Strange how in giving Donegal their biggest scare in the Ulster championship in three years Down might also have done them one enormous favour.
Because if they are to defend their All-Ireland football title – this game certainly throwing up arguments for and against the chances of that – then at least they’ve been reminded about the old lesson of grinding out of results. After winning so pretty for much of last summer this was back to winning ugly, or at least a performance that leaves considerable room for improvement going into a third successive Ulster final.
Jim McGuinness didn’t deny it, either. Indeed the Donegal manager admitted they “found a way to win the game, playing within the rules”, and that was being diplomatic about it. Unfortunately the rules still allow for a game with over 60 frees and yet only seven yellow cards, and as a spectacle it had all the grim fascination of one of Roger Corman’s finest.
In the end it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Down manager James McCartan. A year ago, in the Ulster football final, his team were within a point of Donegal at half-time, then surrendered 1-13 in the second half: at the finish there, McCartan could only stand back in admiration, removing his earpiece as a gesture of his complete and utter surrender to Donegal’s ravaging superiority.
At the finish here, McCartan could be seen ripping out his earpiece and throwing it down behind him, a gesture of his complete and utter frustration at getting so near at yet so far. On several occasions during the closing minutes, chasing down hard on Donegal’s two-point lead, his team spilled or squandered possession, and at least one goal opportunity.
Electric blanket defence
Instead, the last word went to the boot of Donegal captain Michael Murphy, who together with Colm McFadden, accounted for 0-10 of their 12 points total. Never once did Donegal create a serious goal threat, although in fairness that's largely explained by the electric blanket defence of Down, which at times had 14 men behind the ball, and even at the most open of times operated with two sweepers.
It was hard not to feel some sympathy for the healthy 21,715 attendance, either. It may have been close and exciting, although beyond the few rare gems of points from McFadden late on, there was precious little quality on show, unless some desperate dispossession counts.
That Donegal still came through by three points was a sign of both their own strengths in the face of adversity and Down's own weakness in the face of opportunity. Without the injured Karl Lacey (who didn't feature for Donegal in some way for the first championship game in nine years) and also the injured Neil Gallagher, Donegal also lost Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn to minor concussions, while Patrick McBrearty also played with a severe tooth pain that had required an emergency trip to the dentist on Saturday night.
In beating Down by 11 points last year, their biggest victory margin in the 2012 championship, Donegal took on an extra layer of invincibility that stood by them for the rest of the summer; here, they lost at least one layer of that invincibility, spending most of the second half dodging bullets, hand grenades, and the odd Molotov cocktail, yet somehow emerging safely.
There were certainly open for damage, McCartan admitting as much, yet confessing too that maybe his team didn’t truly believe it: “I would say, at the start of the game, maybe some of our players were believing what they’d been reading at times,” he said.
'Too much respect'
"I felt maybe we showed them a wee bit too much respect in the first 15 minutes, letting them three or four points up, when that was the difference in the end. Towards the end, when they realised we weren't going to be beaten out the gate, I think the belief started to grow. And we did have them rattled at times. But you know, quality teams get rattled and they respond. Donegal did that."
McCartan didn't faulty any of his players, and rightly so: Peter Turley, Ambrose Rogers, Kevin McKernan and Conor Laverty ran their hearts out; Kalum King stood up their strongest Donegal challenge, and Donal O'Hare hardly put a placed ball wrong – the only problem being his five frees accounted for more than half their scores.
The first half – the proverbial war of attrition – saw Donegal ease into a four-point lead, after just 15 minutes, before Down found their feet – and their hand-passing game, and closed it back to a two-point game, 0-6 to 0-4. Without McFadden it’s hard to see how Donegal would have held on until the end, but then that’s what champions typically do.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; P McGrath, E McGee, N McGee; Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson; R Bradley, R Kavanagh (0-1); David Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh; P McBrearty (0-1), M Murphy (0-5, four frees), C McFadden (0-5, one free). Subs: M O'Reilly for Declan Walsh (33 mins), M McElhinney for Bradley (34 mins), R McHugh for McGlynn (half time), R McWhirty for McLoone (46 mins), D Molloy for McBrearty (66 mins). Yellow cards: E McGee (26 mins), David Walsh (30 mins), F McGlynn (35 mins), Declan Walsh (68 mins).
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, K Quinn; D Rooney, P Turley, R Boyle; K King, K McKernan; A Rogers, M Poland (0-1), N Madine; C Laverty, B Coulter, D O'Hare (0-6, five frees). Subs: R Mallon for Quinn (49 mins), J Johnston (0-1) for Coulter (57 mins), D Savage (0-1, free) for Madine (63 mins). Yellow cards: C Laverty (13 mins), J Johnson (56 mins), D O'Hare (67 mins).
Referee: Eddie Kinsella (Laois).