Murray stabilises The Downs
30 April 2010
After barely avoiding relegation last year, The Downs are hoping to do a lot better in 2010 according to their manager Johnny Murray.
2009 won't hold many fond memories for The Downs who came perilously close to dropping out of the senior championship for the first time since 1964.
The spectre of relegation had hung over the black and ambers until their very last match against Bunbrosna which yielded a one-point win and preserved their top-flight status. Much of The Downs' problems stemmed from the fact that they had no fewer than four different managers during last year's championship.
Former Longford player Gerry Lynn stood down after the first round defeat to Coralstown/Kinnegad. Tommy Kelly took charge for the second round loss to St. Loman's and Carlow manager Luke Dempsey was at the helm for the defeat to St. Malachy's in round three. Finally, local man Johnny Murray became The Downs' fourth manager in a matter of months ahead of the fourth round clash with Athlone and duly delivered a first championship win in 2009.
However, a fourth defeat at the hands of Tyrrellspass condemned The Downs to a relegation playoff with Bunbrosna. In a typically tense affair, the black and ambers did just enough to retain their senior status on a 2-6 to 1-8 scoreline.
"We just about survived," reflects Murray, who has since been appointed manager on a permanent basis.
"Our big problem last year was our lack of stability. We went through four different managers during the course of one championship campaign and that must be a record for any club in Westmeath. Thankfully, we stayed in the senior championship and that's the main thing.
"The last time we were in relegation trouble, we came back stronger from it and won championships in 2003 and 2005. Hopefully history can repeat itself. The players realise just how close they came to dropping down to intermediate. They dug deep and got out of trouble. But they got a big scare and I'm sure they won't want to end up in that situation again this year. We're capable of playing an awful lot better."
The tone for the year was set when The Downs lost their opening group game to archrivals Coralstown/Kinnegad by 1-8 to 2-12. The writing was on the wall at half-time when they trailed by 0-3 to 2-5 and they fell further behind on the restart when Alan Giles, Niall Kilmartin, Enda Leonard and Wayne Fox all added points for Coralstown/Kinnegad.
Colm Coyle's charges had stretched their lead to 2-12 to 0-5 before a late The Downs rally yielded an unanswered 1-3, with the goal coming from Keith Shanley with the last kick of the game.
There was no improvement for The Downs against St. Loman's in their second outing. If anything, it got worse as the game was already over at half-time with St. Loman's perched on a 3-6 to 0-1 lead. The Downs did, however, salvage some pride in the second half when they outscored their Mullingar opponents by 2-7 to 0-6 with Barry Conroy and Luke Folan scoring their goals. However, there was no doubting the superiority of St. Loman's, who triumphed by 3-12 to 2-8.
Relegation became a serious issue for The Downs when they crashed to their third defeat against St. Malachy's at Cusack Park. The black and ambers got off to an ideal start when Luke Folan fired home a fifth minute penalty, but St. Malachy's battled back to lead by 0-6 to 1-2 at the interval.
The Downs were the better team in the third quarter and after Declan Lynam had brought them level, county star John Smyth and Barry Conroy added points to leave them three clear with 10 minutes remaining. But St. Malachy's levelled with a goal from the youthful Darren Ruane before Alan Mangan sent over the lead point from a free in injury-time.
There was still time for The Downs to salvage something from the game, but after a 30-metre free controversially wasn't awarded to James Conroy, referee Damien Maher sounded his final whistle with St. Malachy's ahead by 1-7 to 1-6.
Johnny Murray's first game in charge saw The Downs record a long-awaited first victory at the expense of Athlone. Showing the greater urgency and hunger, the black and ambers had impressive performers in Jack Hogan, Mark Dalton, John Smyth and Luke Folan.
Smyth's goal on the stroke of half-time gave The Downs a 1-5 to 0-4 interval lead and they led by double scores when Folan pointed within 50 seconds of the restart. The winners continued to lead until Joe Fallon netted a 50th minute penalty to bring Athlone level. When Dermot McManus followed up with the lead point for the Shannonsiders, The Downs were starring at their fourth straight defeat, but they dug deep and eked out a 1-11 to 1-9 win thanks to late points from substitute Shane Power, Barry Conroy and Declan Lynam.
The Downs turned in another encouraging performance in their final group outing against Tyrrellspass, but were denied a second victory by virtue of substitute Brian Slevin's late goal, which gave the 'Tidy Town' a 2-11 to 2-8 win. The sides were level on 1-5 apiece at half-time, but a Declan Lynam goal early in the second half looked to have turned the tide in The Downs's favour. However, Tyrrellspass fought back to restore parity before Slevin got in behind The Downs' defence and scored the winning goal with four minutes remaining.
