Down registered their first points in Division One of the Allianz Footaball League thanks to a dogged victory over Mayo at Páirc Esler.
Two late scores from Donal O’Hare quashed a second half Mayo revival that now puts Down level on points with James Horan’s side in the league standings.
After capitulating in the final minutes of their game against Cork last weekend, the resolve that Down displayed to overcome Mayo in the closing stages was the most pleasing aspect of the victory for Down manager James McCartan.
“We didn’t play as fluidly as last week,” said McCartan. “It was more about guts and character. Mayo put it up to us and came back at us. We were three or four points up in the second half and they levelled it so it was very nice to win a tight match.”
The closing stages may have been tense but the first half was a turgid affair that was littered with mistakes from both sides. Conditions made handling difficult but Mayo, in particular, were guilty of kicking wides that really should have been scores. Mayo registered five wides in the opening 20 minutes with Enda Varley and Donal Vaughan missing the easiest of those opportunities.
Down were dominant in possession but lacked incision in the final third while Mayo were more dangerous on the break with Aidan O’Shea’s powerful drives from midfield proving to be the best outlet for the travelling side.
Down opened the scoring with a free but Mayo could have gone in front had Richie Feeney opted to shoot for goal instead of fisting over the bar on six minutes.
The sides traded scores early on but points from Cathal Carolan and Michael Conroy gave Mayo a two point lead mid-way through the half but a barren spell for the final 20 minutes of the first half allowed Down to gain a two point advantage by half time with the scores coming from O’Hare, Conor Laverty and Ryan Mallon.
The dual between Ger Cafferkey and Benny Coulter was the most interesting aspect of the first half. Cafferkey was marshalling Coulter extremely effectively until a reckless challenge from Laverty ended the full-back’s involvement.
Down began the second half as they had ended the first and edged into a five-point lead thanks to points from Connaire Harrison, Mark Poland and O’Hare.
Mayo though began to garner more possession around midfield and increased the pressure on the Down defence. Only a point-blank save from Brendan McVeigh prevented Barry Moran from scoring a goal that would have changed the complexion of the game.
Still, for large spells of the second half Mayo were the better side. Down struggled to cope with Cathal Carolan’s direct running while Moran and Aidan O’Shea continued to dominate at midfield.
Both Carolan and Moran blasted over close to goal to reduce the arrears and when James Doherty converted two frees in quick succession the sides were level.
Down became increasingly reliant on Donal O’Hare’s accuracy from the dead ball but it was a burden the full-forward was happy to carry and he slotted two long-distance frees over with consummate ease.
Mayo though, had momentum on their side and when Kevin McLoughlin and goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley both scored from the dead ball it looked like the visiting team were more likely to be victorious.
Substitute Tom Cunniffe was guilty of conceding a needless free off the ball, presenting O’Hare with an easy chance to score his seventh free.
Seconds later, O’Hare scored his eighth point of the night and his first from play to give Down a two-point cushion allowing the Mourne men to see out the three additional minutes of injury time in relative comfort.
If Down were jubilant with the victory, Mayo manager James Horan was more concerned about the manner of his side’s loss.
“It’s the third game in a row that we’ve been in a position to win it with five minutes to go and we’ve come out the wrong side of it. That’s disappointing but we’re not far off. There’s no other option but to work through it.”
Down will travel to Kerry while Mayo will host Kildare next week in what will now be a defining weekend in Division One.
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, R Boyle; R Mallon (0-1), A Carr, K Quinn; K King, K McKernan; C Laverty (0-1), M Poland (0-1), P McComiskey (0-1); D O'Hare (0-8, 7f), C Harrison (0-1), B Coulter. Subs : D O'Hagan for R Mallon (44 mins), J Johnston for K Quinn (53), C Gough for K King (61), E McCartan for C Harrison (61).
Mayo: K O'Malley (0-1,45); C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, D Vaughan, CBoyle; B Moran (0-1), A O'Shea; K McLoughlin (0-1), R Feeney, C Carolan (0-3); E Varley, J Doherty (0-4, 3f), M Conroy (0-1). Subs: K Keane for G Cafferkey (35 mins), T Cunniffe for R Feeney (43), A Freeman for D Vaughan (54), E Regan for E Varley (62).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)