Laois experience shines through to halt Down charge in League opener
Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down 1-12 Laois 2-15
WHEN Conor McGrady escaped his marker and clipped the ball between the posts three minutes into the second half, all the pre-match concerns about a lack of experience among the Down ranks were slowly but surely drifting off into the night air.
Five of those who started against Laois on Saturday were making National League debuts, while several others had only a handful of appearances between them. There was hope, plenty of it, but expectations were not high.
Yet by the time they walked towards the line at the end of the first half, it had been surprisingly, almost inexplicably straightforward.
Down looked well organised. They were tackling in numbers and with intent – something lacking all too often in years gone by. Ryan McAleenan and Shay Murnin were snuffing out attack after attack. Pat Havern was leading the line superbly.
Paddy Tally could hardly have asked for more, and when McGrady’s classy 38th minute score put the Mournemen five ahead, 0-10 to 0-5, they looked on course to open their Division Three campaign with a valuable victory.
However, what transpired over the course of the next 35 minutes or so was a harsh lesson for these young Down players, with Laois scoring 2-10 in the second half.
Where Tally was deprived of so many experienced heads due to injury or suspension, the O’Moore men were able to throw on Colm Begley and Donie Kingston at half-time, with Paul Cahillane following them onto the field in the 59th minute.
By the time he entered the fray, Laois had completely turned the game on its head.
In the space of 10 minutes they reeled off seven points without reply. Pushing up hard on Rory Burns’s kick-outs, midfield man-mountain John O’Loughlin was proving a one-man wall.
When he wasn’t getting his hands on everything in the air, O’Loughlin was forcing turnovers for fun in an inspired second half showing as Laois abandoned their previously ponderous approach by launching long diagonals into super-sub Kingston and Evan O’Carroll.
As a result, the Down full-back line started to creak – they simply couldn’t cope with the sheer physical strength of their more experienced opponents. Losing Niall Donnelly, operating as a makeshift full-back, 12 minutes after the break didn’t help their defensive cause.
Despite being in the ascendancy heading into the final 20 minutes, Laois were given a helping hand when referee Martin McNally failed to blow for what looked a clear foul on Mourne County midfielder Conor Francis around halfway.
Within three passes the ball was in the net, Colm Murphy calmly stroking past Burns after being played in by Paul Kingston. It was a huge moment, putting Laois into a 1-12 to 0-11 lead.
Both managers felt the Monaghan whistler had been sore on their side through the course of the evening, with Laois boss John Sugrue offering a pointed response when asked about the build-up to their first goal.
“'Tis interesting alright that a Down player was fouled to start it all because generally when a Down player was fouled tonight he got a free,” said the Kerry native.
Tally, unsurprisingly, had a different take.
“I thought he was fouled along the sideline but he didn't call it, there were a few calls maybe we didn't get tonight,” she said. “Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't, and it seemed to effect us.”
Two minutes after finding the net Murphy missed a second gilt-edged goal chance, slamming off the underside of the bar from 10 yards out as Laois threatened to pull off into the distance.
But Down, to their credit, dragged themselves back into the game. Donal O’Hare looked sharp when he came off the bench and provided the attacking spark that had been missing in the second period.
And it was the Burren man who scored the goal that reduced the gap to two points with five minutes of normal time left, palming into an open net after fellow sub Daniel Guinness wisely played on after winning a mark, fisting across the square for O’Hare to apply the finishing touch.
The home crowd sensed the comeback could be on, especially when Francis slotted over a minute later to make it a one point game, but a second Laois goal sucked their air out of the Down balloon.
It was almost a carbon copy of the first too, Colm Flanagan coughing up possession under pressure, O’Loughlin laying off to O’Carroll who found Cahillane and the former Republic of Ireland and Celtic underage player made no mistake to ensure the two points would be heading to Leinster.
The loss of the impressive McAleenan late on after suffering a nasty gash to his knee means he is highly unlikely to feature for Down against Sligo this weekend, while Niall Donnelly is also a doubt following his withdrawal after half-time.
However, with suspended trio Kevin McKernan, Ryan Johnston and captain Darren O’Hagan back, and the returning O’Hare and Caolan Mooney getting some valuable minutes under their belts, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Tally.
On the night, though, that bit of extra know-how had proved the difference in the end.
“Laois were bringing on experienced players but we don't have that level of experience at the moment,” said the Down boss.
“The lads will be disappointed because there was a lot of good football but when Laois brought on Donie Kingston and Colm Begley and the other guy [Cahillane], just the physical strength around the middle, they dominated the midfield in that second half and they dominated the full-forward line.
“It was a very straightforward game, get the ball in, and we didn’t have the players to match them physically. I have to say they were very effective in that.
“It’s a process. You’re not going to get it all right the first night round, and probably that’s the disappointing thing - the scoreline probably didn’t really reflect the effort.”
Down: R Burns; R McAleenan, N Donnelly, S Murnin; S Fegan, C Flanagan, J Flynn; C Francis (0-1), L Devlin; C McGrady (0-2, 0-1 mark), C Poland, S McConville; P Devlin (0-4, frees), P Havern (0-3, 0-2 frees), J Johnston (0-1, mark). Subs: C Mooney for L Devlin (37 blood sub, 41 reversed), C Mooney for Donnelly (47), D O’Hare (1-1) for Havern (49), C Quinn for P Devlin (49), D Guinness for McGrady (51), C Doherty for Poland (61).
Yellow cards: L Devlin (53). J Johnston (55)
Laois: G Brody; D Seale, S Nerney, A Campion; S Attride, R Piggott, G Dillon; J O’Loughlin, K Lillis; D O’Connor, C Boyle 0-3, S Byrne; C Murphy (1-1, 0-1 mark), E O’Carroll (0-8, 0-6 frees), P Kingston. Subs: C Begley for Campion (HT), D Kingston (0-3, 0-1 free, 0-1 mark) for O’Connor (HT), P Cahillane (1-0) for P Kingston (59), R Tyrrell for Lillis (64), E Lowry for Byrne (64).
Yellow cards: A Campion (32)
Referee: Martin McNally (Monaghan).