Ulster Championship Semi-Final
Down 0-9 Donegal 0-12
Report by Jim Masson.
DOWN were not disgraced in their brave effort to topple Donegal in the semi-final at Breffni Park in Cavan on Sunday.
The almost 22,000 capacity crowd were entertained by an excellent display of football that was essentially a close cut match and not the runaway Donegal juggernaut that several sporting pundits had claimed it would be.
Down started positively and showed the edge on attacking pressure as Donegal looked more cautious. But Donegal took the first point.
Conor Laverty was looking for openings up front for Down as was Benny Coulter to surprise Donegal with an early goal, but Coulter was faced with a determined marker, the tough-as-old-boots Neil McGee, who also had an arial edge over Coulter.
But Coulter did show promise in the first half on a number of occasions that he could break the Donegal defence particulary after one attack when he was in possession looking closely into the Donegal net.
After twelve minutes Donegal had earned three points in a tight game of little chances. Then game-changer Colm McFadden took another for Donegal opening up the gap and Down were looking at another possible hiding to nothing from the Donegal men, but they kept their cool and applied themselves. Down’s Donal O’Hare took a point for Down as his side kept up a relentless grinding pressure on Donegal to claw back the deficit.
Down did not look as capable in the air as Donegal and lost out in possession on long passes. Neil McGee was impressive in defence for Donegal showing a solid pair of hands.
Down were not overawed by Donegal and seemed to believe in themselves but were unlucky not to have a more flattering scoreline. An early opportunity came from Down’s Ryan Boyle who volleyed at the Donegal goal but his shot was blocked. O’Hare closed the gap further to three pointed as he scored from a free.
Mark Poland was playing an excellent game midfield for Down in cutting through the Donegal defence and his shot at the Donegal posts on one occasion was just a fraction wide.
Murphy took another point for Donegal from a free after a charge by Conor Laverty who was brought down in play. Down started to raise their game and a great play by Coulter in gaining possession saw the ball passed to Poland who weaved his way past several Donegal defenders to take a long shot and score a point in play. Down were believing in themselves and fighting back.
But as the first half was drawing to a close at 04-06 for Donegal, it was Donegal who raised their game and backed Down off.
In the second half Down would need to keep up the pressure on Donegal who were not running away with a easy win over underdogs Down. Down needed to show more viable attacks to get into scoring positions. And the Down defenders were still faced with the full thrust of the All-Ireland champion forward line led by Player of the Match Colm McFadden.
The second period began with an excellent quick attack by Down’s Kieran McKernan and Niall Madine but ended with a wide. Donegal replied quickly with a point – and both teams were trying to raise their games. Down were showing real potential in turning the match with Coulter lurking for that one key break in the Donegal goal area. Down appeared to be fighting more for the ball and getting more possession. But golden vital opportunities were missed such as Madine kicking wide. But as O’Hare took another point for Down you just felt this was going to be a very close game and Down just could still earn a spot in the Ulster Championship.
Seven minutes into the second half and Coulter took a point closing the gap to just two points. The tension was mounting at Breffni Park as spectators’ nerves tingled. Down’s McKernan pressed forward again and and shot at the Donegal goal but was blocked.
Down were attacking again as Donegal slipped into a long pointless spell of fifteen minutes. Midfielder Kalum King made a great run through the middle and passed to Conor Laverty who was again felled. O’Hare took the point.
Down certainly were creating scoring opportunities more that Donegal but were unlucky not to convert them. One fine attempt saw Coulter gain possession midfield and running and passing to Mark Poland over the Donegal defence but the pass was a fraction too long for Poland who could have been in a goal scoring and possible match changing position. But it was not to be.
But as Down showed their teeth, it was Donegal who took the next point and Down replied with another point then Donegal were back into the driving seat as they took another point from a long kick in by McFadden.
Down manager James McCartan then substituted Coulter for Ryan Mallon who took a point on his first touch as soon as he entered the pitch. It seemed that McCartan had given instruction to attack the Donegal goal all out. Then in a another Down attack, Conor Laverty was again impeded and the free taken by O’Hare hit the post bouncing out.
Then Donegal turned the wrack on Down as McFadden took another long free to widen the score line at 26 minutes. Down clawed back a vital point to keep them in contention. The game has always hovered with a two or three point gap. In the closing minutes, Down were pressurising Donegal to the last with Down substitute Mallon making the final gesture of an attack as the whistle was blown, Down hopes were blown, and Donegal flags were waving.
Was it the Down defence that were at fault, or was the Donegal win to the credit of their forwards? The debate will rage on. But Down were so close to scoring on so many occasions that they could have turned the game in their favour. This match showed that Donegal were not invincible and James Macartan will be kicking himself for not finding that small ingredient that could have lifted his team to the Championship Final.
It must be noted too that Donegal were without stalwarts Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher. But would they have made any difference to the game? Down looked good, played well, yet were unlucky not to be knocking on the door of a Championship chance.
Down did not have that key winning factor to put them on the road to the final. Points win matches… and Down just missed too many opportunities in the face of a severe challenge from All-Ireland Champions Donegal. The Down team looked the business at Breffni Park and will no doubt on reflection be disappointed at the scoreline.
Back to the drawing board for Down.
Down – Brendan McVeigh, Dan McCartan, Brendan McArdle, Keith Quinn, Declan Rooney, Peter Turley, Ryan Booyle, Kalaum King, Kevin McKernan, Ambrose Rogers, Mark Poland, Niall Madine, Conor Laverty, Benny Counter, Donal O’Hare – Suns: Ryan Mallon, Jerome Johnstone, Danny Savage.
Donegal – Paul Durcan, Paddy McGrath, Neill McGee, Eamonn McGee, Declan Walsh, Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson, Ryan Bradley, Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh, Leo McLoone, Mark McHugh, Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden. Subs : Marin O’Reilly, Martin McElhinney, Ryan McHugh, Ross Wherity, Dermot Molloy.