're certainly not as structured. That's allowing players to go and express themselves. And as we can see Donegal have some exceptional players.
“They aren't as rigid at the back and there is more freedom there too. So the onus is very much on Down here and how they approach matters. I don't see them clattering men forward. If they want to look pretty and attack Donegal they could be in trouble.
“Do you do what Fermanagh did, keep it tight, frustrate the opposition and look to stay in the game as long as you can? Then, somewhere down the line, you hope you get that lucky break. Down have to look to frustrate Donegal, make it physical and hope that pushes Donegal out of their rhythm.
“It's up to Eamon Burns how he wants to achieve that. I just can't see him looking to rack up 1-18 against Donegal (like they did against Antrim). I'm sure he'll take men back and hope to make it a tight affair.
“Not letting my heart rule my head, I still think Donegal will have too much for Down. It just depends how Down set up. If they can frustrate Donegal then who knows. But I think Donegal will have a bit to spare and set up the grudge game that everyone is suspecting”
Down's days of scaling the most dizziest of heights have long since passed. Without a provincial title since '94, McCartan says followers no longer have the right to criticise or demand a certain style of play.
“Down supporters can be a fickle bunch,” he said. “But those days are long gone now. I think Eamon is doing the best job that he can. If you go to a club game now in Down it's very hard to pick out the county players. Most teams are now playing as a unit. The flair players that we used to see, they stood out a mile.
“Now, we tend to see more of a team ethic. Players that play corner back for their county are still playing corner back for their clubs. When I played, 90% of county men played midfield for their clubs!
“Foot passing is almost gone out of the game. It was a lot easier to get the ball in there years ago. Now, congested defences means we don't see too much of it any more.”
It's a similar story in many other counties, particularly in Ulster. The debate on the state of Gaelic football continues to rumble. So what is McCartan's take on the current product?
He explained: “I think a lot of players from my era reflect through rose tinted glasses. There were plenty of stinkers in our day too. There was certainly a lot more kick passing backing then but there was probably far more mistakes made too.
“I'd say the turnover of ball would have been a lot more plentiful in our day too. Sides are playing the percentages game now. Eliminate as many errors as possible. But the fact is that marquee players more often than not don't get a sniff of it now because of that.
“But it's definitely fair to say there were plenty of s**** games back in the day too. I was involved in many of them! But look at it this way. Look at last weekend's game (Fermanagh vs. Monaghan) and the hurling (Waterford vs. Tipperary).
“After a quarter of an hour in the football I think it was 0-2:0-1. The amount of side way passing was so hard to watch. In the hurling it was something 1-10 to 0-6 after just nine minutes. Which one is a spectator sport and which one is maybe not as good as it should be?”