By Damian Dolan
All-Star nominee Connaire Harrison is in no rush to make a decision on his Down future, but will have no hesitation in togging out for the Exiles should he not get the assurances he’s looking for from the Mourne men.
Possibly the football signing of the summer, Harrison made his intermediate championship debut for Neasden Gaels in mid-week and scored the only goal of the game in their 1-12 to 0-13 round one win over Thomas McCurtains at McGovern Park, Ruislip.
Harrison finished with a personal tally of 1-1 – the goal coming via a coolly converted first half penalty.
And with Neasden trailing, he levelled the scores with five minutes to go before then carving out the opportunities for fellow Down-native Conor Doran to score the match winning points.
Following Eamonn Burns’ decision to step down as Down boss following their championship exit to Cavan – the man who brought Harrison back into the Down fold and under whom he made headlines in 2017 in Down’s run to the Ulster final – Harrison will wait to learn the name of Burns’ successor before seeking “a chat”.
The direction of Down football will be uppermost in his mind, but so too will be the hope of being granted some “leeway”.
Unlikely to be able to commit to the Down cause this side of Christmas, Harrison is then due to jet off on honeymoon in January after tying the knot with partner Jaclyn Trainor on New Year’s Eve.
If his request to join up with the panel at a later date falls on unsympathetic ears in Down, he can probably expect a call from London’s manager.
At this time, Harrison’s not ruling anything in, or out for that matter. Things are definitely “up in the air”.
“London’s on the up and if I’m still here I’ll definitely be considering it,” Harrison told the Irish World.
“If it doesn’t work out that I can’t get that week or two away, and they’re not happy with that, then the option is obviously open to come to London.
“I knew the way London was progressing, I’d been keeping a close eye on it. I knew Owen Mulligan was here and I knew he was making big headlines.”
Living and working in Luton, he was contacted by Neasden Gaels’ Frank Kane as soon as he got wind of Harrison’s intention to move to the capital.
Neasden’s Down connection is strong. Indeed, Harrison has several friends playing at the club, including brothers Conor and Stephen Doran, who come from Longstone, where Harrison is from, although he plays for Glasdrumman. A few miles in the other direction is Ballymartin, the home of Ciaran O’Hare.
Frank “obviously knew I was coming” says Harrison wryly.
Having cleared it with Glasdrumman’s chairperson and manager, who were “happy enough”, he arrived in London on 9 July.
Kane had him togging out in two Division 2 league games before making his championship debut against McCurtains.
“It was a good move for me. I was going to be over here anyway, so I said I’d be willing to give it a go,” he said.
“I didn’t like having to walk out on my club, but the work opportunities weren’t coming and I’m getting married. It was too good to turn down.”
By his own admission, he “coped on early” that not every decision is going to go his way in London.
With regards to football, he’s now looking no further than seeing out the season with Neasden, and perhaps helping them to make an immediate return to senior ranks.
Beyond that will depend on whether he’s “going to play any county football at home next year”.
Harrison concedes 2018 was a “tough year” for Down football. Rather than building on the success of the previous year, when Harrison inspired them to an Ulster final, relegation to NFL Division 3 was compounded by Ulster semi-final defeat to Donegal.
That was followed by a Round 2 qualifier exit at the hands of Cavan, in which Harrison’s involvement was ended by a 30th minute black card.
“We lost too many good players out of the panel from the previous year and it was hard to replace them,” he said.
“It was probably inevitable that we weren’t going to feature further in the championship. You can’t have four or five of your top players leaving the panel – I don’t think too many counties would cope with it.
“You just have to take it on the chin. 2017 was a good year, 2018 wasn’t.”
In 2017, Harrison racked up three first half scores in a starring performance as Down stunned Monaghan in the sides’ Ulster semi-final.
His display saw him voted GAA.ie Footballer of the Week and although Tyrone ended Down hopes of a first Ulster title since 1994, Harrison was still nominated for an All Star.
It’s a county aching for more such days. But for Harrison, a change in manager alone won’t necessarily bring the upturn in fortunes the county’s fans want. There are underlying issues unresponsive to a quick fix.
“I think it’s time Down football got itself sorted out and players started committing to the county scene,” he said.
“There are too many good players in Down football for the Down team to be the way it is at the minute.
“It’s a proud county; it’s a county that shouldn’t be in Division 3 and should be competing for Ulster titles every year.
“But if they’re not willing to commit you can’t really do much about it, no matter who’s managing the team.
“It’s time boys starting committing and Down football started to go on the up again.”