July 30, 1993
Henry Downey - Playing a real Leaders role for Derry
Lavey Pivot is already on the 1993 All-Stars shortlist
The countdown is on the All-Ireland Football semi final and given the times that are in it, Ulster's ambassadors at Senior and Minor levels will be quoted as short odds favourites to at least make the Championship decider. The Ulster rebellion continues unabated!
It's no coincidence that Derry and Tyrone will be in attendance on August 22nd next to meet their eastern foe as representative of the most vibrant football province around at the moment. For both counties have embellished the All-Ireland finals with their open flowing brand of football on more occasions than most other counties have at underage level over the course of the last decade. While Oak Leaf County to reap their rich harvest of young seedlings has arrived. Ulsters gaels expect them to glean rich pickings at Headquarters this year. Just like their brethren West and South of their county boundary have done in the last two Championship seasons.
The captain of this year's Derry Senior team is Henry Downey. A greyhound-like figure at the centre of the Ulster champions defence, he shapes up as the archetypal leader on and off the field and to a large degree he represents the public face of the Derry team that drowned Donegal hopes of back to back provincial title wins in Clones in July 18th last.
Downey wears his heart on his sleeve, exuding a great pride and passion in his home surroundings, in gaelic games and in Derry G.A.A. Incorporated. It's not to difficult to see just why the Lavey clubman was approached by manager Coleman last year to be the team's leader. He leads by example on the field of play, is extremely popular among his team mates and if given the opportunity would live in a dressing room and have gaelic football as his food and drink for evermore. In short, Henry Downey esquire is totally committed to the ball game he has come to master.
The Magherafelt-based schoolteacher appears to carry the burden of captaincy with consummate ease but looks can be deceiving. Initially, he admits, the mantle sat uneasily on his square shoulders. "Last year I captained the team to a National League triumph but I found the job of captaining the team much more difficult. Eamon Coleman surprised me by making me captain of the side because I was only really getting established on the team. I was very lucky to have been given the job and I set out to do the best I could in that role".
By this stage, Lavey's master has finished touring the locality with the Anglo-Celt Cup in tow. Last Thursday night witnessed the return of the collective Derry noses to the grindstone. Fulfilling the county's promise as perceived by their long-time and freshly made fans alike is on the agenda now for Downey and Company. Fulfilling the promise as pointed by the county in their odysseys to an All-Ireland Minor title in '83 back to back Ulster Minor titles in 1980/ '81 and an Ulster Senior crown in '87 preceded by an All-Ireland, Under 21 triumph in '83. The time is nigh for Derry, the time is here but captain Downey believes that the county's long-nurtured promise will only be fulfilled when a little more sweat is spilled on the training fields.
"I think we'll have to play better than we did against Donegal to win an All-Ireland. I've no doubt but that we'll have to improve over the next five weeks and there'll have to be some intensive training done in that time. There's certainly room for improvement", insisted the 5 feet 9 inch and twelve stone defensive pivot.
Henry Downey's physique is such that he himself makes a mockery of the Metropolitan-spawned notion that Derry are all brawn, and bigger than almost any other team in the physical stakes. Derry's heavy artillery primarily manifests itself around the middle and through the centre of the attack. Only the most blinkered of observer could describe the defence as a destructive, largely immobile force. There are few more nimble and fleet-footed operators about than messrs. Downey, Coleman, McGurk and forwards the likes of Mickey Linden, Peter Withnail and Ray McCarron would doubtless concur.
Still Derry were deemed good enough last year to dodge the notorious landmines in Ulster Championship and instead fell flat on their faces, like flat-footed dancers really rather than fleet-footed athletes. Donegal beat Derry in last year's Ulster final so what was the difference this time around? Team captain Downey doesn't provide one with a journalists scoop, merely enough inside information to more than justify the question and to gain an insight into the psyche of one of the game's main players.
"Last year Donegal had the edge because of their greater experience. We hadn't reached an Ulster final since 1987 but in saying that our complacency after beating Down played a large part in fashioning our own downfall. There was too much of ourselves patting each other on the back after winning out in Casement but this year match in Clones was a whole new ball game. We reshuffled our team kept with our overall tactics, stayed with it 'till the end and ignored the conditions. It was a dream come true for us all".
