League consolation for The Downs

February 28, 2007
A shock defeat to neighbours Killucan in their championship opener set the tone for a disappointing year for 2005 Flanagan Cup winners The Downs, who ended up needing to beat St. Mary's to retain their senior status. However, their successful retention of the senior league title bodes well for the coming year according to star forward James Conroy. Retaining the Flanagan Cup isn't an easy task and no team knows this better than The Downs whose reign as senior football kingpins was ended at a surprisingly early stage last season. Bidding to win their third senior championship in four years, The Downs never fully recovered from a shock first round defeat to 2005 intermediate champions Killucan and ended up needing to beat St. Mary's, Rochfortbridge to remain in the top flight. However, the year ended on a high when, at the third time of asking, The Downs defeated Castledaly to put league titles back-to-back. The club also maintained its recent impressive record at underage level by capturing the under 14 Division 3 championship crown. "It was a strange year in that we struggled in the championship but were consistent in the league," reflects The Downs sharpshooter James Conroy. "Obviously, our championship form was very disappointing. A bit like after we won our first championship in 2003, we found it difficult to motivate ourselves. We had no injuries, but for whatever reason, we didn't have the same momentum as we had in 2005. By losing our first game to Killucan, we were put on the back-foot straight away and we never really recovered from that." Conroy, who was part of Westmeath's Leinster championship winning squad in 2004, rubbishes suggestions that The Downs took Killucan for granted in the battle of the senior and intermediate champions. "We didn't underestimate them - they were just too good for us on the day. Killucan brought a level of intensity to their game that we failed to match. They proved afterwards that their victory over us wasn't a flash in the pan by beating the likes of Mullingar Shamrocks and Castledaly and reaching the championship semi-final which they were unlucky to lose to Tyrrellspass." When Killucan captain Barry Nea memorably threw down the gauntlet to The Downs in his victory speech after his side's 2005 intermediate final replay victory over Ballynacargy, few could have predicted that the neighbouring clubs would have been drawn to meet in the first round of last year's senior championship. But fate duly delivered and the stage was set for one of the most eagerly anticipated first round clashes of recent years. The Downs fielded the exact same line-up as that which overcame Garrycastle in the 2005 senior final, and the signs looked good for Ray Smyth's charges when they led by 1-3 to 0-2 after Luke Folan goaled in the 21st minute. Paul Greville replied with a point for Killucan, but a similar effort from Stephen Devine gave The Downs a 1-4 to 0-3 advantage at the break. Killucan were back on level terms within five minutes of the restart when a James Nugent goal was followed by a point from Greville. Luke Folan and James Conroy hit back with good scores for the black and ambers, but Killucan showed their mettle again and points from John Shaw and Brian Smyth (two) had them in front with four minutes remaining. Tommy Cleary looked to have salvaged a draw for The Downs when he converted a 58th minute free, but Killucan weren't finished and claimed a famous 2-8 to 1-8 victory when Paul Greville fisted Rory Reilly's high centre to the net in injury-time. The defeat consigned The Downs to the losers' group where they first faced the challenge of Tubberclair. Without playing particularly well, The Downs emerged as 1-7 to 1-5 winners over wasteful opposition. The sides were level on 0-3 apiece at half-time, but The Downs took control after the restart and Luke Folan's goal enabled them to open up a five-point lead. Tubberclair got themselves back into contention when Francis Spollen booted the ball to the net following a goalmouth scramble, but The Downs held on for the win. A place in the quarter-final was the prize at stake when The Downs squared up to St. Malachy's in their next outing at Cusack Park. After establishing an early 0-3 to 0-1 lead, The Downs were rocked back on their heels when Sean Whelan scored the only goal in the eighth minute. However, the champions quickly restored their lead through points from Tommy Cleary and Keith Shanley. But with Paddy Corcoran winning the midfield battle, St. Malachy's scored four unanswered points between the 22nd and 28th minutes to take command. County star Alan Mangan was involved in all four points, scoring two and setting up Shane Carey and Sean