Down on the Up
● USFC Down 1-14 Monaghan 0-15
Down rolled back the years as their DNA when it comes to getting on a championship run manifested itself once again with a display of intensity, physicality, commitment, attitude, skill, all the attributes needed to oust hotly tipped Monaghan from the Ulster Championship at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening. Very few outside of the Down camp opted for the underdogs to buck the trend of Championship matches following league standings, which had made the Championship all too predictable.
The July 16 Ulster final at 2pm will see Down once again don the role of underdog as they face defending champions Tyrone in their first final appearance since their 2-18 to 0-13 loss to Donegal in 2012.
Certainly, there had to be an element of complacency in the Monaghan psyche and that the Farney men started their best fifteen doing away with the added kick that their impact subs had made in previous rounds meant they could not shift dominant Down during the second half.
For Down the significance of Kevin McKernan and Niall Donnelly’s injuries clearing up was vital as was the selection of Niall McParland, all big mobile men who could carry the fight to Monaghan and would not be fazed by any intimidatory tactics.
Before an official attendance of 13,396 Monaghan started well but kicked four wides. Down’s intent was obvious with McParland taking a yellow in the first minute to let Monaghan know they were in a game. Caolan Mooney’s ability to find space around the middle and take a mark or collect break ball hinted at a better return from Down from kick outs.
In the tenth minute, it was a defender, Ryan Wylie who opened the scoring with a point but within sixty seconds Connaire Harrison took a Shay Millar pass to equalise. Harrison’s battle with Drew Wylie was worth watching all day and the big Glasdrumman man never ceded an inch to the Monaghan hard man on the edge of the square.
Darren Hughes careered through the centre to restore the Monaghan lead and Jack McCarron doubled their advantage in the thirteenth minute as Down failed to convert some promising possession into scores.
An off the ball foul on Mooney gave Darragh O’Hanlon the chance to point his first free and Mooney was narrowly off target from an intercepted Monaghan kick out before Conor McManus announced his arrival with the first of his six scores following a Kieran Hughes mark.
O’Hanlon added a second free and Michael Cunningham was quickly off his line to deny McCarron as play swung end to end before O’Hanlon’s third free in five minutes tied the match at 0-4 apiece.
Conor McCarthy should have had more than a point from a dodgy Down kick out and it mattered with the Mourne men shooting the next five scores to go nine points to five clear.
Harrison levelled with an instinctive super score from way out on the side line and Shay Millar screwed over a lead point from top of the right. An O’Hanlon tackle popped the ball out for Harrison to add his third from play and O’Hanlon then pointed after Harrison and Wylie engaged in a bit of WWE. Millar placed McKernan for a massive point in the twenty eighth minute and Down had scored seven of the last eight points to demonstrate their superiority.
Monaghan pointed their first in ten minutes when Owen Duffy cut in along the end line and fisted over the bar and though Conor Maginn replied it was Monaghan who finished the half better with a McCarron free and a great score from McManus.
There was a change in referee for the restart with Roscommon’s Paddy Neilan replacing Meath’s David Coldrick and Down very much on the front foot. Harrison came close to a goal, only denied by a Darren Hughes block and Michael Cunningham converted the resultant forty-five. Monaghan were rattled, they needed a good third quarter and it was not happening for them. Rory Beggan advanced to kick a long free only to be waved away by McManus who then shot wide and McKernan showed them both how to do it with his second long range score. From that kick out Money got possession and let in Donnelly who went over a prostrate Colin Walshe and a penalty was awarded; a decision you would take but not one you would want given against you. Darragh O’Hanlon kept his cool to blast the spot kick past Beggan and Down led by seven 1-12 to 0-8.
The second half was twelve minutes old when McManus converted a free, Monaghan’s first score since the restart and added another three minutes later. Midway through the half O’Hanlon landed his fifth free and Down led 1-13 to 0-10. Down didn’t score again until added time, a breakaway insurance point from substitute Donal O’Hare.
McManus, free, and Darren Hughes, play, had the deficit down to four points with fifty-five minutes on the clock before ten scoreless minutes later McCarron, free, and McManus, play, left two in it.
Down were out on their feet, they had given so much, half chances weren’t taken and in the sixty-seventh minute Kieran Hughes drilled over a fabulous effort with the outside of the boot to make it a one point game.
It looked like Down would undeservedly be held to a draw or worse, especially when Conor Maginn had a toe poked goal ruled out, it should at least have been a thirteen metre Down free but the ref gave it out and Monaghan built again. McCarron was wide from a free and as they tried to engineer a last chance Ryan McAnespie gave possession away, David McKibben latched onto his wayward pass and freed the fresher Mark Poland who carried it through the middle third before finding Donal O’Hare all alone on the twenty-metre line and he chipped over the final score with full-time blown on the kick out.
A massive result for this group and if they continue to improve at this pace, provincial success is not beyond them.
Down: Micheal Cunningham (Castlewellan) 0-1 (45), Niall McParland (Glenn), Gearard McGovern (Burren), Darren O’Hagan (Clonduff), Darragh O’Hanlon (Kilcoo) 1-5 (pen, 5f), Conaill McGovern (Burren), Caolan Mooney (Rostrevor), Kevin McKernan (Burren) 0-2, Niall Donnelly (Tullylish), Peter Turley (Downpatrick), Conor Maginn (Bryansford) 0-1, Shay Millar (Glenn) 0-1, Jerome Johnston (Kilcoo), Connaire Harrison (Glasdrumman) 0-3, Ryan Johnston (Kilcoo).
Subs: Donal O’Hare (Burren) 0-1, Joe Murphy (Ballyholland), David McKibben (Bryansford), Mark Poland (Longstone), Aidan Carr (Clonduff).
Monaghan: Rory Beggan; Fintan Kelly, Drew Wylie, Ryan Wylie 0-1; Karl O’Connell, Vinnie Corey, Colin Walshe; Kieran Hughes 0-1, Neil McAdam; Darren Hughes 0-2, Kieran Duffy, Owen Duffy 0-1; Conor McCarthy 0-1, Jack McCarron 0-3 (2f), Ciaran McManus 0-6 (3f).
Subs: Ryan McAnespie, Dessie Mone, Dessie Ward, Dermot Malone, Shane Carey.
After the defeat, Malachy O’Rourke insisted that Monaghan didn’t take Down for granted.
Twelve months on from their nineteen-point mauling by the same opponents, the Mournemen turned the tables with a shock victory to set up an Ulster SFC final date with Tyrone next month ‘We knew it was going to be a seriously tough game. Down are a very proud footballing county. The fact we’d beaten them so comprehensively last year they’d a lot of things to prove. Right from the start of the game you could see that. Even at that we were disappointed with our own display in many ways. The boys showed great character in the second half, we battled back, we just weren’t able to get the score to equalise. We’re bitterly disappointed. On any championship day when you go out, you have to be prepared to play really well, to be at the top of your form. We just didn’t achieve that. The penalty at the start of the second half was a real killer blow. It was just one of those days where we were always chasing the game. Down deserved it on the day. We’ll just have to regroup.’
Victorious Down boss Eamon Burns enjoyed his rare moment in the sun saying ‘I am immensely proud of the players, they did all that was asked of them then 20% more. After our good bright start, we were patient, got our barrier set up and stayed in the game to half time, then had a great restart taking our scores and knew Monaghan would come back but stuck to the plan. We were patient, didn’t give away cheap frees, took our opportunity and are now in an Ulster Final’.
An exhausted Kevin McKernan added ‘Not a lot were expecting that but we were quietly confident, had a game plan and executed it. We believed. It’s shows what commitment and honesty can achieve. Down is a proud County and I hope we have shown it matters to us and restored faith in us’
Mark Poland ‘It’s just brilliant, I was itching to get on those last twenty minutes. It was a fantastic effort and we have a massive task on 16th July. Fair play to the management, we’ve been there before but tonight thankfully we came out on the right side of the result’.
Connaire Harrison, the Supervalu Man of the Match, ‘I’m a bit sore but sure it’s worth it. I had to come off, it wasn’t right to stay on when I couldn’t give 100% and there’s them boys on the line ready to come in. I got massive confidence from the early scores, they helped settle me. Our aim from the start of the year was to get to an Ulster Final, this team had something to prove and it provided extra motivation’