Donegal 2-25 Down 1-12
At the end, the thing to watch for wasn't the general fed-upness of a Down team whose year was done, nor the studied satisfaction of a Donegal team who had put up a monster score. No, the scene that held the eye was the Donegal warm-down, and whether or not Michael Murphy would be able fold himself into the various hamstring and calf stretches therein.
Murphy started this game, his first since going off in the fourth minute against Monaghan five weeks ago. And for the opening 27 minutes, he was at the fulcrum of everything Donegal did well. Their first four points either came from him or through him and there was no sense that he was easing himself or his hamstring through the afternoon. He came to play. It was enough for Donegal to be 0-10 to 0-5 ahead.
The sight of him limping off, listing to one side like a three-legged stool, was the one thing Donegal didn’t want to see from the day. On the pitch, his departure didn’t hold them back even a little - they scored 1-5 in the closing eight minutes of the half without their leader. That Jamie Brennan’s goal should have been pulled back for overcarrying hardly mattered - if it didn’t come then, it would have come later.
But Murphy’s importance to Donegal is never going to be tested on a day like this, against a Down side that are so far back down the mountain they can hardly see them through the clouds. Any cheer around the result for Declan Bonner’s men had to be tempered while they waited to see what the news on Murphy would be.
So when he was able to take a full part in the warm-down, stretching out a little gingerly but able to do it all the same, it was an encouraging sign for the road ahead. He strolled off the pitch in flip-flops afterwards, stopping happily to stand in and smile as burly fathers ushered their young lads in for pictures.
He even paused for a few quickies with the press. “Aye grand, not too bad,” Murphy replied when asked how the leg was. “Hopefully it is not too bad. Just a wee bit of tightening up there. But the boys did brilliant.”
"I don't think he has done any extra damage," said Declan Bonner afterwards. "I'll go back inside and speak to the medical team. We'll get him assessed. He was going well over the last week or 10 days in training and he started well. He tightened up and we just took him out as a precaution. Michael is about long enough so he knows when he has to come out. We got him out at the right time. He should be okay."
Donegal were fairly rampant here, with Murphy and without him. Patrick McBrearty and Ryan McHugh were roommates in their Armagh hotel the night before the game and they could just as easily have shared the Man of the Match award here. McHugh barrelled forward for four points from play, McBrearty ended the day with 1-6 against his name. Throw in the stylish shooting of Michael Langan and the smooth accuracy of Peadar Mogan and the Donegal attack was irresistible at times.
Certainly, Down had very little to offer by way of matching stride. Barry O'Hagan was the one exception, scoring their first five points and at times having to carry the fight on his own. Outside of O'Hagan, Down's shooting was abysmal - they ended the day with 14 wides and could have had another four goals. Shaun Patton pulled off two stunning saves but Down shouldn't have been making such a hero out of him.
Caolan Mooney did get in for a goal soon after half-time, finishing smartly to the bottom corner after a scorching run in off the right. But all that did was cut the margin to eight, 1-16 to 1-8. Down full-back Gerard McGovern earned himself a red card soon after for a high tackle on Langan but really, none of it affected the outcome. Donegal were never in danger and McBrearty's peach of a finish on 61 minutes was no more than he or they deserved.
“Very disappointing,” was Paddy Tally’s verdict. “Very few positives to come out of that game. If you look at the way the season has gone it has been so uncertain these last couple of years. It’s really good to be playing championship football but in terms of performance we’re gutted.
“I have been saying it for years, the system is flawed in so many ways. There is a massive gap in the quality of the teams but the system doesn’t suit competitive football. I’m hoping the GAA sits down and realises it needs to change, otherwise what we will have is more players deciding, ‘Do we want to be part of this? Is there any chance of winning anything?’ Because now it is getting to the stage where it’s very difficult to break through and we’re finding that today.”
Down: Rory Burns; Peter Fegan, Gerard McGovern, Gerards Collins; Pierce Laverty, Darren O'Hagan (0-1), Daniel Guinness; Caolán Mooney (1-0), Ryan McEvoy; Liam Kerr (0-2, 0-2 frees), Ceilium Doherty, Barry O'Hagan (0-8, 0-3 frees, 0-1 mark); Conor McCrickard, Liam Middleton, Corey Quinn. Subs: Danny Savage for Middleton, 42 mins; Stephen McConville for McEvoy, 42 mins; James Guinness (0-1) for Kerr, 55 mins; Cormac McCartan for Fegan, 56 mins; Kevin McKernan for McCrickard, 59 mins Red card: McGovern
Donegal: Shaun Patton; Brendan McCole, Neil McGee, Stephen McMenamin; Ryan McHugh (0-4), Odhran McFadden Ferry, Eoghan Bán Gallagher; Hugh McFadden, Caolán McGonigle; Ciaran Thompson (0-1), Niall O'Donnell (0-1), Michael Langan (0-4, 0-1 free, 0-1 45); Patrick McBrearty (1-6, 0-2 frees), Michael Murphy (0-2, 0-1 free), Peadar Mogan (0-3). Subs: Eoin McHugh (0-1) for McCole, 26 mins; Jamie Brennan (1-1) for Murphy, 29 mins; Ethan O'Donnell (0-1) for Thompson, 52 mins; Conor O'Donnell (0-1) for Niall O'Donnell, 56 mins; Paul Brennan for McGee, 63 mins Yellow cards: McCole, O'Donnell Black cards: McMenamin 35-45 mins
Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois)