Down somehow conjure an escape to victory
Down 1-14 Monaghan 1-13:THAT HEALTH warning which often comes with Ulster football needs urgent revision.
For years they said it could leave a bad taste in the mouth; suddenly it’s bad for the heart.
Not for the first time this summer the potentially dour turned utterly pulsating – and if shot nerves was the order in the end then at least it was unanimous.
How Down came back from nine points in arrears just before half-time to steal the victory seems beyond explanation, and especially to Monaghan.
It’s not just that Monaghan appeared out of sight at one stage but they also had one glorious chance to salvage a draw, only for Dick Clerkin to curl his shot narrowly wide.
How Monaghan even found themselves chasing a draw seems beyond reason. Down manager James McCartan had the gall to admit afterwards that he’d booked a taxi at half-time, ready to make a quick exit, such was his apparent certainly that Monaghan were the only team who could possibly win.
Instead Down are looking forward to a first Ulster final in nine years, the chance to win a first title since 1994, while for Monaghan it must feel like their entire summer has come crashing down.
Whatever about getting a second chance in the qualifiers they’ll hardly get themselves into a better winning position than they did here.
Like all hectic finishes it’s the final scores that matter most, and Down brilliantly claimed those – hitting four points without reply in the last five minutes, each one struck with an air of destiny.
First up was Benny Coulter, only on the field a matter of seconds, when he’d no right to be – his injured ankle still several weeks short of recovery. Instead, he split the posts with stunning accuracy to bring Down back to within two – 1-11 to 1-13 – with four minutes to play.
Next up was Liam Doyle, the veteran of the team, also a late addition to the match-day panel – and in the absence of the just substituted Donal O’Hare he slotted over a free with the sort of accuracy that seemed to impress even himself.
Then, on exactly 70 minutes, Aidan Carr levelled it with a sweetly-struck free of his own – and followed that with the amazing pass to wing back Darren O’Hagan, who held his nerve while those around him saw theirs frayed to fist over what turned out to be the sensational winner.
It would be churlish to blame Clerkin for miscuing his potential equaliser at the death – although he did have lots of time and space – because Monaghan’s downfall has to be shouldered by all.
There is no denying the fatally protective tactic with which they approached the second half, when even a little more boldness and self-belief would surely have seen them safely home.
There was apparent recuperation too when Tommy Freeman, living up to the spirit of big substitutions on the day, fired in a magnificent goal on 57 minutes, and with that restored Monaghan’s lead to four points.
On other days that might have been enough, although given they’d only scored one other point in that second half by then, after 21 minutes, it was actually too little too late to halt Down’s considerable momentum.
Monaghan also hit nine wides in the first half alone, not that they could have ever have guessed that tally would come back to haunt them. What they will be replaying in their sleep all week was that first-half onslaught that had Down on their knees, outplayed and out-classed throughout the field.