In truth, Derry never looked like being on shaky ground in the Clones quagmire against the defending Ulster and All-Ireland champions. Conquering the conditions was as big an obstacle on the day, it transpired. Henry, like all in attendance at Clones was none too enamoured with state of the county Monaghan pitch. "It was an absolute disgrace. We went there two weeks before the Ulster final and the whole team and the management knew that it wouldn't be ready. G.A.A officials will have to realise that you can't put paying customers on a hill that's almost dangerous, like a herd of cattle. For others then to pay £8 and sit on a cold, hard, wet seat is just not on. My own preference would have been to play the match at Casement Park", said an obviously still rankled Derry captain.
Downey's vexation is understandable but quite out of character, nonetheless. His composed, sure footed and intelligent persona as the wearer of Derry's number six jersey mirrors the man who operates out of Saint Mary's Convent for a living. At 26 years of age, he's single but hardly a female in the whole of Derry wouldn't recognise his broad grin or at least identify with his name at this stage. Hard to imagine then that same Henry Downey didn't figure on any Derry county football teams until he was nineteen when the first of a two year stint at Under 21 level was ushered in under the aegis of one Eamon Coleman.
As an underage player, he was footballer better known as a hurler. He would graduate in double quick time through Derry's hurling ratings from Minor, Under 21 and on to Senior level. Brother Seamus would follow the same route unlike elder brother John, whom Henry labels "the wise one of the three of us". Under the tutelage of Lavey hurling guru Tom Magill, Henry and partners helped themselves into the numero uno position in Derry hurling circles, above Dungiven, and in Ulster club kingpins Ballycastle and Rossa of Belfast. Indeed, the provincial club final meeting with the last named club in '89 brought Henry face to face with Old Queen's University pal Ciaran Barr of Antrim. Even accepting Barr's move down south to line out in the sky-blue of Dublin, there's little chance of the two bulwarks of the game meeting up for an on-field tete-a-tete in the near future. "Hurling provides you with the greatest thrill of all but I don't believe you can play both games and I don't know how the likes of Teddy McCarthy does it. I've great admiration and respect for him but I couldn't manage to play both games at Senior county level".
Time will tell whether the likes of Henry and Seamus Downey. (back on Eamon Coleman's panel after ankle trouble) John McGurk, Kieran McKeever, Brian McGilligan, Tony Scullion will-figure together on a Derry Senior hurling team again, but for the immediate time a least football rules the roost in Henry Downey's scheme of things. A double Derry Minor football medallist in seasons '83/84 and '84/'85 with home club Lavey, the self-acknowledged late developer went on to join forces with other rising stars such as Danny Quinn, Enda Gormley, Colm McGurk plus brother Seamus and Damien McCusker at Saint Pat's College, Maghera to win a brace of McRory Cup medals. There might have been even greater rewards gleaned by the College centre half back too. In 1984 the Derry boys looked at least, assured of a draw in the Hogan Cup final against Saint Jarlath of Tuam only for Mayo's Mark Butler to pop up with the last kick of the game to steal for his side a 0-10 to 2-3 victory at Croke Park.
A Senior Derry debutant against Down in a 1990 McKenna Cup tie, Henry has overcome the misfortune of breaking his left leg six seasons ago and has recovered ground from taking a one year sabbatical from football the following year (to study in London) to become one of the most polished performers in the game and one whose name is already on the All-Stars short-list. Derry's scoop on July 18th last represented another milestone in Henry Downey's career. It's also his best catch and that's saying something when one considers his innings to date. Like the time he excelled in Lavey's All-Ireland Club success in 1991, tumbling Salthill in the decider. Or the time he captained the club Seniors in 1988 to the Derry Championship title, for the first time in eleven years. With at least seven good years left in the tank, one can only surmise as to the list of credits that he'll boast come the start of the next millennium. A couple of All-Irelands, a sprinkling of Railway Cup medals and a handful of All-Stars . Watch this space folks.
Hogan Stand Magazine
30 / 07 / 93
Most Read Stories