That defeat left The Downs facing a relegation battle with Bunbrosna at Shandonagh. Johnny Murray's charges looked to be well in control when first half goals from Luke Folan (penalty) and substitute Keith Shanley gave them a 2-3 to 0-4 lead at the break. But Bunbrosna came storming back in the second half and had cut the gap to the minimum with time almost up.
In a grandstand finish, Bunbrosna had two chances to at least earn a replay, but failed to take either. In the second minute of injury-time, The Downs goalkeeper Ciaran McCormack produced a brilliant save to deny Fintan Finnan a certain goal and Aidan Finnan also missed a '45' to level it.
Drawn in the same group as Garrycastle, Tyrrellspass, Castledaly, St. Malachy's and Mullingar Shamrocks this year, The Downs won't get anything easy but Murray and his selectors Tommy Cleary (who will continue his playing career) and Noel Cleary (Tommy's uncle) are confident they will at least be able to hold their own.
"It's a very tough group, but an improvement on last year is a must for us," says Murray, who was also a Westmeath under 21 selector this year.
"Our main objective is to be competitive and to blood some of the younger players we have coming through. We won an under 21 championship two years ago and it's time to give players from that team a crack at senior football.
"As well, we'll have both Tommy Cleary and Shane Deering back, which is a big plus. Tommy is back after undergoing back and ankle surgery, while Shane is also chomping at the bit after a long break. Jimmy Conroy is working in Germany at the moment, but we hope to make arrangements to have him for championship games. These lads' footballing ability and experience is vital to the team."
The Downs' second team reached the senior 'B' final once again in 2009, only to lose to Tyrrellspass - the team they had beaten the previous year. Under the chairmanship of Dave Monaghan, the club's underage section enjoyed a productive year with the under 14s reaching the Feile na nOg semi-final. In the third-place Feile Shield final at Cusack Park, they lost to Mullingar Shamrocks.
Last year also saw the successful completion of a new 450-seater stand at the club's impressive grounds. There are four dressing rooms underneath the stand as well as a referee's room, storage area and public toilets.
The cost of this latest development is being funded by a 500 members draw. Despite the recession, the club last year sold its full allocation of tickets, which cost EUR240 each, and further draws will take place in March, June, September and December of this year, with prizes in excess of EUR30,000.
Finally, The Downs mourned the death of one of its greatest clubmen, Christy Whelehan, in June. Aged 85, Christy gave a lifetime of unstinting service to both The Downs and Westmeath, and was held in high regard throughout the Association.
A sincere and humble man, Christy's first involvement with the GAA was as a member of the Westmeath minor football team in 1941. He helped The Downs to win junior and intermediate football championships in 1949 and '50 before a broken leg ended his playing career in 1952.
Whelehan was just 16 when he became assistant secretary of The Downs in 1940. It was his first step into a lifetime of club and county administration. He had two stints as club secretary, the first in 1944 and '45. The second term extended over an incredible 38 years, between 1951 and '89, during which time The Downs won three senior championships in-a-row between 1968 and '70 when they were inspired by the famous Mick Carley/Dom Murtagh midfield partnership.
Further senior titles were secured in 1972, '74 and '80 at the expense of Athlone (twice) and Kilbeggan respectively.
Christy first became involved at county board level in 1953 when he was elected secretary of the mid-division of the minor board. He was also heavily involved in Cumann na mBunscol and served as county minor secretary when Westmeath contested their first All-Ireland minor final in 1963. Indeed, he was also a selector with that team. He later served as a Westmeath senior football selector.
During his eight-year tenure as county minor secretary, Christy drafted the first set of bye-laws that govern the board in 1961. The bye-laws were passed at county board convention and still operate at minor board level in the county to this day.
He also wrote the county board's bye-laws in conjunction with Paddy Flanagan and Paddy Collins.
The Downs team which defeated Bunbrosna to retain their senior status was: Ciaran McCormack; Niall Nolan, Jack Hogan, Stephen Cleary; Greg Crowley, Mark Dalton, Sean Loughlin; John Smyth, Brendan Murtagh; Noel Molloy, Luke Folan, Barry Conroy; Declan Lynam, James Conroy, Shane Power. Subs used: Keith Shanley, David Reilly, David Smyth and Seanie O'Leary.