Down set up meeting with Ulster rivals Antrim
Christy Ring Cup quarter-final: Down 1-14 Roscommon 1-7
IT PROMISES to be a strange couple of weeks in the Johnston household after father Michael watched his Down side overwhelm Roscommon on Saturday to set up a Christy Ring Cup shoot-out against an Antrim outfit that contains his two sons, Conor and Ciaran.
The St John’s stars are both expected to overcome injury to line out against the Ards men in the semi-final on Saturday, May 21 which Down reached thanks to a powerhouse second-half performance at a sodden Ballycran.
The men in red-and-black led by just a point, 0-7 to 0-6, after a see-saw first-half, but they tore into the Rossies after the break, outscoring the Connacht men - who pushed Antrim hard in Dunloy the week previous - by 1-7 to 1-1 to set up an all-Ulster last-four clash with the Saffrons.
“It’ll be some craic at the dinner table,” said Michael Johnston as thoughts turned to plotting his native county’s downfall.
“It’s brilliant, great for Ulster hurling. You’d love to see a big crowd at that game and really promote it well.”
There weren’t huge numbers in the stand at McKenna Park on Saturday afternoon, but those who braved the elements were rewarded with a fascinating game that, while often lacking in quality on a slippery surface, delivered plenty in terms of sheer doggedness.
Roscommon certainly meant business, staying in Dundalk the night before and even arriving at the Ballycran pitch before the hosts. However, the Rossies’ cause wasn’t helped by the loss of two of their best players, as injured wing-back Jason Kilkenny and forward Ronan O’Meara - on club duty with Lorrha in Tipperary - missed out.
There were only two scores on the board 10 minutes in as both counties struggled to get to grips with the conditions, firing a succession of early wides and dropping balls short with alarming regularity. However, after Roscommon veteran Jerry Fallon and Down youngster Oisin McManus swapped points, the game sparked into life. Conor Mageean put the Ards men ahead in the 11th minute, but Thomas Fetherston hit back immediately and the rest of the half followed a similar pattern as the counties were level on six occasions.
Conor O’Prey was proving accurate from dead balls, successfully converting four frees from five by the close of play, but fantastic scores from Jerry Fallon and Jamie Lawlor helped the Rossies to a 0-5 to 0-4 lead seven minutes before half-time.
Towering Roscommon centre-half Michael Kelly was starting to impose himself on the game at this stage and, even when Donal Hughes and Brook Byers fired Down back into the lead temporarily, Roscommon midfielder Eamon Flanagan quickly pegged them back. Crucially, the last point of the half came from the stick of Shane Nicholson, brought on as a 34th minute blood sub for Aaron O’Prey before replacing Oisin McManus at half-time.
Nicholson’s introduction coincided with Down taking a tighter grip of the game in the second-half, while the decision to switch Danny Toner - who endured a frustrating first 35 minutes at midfield - to the full-forward line proved an inspired move.
“We kept Roscommon guessing,” said Down boss Johnston.
“One of our plans was to move their full-back line about and it worked for us alright.”
At the other end, the full-back line of Sean Ennis, Padraig Flynn and John McManus got to grips with Roscommon’s direct approach, successfully fielding ball after ball to keep their opponents at bay. Indeed, prior to substitute Naos Connaughton finding the back of the net 66 minutes in after skilfully controlling a long ball into the square, Roscommon had managed just one solitary point since half-time.
“We had a fair idea of how Roscommon would set themselves,” said Johnston.
“I’d managed against them before and knew what way they were going and it was fairly route-one hurling. We were happy enough that, if they were putting it up there, it was 50-50 ball for us as long as we were ready for it - and we were.”
The one Roscommon point after the break came when Down goalkeeper Stephen Keith brilliantly diverted Lawlor’s goal-bound effort over the bar two minutes into the second-half and, from that point onwards, the home side took complete control. Points from Byers, Nicholson, substitute Chris Egan, Conor Mageean and frees from Conor Woods and Conor O’Prey (two) all arrived before Connaughton’s goal to effectively seal Down’s progress.
It was left to the influential Toner to put the tin hat on proceedings two minutes into added-time when he pounced on a loose ball after John McGrath’s long puck into the square fell kindly and the Ballygalget man made no mistake, coolly stroking past Noel Fallon.
“We have no complaints really, the better team won, the hungrier team. They just played it at a quicker pace,” said Roscommon boss Justin Campbell.
“Our main aim was to win the league and get promoted and consolidate our place in Christy Ring for next year and we’ve done that, so it was bonus territory coming up here. Hopefully, the lads will have learnt a lot and know what standard they have to reach to go further in the Christy Ring.”
Down: S Keith; S Ennis, P Flynn, J McManus; J McGrath, C Taggart, F Conway; D Toner (1-0), C Woods (0-1 free); C Mageean (0-2), D Hughes (0-1), A O’Prey; B Byers (0-2), C O’Prey (0-4, frees), O McManus (0-1); Subs: S Nicholson (0-2) for O McManus (HT), C Egan (0-1) for B Byers (49), C O’Neill for C O’Prey (54), J Doran for D Hughes (69); Blood sub: S Nicholson for A O’Prey (34); Yellow cards: C Mageean (15), F Conway (72).
Roscommon: N Fallon; I Delaney, P Kellehan, L Kilcline; A Moore, M Kelly, S Curley; E Flanagan (0-2), C Dolan; T Seale, T Fetherston (0-1), J Fallon (0-2, 0-1 free); C Egan, J Lawlor (0-2), A Murphy; Subs: G Keenan for T Seale (49), C Mulry for A Murphy, N Connaughton (1-0) for J Fallon, H Rooney for C Egan (58); Yellow cards: P Kellehan (15), C Dolan (53), H Rooney (64), T Fetherston (72).
Referee: D Hughes (Carlow).