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.
From Darren Hughes and Dessie Mone to Paul Finlay and Conor McManus, Monaghan were lording possession and passing it around for fun, McManus in particular either walking into space or skinning his marker at his ease.
They were six points up after 20 minutes, 0-7 to 0-1, and not surprisingly McCartan then hit the panic button – his brother Dan called ashore on 21 minutes in the first attempt to tighten up his defence.
Down did create a couple of goal chances, with Ambrose Rogers forcing the best of the saves from Mark Keogh, but in the meantime Monaghan’s attacking force merely strengthened – and when Clerkin got in on the act in the 35th minute they were nine points up, 0-11 to 0-2.
Then, out of nowhere, some of Down’s prayers were answered after the energetic Conor Laverty – in a sign of the second-half revival that was to come – finally ran at goal, and after a neat one-two with Kalum King, was dragged down by Vincent Corey.
Carr slotted home the resulting penalty to maybe, just maybe, give Down a lilfeline and something to play for in the second half.
Still, Down had a mountain to climb, and so it proved: hitting five wides in the first 10 minutes of the second half didn’t help, and despite the stark improvement in their play – inspired by Laverty, Mark Poland, and Danny Hughes – it still seemed their fate was sealed, especially when referee Michael Duffy from Sligo seemed to ignore one foul on Hughes that at least from distance looked like a certain penalty.
If Monaghan got away with that they couldn’t halt Down’s second -half run of 12 points that sealed one of the best comebacks in Ulster football for many years.
With Tyrone’s showdown against Donegal coming next Saturday, then what looks like the most appetising Ulster final in years appears to be in prospect, the rest of the country has been warned.
DOWN: 1 B McVeigh; 7 C Garvey, 4 G McCartan, 3 B McArdle; 2 D McCartan, 5 D O’Hagan (0-1), 6 K McKernan; 8 A Rogers (capt) (0-1, a free), 9 K King; 10 D Hughes, 11 M Poland, 24 A Carr (1-2, a penalty, one free); 13 D O’Hare (0-5, all frees), 14 C Laverty (0-2), 15 E McCartan. Subs: 25 K Duffin (0-1) for D McCartan (21 mins), 26 L Doyle (0-1, a free) for Duffin (63 mins), 27 B Coulter (0-1) for O’Hare (65 mins).
Yellow cards: K McKernan (29 mins), E McCartan (51 mins), B McArdle (58 mins).
MONAGHAN: 1 M Keogh; 4 C Walshe, 3 V Corey, 2 D Wylie; 5 D Hughes (capt) (0-2, one free, one 45), 6 D Mone, 7 K O’Connell; 8 O Lennon, 9 D Clerkin (0-1); 10 P Dooney, 11 S Gollogly, 12 J Turley; 13 K Hughes, 14 P Finlay (0-5, three frees), 15 C McManus (0-5, three frees). Subs: 25 T Freeman (1-0) for K Hughes (50 mins), 23 K Duffy for Dooney (50 mins), 18 N McAdam for Turley (65 mins), 19 C Hanratty for Gollogly (71 mins).
Yellow cards: V Corey (35 mins), C Walsh (47 mins), J Turley (60 mins), T Freeman (62.
Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).