Inpho Benny Coulter, Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke.
# only way is up
'There's a lot of boys waiting in the dark for you to fail'
Former star forwards Conor Laverty, Marty Clarke and Benny Coulter have been tasked with reviving Down football.

THREE MEN LOOKING to revive Down football’s fortunes were key pillars of the county’s attack when they reached the All-Ireland final in 2010. 

Conor Laverty has assumed the role of senior boss, joined by coach Marty Clarke, while Benny Coulter is the new minor manager. 

Laverty’s coaching ambitions have been clear for some time. He works as football development officer in Trinity College, coached Monaghan footballers under Seamus ‘Banty’ McEneaney in 2020 and guided the Down U20s to an Ulster title in 2021. 

An All-Ireland winner with Kilcoo in February, it’s hoped that Laverty’s appointment could entice some of his club mates to commit to the county set-up.

Only two Kilcoo players, Niall Kane and Ryan McEvoy, featured for Down in the Ulster championship. Eugene Branagan’s comments when he stated he had “no ambition to play for Down” and that the squad lacked a “winning mentality” did little to ease apparent tensions between Kilcoo and other clubs in the county. 

There were discipline issues during the 2022 campaign under James McCartan while the departures of five players decimated the squad prior to the Tailteann Cup.

Down will begin 2023 in Division 3, having fallen a long way off the heights of 2010. 

The task facing Laverty is a huge one. 

“There’s a lot of voices out there, there’s a lot of boys waiting in the dark for you to fail,” Steven Poacher tells The42.

“It’s a tough environment. And for some reason that I thought no way, and I can’t put a finger on it – maybe it’s the same in every county I don’t know – but in Down there seems to be an awful dark cloud over everything.

“No one really likes to see anyone doing well, it’s hard to put your finger on it,” adds the former Carlow and Roscommon coach, who was part of the Down minor set-up in 2020. 

Will Laverty’s appointment see more Kilcoo stars take the opportunity to represent their county?

“There’s an enormous amount of talent out there in Down. Not just within Kilcoo. Obviously having a the best players from the best clubs is going to help the county and hopefully that will be the case this year.

“He’ll pick the best players to suit the system he wants to play. That’s the reality. I’m sure it probably will make things a lot easier for for lads to commit from the club.”

kilcoo-celebrate-with-the-cup-as-all-ireland-senior-club-champions Ryan Byrne / INPHO Kilcoo's All-Ireland winning team. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Poacher feels the appointment of Laverty must be part of a long-term strategy to develop football within the county.

For instance bringing a player athletic performance coach on board would be a step in the right direction. And he says the high rate of turnover in players needs to stop.

“We are at the present time probably in a little bit in transition. We just need a group of players that are willing to commit to it in for a good five, six years. Because we’ve used 90 players in the last four or five years. Like, 90 players!

“That’s a lot of footballers. There’s no real continuity there, there’s no real, togetherness. How can you create togetherness in a group when you’ve used 90 players?

“It’s time for everyone in Down to put their personalities, grievances and club rivalries to one side and pull together for the greater cause. Because that’s what it’s going to take.

“Division 3 is a tough division. Hopefully we can get a bit of momentum going and get people back really supporting and enjoying days again.”

For Laverty, stepping up to his first inter-county management job will bring its own pressures.

“Obviously Conor’s biggest challenge probably is going to be managing an inter-county team (for the first time),” says Poacher. “It’s a massive step.

“I’ve been involved myself over the last five or six years I can remember speaking to Anthony Cunningham last year in Roscommon where he talked about how you’re nearly managing your backroom team just as much as you’re managing the playing squad.

“Conor’s strengths obviously lie in coaching so he’ll want to take a very hands on approach in the coaching. Management is a huge jump and it’s a massive, massive challenge for him. It is a different world out there in inter-county level.

“The fact he’s never had experience of managing at inter-county level is obviously something that’s going to pose a huge challenge for him. But look, he’s got good people around him.”

One such man is Marty Clarke, who is on board with Down as coach. The former AFL star currently assists Poacher in the Mayobridge management team.

“I think what Marty has understood when he got involved in coaching three or four years ago, he probably realised that things came to him so easy as a player, it just does not come as easy to the coach,” says Poacher.  

“So he’s had to work very, very hard at his coaching. Over the last few years, he’s put an enormous amount of hours in and time into his coaching. He’s really, really progressed as a coach from when he started three or four years ago. It’s not an easy job.”

And the appointment of Benny Coulter over the U17 side is another progressive move. The 2010 All-Star is also involved with Poacher’s school team in St Joseph’s Newry, having served his time with the Down development squads in recent years. 

“Benny has out an enormous amount of time into the development squads. He really deserves the minor manager job. He has done an awful lot of work at ground level that people wouldn’t see.

“He’s a huge Down man and has put a lot of time and his energy into Down over the past and has played for Down for him for a long period of time. 

“He’s obviously a legend in the county as well and a real real nice guy. I just know from speaking to the lads here in school that have played under him in the development squads and stuff they speak very highly of him. How organised he is and how switched on he is.

“There is a serious talent pool in Down at underage level. I see it through the schools football. There is a really, really strong cohort of young lads coming through. Benny has been with this group for two or three years.

“I know from speaking him he speaks very highly of this group and he really enjoys working with them. So it’s going to be  interesting times ahead. So hopefully we can really push on now and see some longevity in our county.” 

As part of his bid to educate coaches in the county, Poacher is organising a coaching clinic to help raise funds for St Joseph’s Newry, where Bernard Jackman, Enda McGinley and Niall Morgan will be hosting workshops.

“Hunger for coach education, in the north in particular, has always been very strong, but we now see a huge volume of coaches coming from from southern counties,” he says.

“Last year we had 28 of the 32 counties represented which was absolutely phenomenal.

“The thirst and hunger for knowledge is definitely out there. It’s just a matter of people willing to share those experiences.”

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