Whelan for the others. At half-time, Malachy's led by 1-5 to 0-7. On the resumption, the black and reds went three points clear thanks to points from Mangan, Carey and Joe Clarke. The margin was still the same with 12 minutes remaining, but The Downs then reduced the deficit to the minimum before Carey restored Malachy's two-point advantage. It proved to be a crucial score as Tommy Cleary's reply was not enough to save The Downs, who by losing 0-12 to 1-10, surrendered their county title. The Downs' senior status was now under threat, but with Luke Dempsey acting as caretaker manager, they doled out a 23-point hammering to St. Mary's in a woefully one-sided relegation semi-final at Castletown-Geoghegan to leave no-one in any doubt as to what level they should be competing at. The writing was on the wall for St. Mary's from as early as the third minute when James Conroy fired past Declan Hogan for The Downs' first goal. The black and ambers had eased into a 2-6 to 0-0 lead before Alan Gavin eventually got the 'Bridge off the mark in the 16th minute. But there was no respite for Rochfortbridge, who were completely over-run by their vastly superior opponents in the second half. Conroy, who first played under Luke Dempsey during his school days in St. Joseph's, Rochfortbridge, believes the arrival of the Longford manager in The Downs came too late to turn their season around. "Ray (Smyth) stepped down shortly after we beat Tubberclair and it was another four weeks before Luke replaced him. Looking back now, it was a pity that Luke didn't take over sooner because he certainly reinvigorated things in the time he was in charge. If he had come to us a few weeks earlier, we could have made the quarter-final and who knows what would have happened after that," the final year Engineering student at UCD says. Despite suffering defeats along the way to St. Loman's and Coralstown/Kinnegad, The Downs qualified for the senior league final where they beat Castledaly after a second replay. In the first game of the trilogy, Barry Conroy rescued Luke Dempsey's charges with a last-gasp equalizing free (0-11 to 1-8). Not even a period of extra-time could separate the teams when they met in the replay with The Downs scoring 2-6 to Castledaly's 1-9. James Conroy's point looked to have given The Downs victory until MJ McLoughlin pointed to leave the sides level for the fourth and final time in a game which saw four players issued with red cards. The Downs finally prevailed at the third attempt, and after almost two and a half hours of football, when winning the second replay by 0-8 to 0-6. Playing on their home patch, The Downs looked unimpressive in attack until the introduction of Stephen Devine gave them a whole new dimension. Devine's trickery set them up for a 0-5 to 0-2 interval lead, and they managed to keep their noses in front for the rest of the game. The Downs under 14 team brought future glory to the club when they recorded a thrilling extra-time victory over St. Michael's to land the Division 3 football championship title on October 1 at Springfield. The final provided much drama with a flurry of scores arriving in the final quarter, the most significant of which was a late, late goal from St. Michael's Glen Flynn which sent the game to extra-time. While the scores dried up in the additional period, the excitement certainly didn't and it took a scrambled goal from Brian Masterson to eventually seal a 5-9 to 5-7 victory for the black and ambers. Unsurprisingly, Conroy - whose father Seamus was one of Westmeath top players in the 1970s and 1980s - is anxious to see an improvement in The Downs' championship form this year. "Winning the league was great, but it didn't compensate for losing our county title. Our objective for the coming year is to try to regain the form of 2003 and 2005, and win another championship. And with young players like Stephen Devine, Greg Crowley and Luke Folan improving all the time, I'm confident that we will give a good account of ourselves," he concludes. The Downs team that retained their senior football league title was: Ciaran McCormack; Niall Nolan, Seamus O'Leary, David O'Reilly; Conor Carley, Darren Devine, Mark Dalton; Barry Conroy, Greg Crowley; Jack Hogan, Luke Folan, Paul Shanley; Tommy Cleary, James Conroy, Joe Corroon. Subs used: Stephen Cleary and Stephen Devine. The under 14 Division 3 championship winning side was: Kevin McGuire; Conor Thompson, Adam Corcoran, John Egan; Sean Judge, Padraig Murray, Dean Egerton; Niall O'Doherty, Dean Clarke; Kevin Smullen, Brian Masterson, Cathal Scally; Cian Carty, Niall Folan, Shane Carroll. Subs used: Brendan Flynn, Niall Murray, Darren Flynn and Dean Egerton.

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