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The Ulster GAA Championship comes alive this Sunday when Down welcome Donegal to Pairc Esler.

Paddy Tally’s side goes into the game as massive underdogs as Donegal are favourites to lift the Anglo Celtic Cup and Michael Murphy’s reported return to fitness hasn’t dampened their ambition but that won’t matter once the ball is throw-in at 1pm.

The Down manager is confident in the side he has put together but he is aware it will take every player to be at the top of their game if they are to pull of a victory and he isn’t too concerned on how the bookies rate his chances.

Down Manager Paddy Tally. Photograph: Brendan Monaghan
Down Manager Paddy Tally. Photograph: Brendan Monaghan

“I’m not really a big believer in underdog or favourites tags. That’s someone’s opinion out there,” he said.

“We have to focus on our own performance and what we can do well and if that is good enough for us on the day then it will take us through. But really that is the key, we have to play well against Donegal, and it will take nothing less than a top-level performance to be able to compete.”

Down have already had a successful season, the win over Laois secured Division Two football and already it looks like a tough but exciting national league campaign next year.

“We knew the importance of the league; it was vitally important that Down maintained their status in Division Two and when you look at the teams that are going to be in next year it is a fantastic year,” Tally said.

Galway, Derry, Meath and Roscommon are some of next years opponents, no easy tasks but the type of games that Down can challenge and target results. It also breeds confidence ahead of Sunday’s big game and the Down manager feels his side are ready.

“You take the top or three teams in Ireland out of Division One there is nothing between the next five teams of Division One and the whole of Division Two,” he said.

“It is great to look forward to it but there is something special about the Ulster championship and the fact that we have a home game against Donegal who are one of the top teams in the country. “They have been pushing for an All-Ireland over the last number of years, so it is just mighty for these players.”

Down’s goalkeeper Rory Burns has been outstanding, with several magnificent saves against Laois and Westmeath. Donegal keeper Shaun Patton is an expert at kick-outs but if Down can disrupt him finding his target, they’ll have a great chance of springing a surprise. Ryan McHugh, Odrhan McNeilis, Ciaran Thompson, Patrick McBrearty and Michael Langan are all players that will need watching and stopped if possible.

Down have had to play this season without several key men, due to injury and commitment issues, such as Connaire Harrison, Pat Havern, Donal O’Hare and the Johnston brothers Jerome, Ryan and Sheelan, while their Kilcoo club-mate Dylan Ward didn’t return after getting taster last season.

They are all big game players and match winners, but Tally has put his faith in other players to step up and in many regards’ players such as Mayobridge’s Cory Quinn and Clonduff’s Barry O’Hagan have led Down’s attack, while their other star players such as Caolan Mooney, Gerard McGovern, captain Darren O’Hagan, Daniel Guinness, Burren’s Peter Fegan and Warrenpoint’s Paddy Murdock have all lifted their game.

And the Down manager has been happy with the response from his players and insists that competition for places is up for grabs ahead of Sunday’s game against Donegal.

“You have to accept that there’ll be changes on a yearly basis, Tally said.

“But if you look at this squad most have been in it for three years and we brought them in as development players from the U20s and they have established themselves as county footballers. “And that is part of the programme we are engaged with – to build a new squad. That is really positive, and this is a blank canvass for championship and whoever is playing well during training will be rewarded by being given game time.

“There will be places up for grabs until our last session, but if a player is in good shape physically, playing good form and tactically knows the gameplan and is a position to do what we need them to do then they are in a perquisite to put themselves forward. “

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