"Would we have recovered and regrouped?" Darren Hughes and Rory Beggan ponder Down's 2012 comeback win over Monaghan
THERE were three seconds left of the 35 first half minutes when the course of history changed.
Monaghan had been magnificent. With Conor Garvey left isolated against him, Conor McManus had the scoreboard operator earning his keep. Paul Finlay chipped in. Having lost two of the previous four Ulster finals, they looked like a side ready for Donegal.
And then Conor Laverty played a one-two, cut inside and was hauled to the ground by Vinny Corey as he went to shoot.
Up steps Aidan Carr to drill belief back into the red and black ranks.
A 0-11 to 0-2 deficit is chopped to a more manageable six points. Éamonn McEnaney would say afterwards that the game hadn’t been lost by the second half collapse, but rather by the failure to secure a firmer cushion with the wind at their backs.
That one moment of genius sparked a remarkable turnaround, led from the front by Laverty and finished off in the dying seconds by a fisted Darren O’Hagan point in front of 11,000 delirious and disbelieving supporters.
Not even a controversial Tommy Freeman goal could swing the momentum. He sneaked in behind as Conor McManus took a quick free as Benny McArdle was called aside by the referee. Play went on and sub Freeman seemed to have buried Down with a cracking finish.
But back came the 2010 All-Ireland finalists with another series of punches. Benny Coulter, too early on the recovery trail from a broken ankle to start, came on and kicked an inspirational effort with his first touch.
Carr equalised from a free and 30 seconds into stoppage time, launched a hopeful Hail Mary that Monaghan ‘keeper Mark Keogh could only punch down in front of his own goal for O’Hagan to pick up and coolly fist over.
Rory Beggan was spending his final days as an understudy before making his Championship debut the following summer, but he remembers all too well how it felt that afternoon.
“I remember the dressing-room, it was very silent.
“Monaghan played one of the best first halves I've ever seen coming out of them, and it was a collapse in the second half.
“We used that as was motivation for last year against Down as well because we didn't want the same thing to happen because we know Down are a great footballing team, a great footballing county and they have a great running team.
“It will be another tight game this weekend. We're just hoping we can put in another 70-minute performance we can be happy with.”
With the benefit of hindsight, though, Darren Hughes has a circumspect view of that defeat.
Monaghan had been chasing an Ulster title for most of his career and went on to finally break their 25-year duck the following summer.
That came at the expense of the Donegal side that they would have met in the 2012 provincial decider. But by the time Down took to St Tiernach’s Park in their stead, Monaghan were out of the Championship.
Unable to rouse themselves, Brendan Quigley hit a memorable goal for Laois as they put the clampers on the Farney and ended McEnaney’s reign.
Together, they’ve grown up a lot since. Five of the back six will start tomorrow, while Dessie Mone is still a very useful impact man. Conor McManus, Neil McAdam and Kieran Duffy (as a sub) also played that day.
It was tough at the time and Hughes hasn’t forgotten about it, but his take is that Monaghan simply weren’t ready for the challenges that lay ahead.
Defeat to a Donegal side that went on to win the All-Ireland might well have proved more chastening still.
“It was disappointing but as a unit, we weren’t ready to go and play Donegal in an Ulster final. We went to Laois two weeks later and lost, which gives you an idea of where we were at at the time.
“If we’d gone to an Ulster final in 2012 and lost it, that was three we had lost in five years. Would we have recovered and regrouped from that? Who’s to know.
“Things were on a downward spiral at that time anyway. I’d always rather lose a semi-final than a final. It’s just a more sickening defeat in a final when you’re so close.
“We were young as a squad. We had Paul Finlay, Vinny Corey, all those boys in their prime at that time. They’d openly admit too that we weren’t ready at that time to push on and win an Ulster title.
“Donegal were at their peak at that stage. They were top dogs. Were we going to be ready for them in an Ulster final? Doubtful. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the most sickening defeat of all time.”