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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# Against the odds
'We can cause an upset' - A first Leinster final in 50 years against Dublin giants
Niall Mitchell says The Downs are ready to take on one of the best teams in club football.

FOR THE DOWNS, it’s important for the players that there’s very little talk locally of 1972 – the last year that the Westmeath club reached a Leinster final.

aib-gaa-club-leinster-hurling-and-football-provincial-finals Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE Niall Mitchell of The Downs. Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

Centre-forward Niall Mitchell notes that there is often a tendency to put too much emphasis on the past when discussing The Downs within the county, but that hasn’t been the case recently.

Their supporters are doing their bit to help create such an environment, giving the team their space and “keeping us grounded”. Crowds have been quiet at their training sessions and there’s minimal fuss around the group ahead of their biggest day out in 50 years. 

Kilmacud Crokes are a seasoned outfit on the senior club football scene. They’re back-to-back champions in Dublin, 2021 All-Ireland finalists, and possess one of the best forwards in the game — Shane Walsh.

The Downs, who won their first county title since 2005 this year, don’t share those credentials. Mitchell appreciates what lies on the other side of the white lines, but he’s equally aware of the power that’s in his own squad.

“I think they’re hot favourites and deservedly so,” says Mitchell of their opponents Kilmacud Crokes.

“They have super players, match-winners all over the field. Inter-county players. They’re probably that bit ahead of us regards age. Their average is probably 26/27 so they’re that bit ahead of us in terms of their age profile being in their prime. Of course they’re going to be favourites, but we’re confident too.

“I would like to think we didn’t really perform fully to our capabilities against Ratoath [in the semi-final]. We played well in patches, 10 and 15 minutes here and there. I think if we can get an all-round performance we can cause an upset.”

For the majority of the GAA season, hurling is Mitchell’s first sport. He has always played football coming up through the ranks, but at around the minor grade, he opted to put the small ball first with his club Clonkill and the Westmeath hurlers.

“We had some successful years with the underage with Westmeath and we had some great results at minor and U21,” says Mitchell taking up the story.

“In Westmeath, there’s not a huge amount of hurlers coming through. There might be one or two from minor or U21 called in. There was a group of us who were called into the senior team and from there on in, I concentrated on hurling.

“We were improving and Michael Ryan came on board that year that I came onto the panel and added a huge amount to it. Ever since then, I’ve been solely committed to hurling.”

As a result of his hectic schedule, Mitchell’s time with The Downs is quite short each year, sometimes for no more than “two or three months”. His circumstances changed slightly this season as Clonkill were knocked out of the hurling championship early this year, freeing him up for his football associates.

“It’s a different game strength and conditioning-wise as well,” he says. “We’ve been lucky this year, I suppose we had a big gap. 

“We were able to go with football and brush up on skills a bit more while previously, it would have been a week or two and you’re into championship.

“You’d barely remember the rules of football!”

kilmacud-crokes-celebrate-with-the-cup-after-the-game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The dual player existence is almost unmanageable at inter-county level, but Mitchell would still like to play football for Westmeath in the future. He’s even received some communication from recently-appointed manager Dessie Dolan about a possible switch in codes, but Mitchell has no immediate plans to make a change.

“We had a chat but it was brief enough. I had kind of made my decision before he texted me.

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“I want to play the best teams in whatever sport it is. If we weren’t in the Leinster championship, Division 1, maybe my decision might change then.

“But it would be silly to leave the hurling at a really important time for them. A time where we can progress.

“I sound like Roy Keane the way I go on but loyalty is a big thing for me.

“I think now, at 25, to transition over to football and leave the hurling wouldn’t be good for my own career and definitely not good for the team.

“I’d love to play for Westmeath footballers for a year or two down the line, just not at the minute.”

Niall Mitchell was speaking ahead of the 2022 AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship Final on Sunday, 4 December at Croke Park. The AIB GAA All-Ireland Club Championships features some of #TheToughest players from communities all across Ireland. 

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