Down labour to victory as Antrim leave Newry with a bag of regrets

Down stumble into Ulster semi-finals

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Odhran Murdock of Down tries to escape the attentions of Antrim's Ryan McQuillan during Saturday night's clash Picture: SEAMUS LOUGHRAN (seamus loughran)
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Down 0-13 Antrim 0-9

From Brendan Crossan at Pairc Esler

IT was one of those Saturday evenings when Gaelic football took a wrong turn and our faith in the modern game suffered a few bumps and bruises along the way.

For the guts of 80 minutes, it was a hard watch in Pairc Esler - an Ulster Championship match that never engaged the 5,429 crowd at any point.

But, on reflection, what were we expecting?

Were we asking too much of two counties who’d laboured in Division Three for the last couple of seasons and haven’t exactly been pulling up many trees?

Antrim, after all, are merely a work-in-progress, a team that was littered with inter-county rookies on Saturday night and missing far too many regulars to think of advancing in the provincial series, while we’re all perpetually guilty for thinking that Down are on the cusp of something even though they keep posting compelling reminders to the contrary.

Saturday night was another one of those occasions when the Down footballers beseeched us to think again about attaching any lofty appraisals to them.

In truth, this was an encounter parked a fair distance away from the game’s elite level.

Just like February’s League meeting between the pair at Corrigan Park, the entire exercise seemed too prescriptive, opponents too familiar with one another, where nearly everyone played the percentages, ran the ball into oblivion at times, recycled and never took many chances in possession.

And when Down and Antrim entered the attacking third of the field, the execution and decision-making were generally poor.

At times, you were left wondering where have all the leaders gone in the game?

Odhran Murdock, Celium Doherty, Pierce Laverty and Daniel Guinness made valiant attempts for Down while Patrick McBride, Marc Jordan, Ruairi McCann and young Ryan McQuillan tried to make things happen for the visitors.

It wasn’t for lack of effort from the two teams. Lungs were on fire all over the soft field.

It was simply one of those games that got into a rut and couldn’t get itself out of it again. It happens.

Indeed, some of the talking points that emerged from this disjointed victory for Down was Antrim’s Joe Finnegan and Down’s Odhran Murdock being yellow-carded before the ball was thrown in with some players barging one another as they broke from the pre-match parade.

And as both sets of players and management teams left the field at half-time, with Down leading 0-6 to 0-3, a member of Antrim’s backroom team landed a punch on a Down assistant.

Upon the restart, referee Barry Cassidy was given the wrong information by one of his assistants and Antrim’s entirely innocent strength and conditioning coach Brendan Murphy was sent off.

The right thing to do at that point was for the man who actually threw the punch to come forward, take his medicine rather than allow Murphy to suffer the ignominy of being shown a red card.

It was an altogether weird scenario after Down stumbled into the semi-finals as both sets of players and management teams left the field with regrets. Down’s biggest regret will simply be how poorly they played, particularly in attack, and Antrim’s will be the opportunities they spurned and generally how they didn’t have a proper cut at it.

Antrim’s pre-match thinking was wanting to be within touching distance going down the home straight against their hosts rather than going hard at it from the get-go and envisaging themselves protecting a lead entering the final few minutes.

That said, there are hidden dilemmas for coaches that we don’t always countenance or fully appreciate from the comfort of the press box or the stands.

For starters, Antrim were missing Ryan Murray, Conor Stewart, Ruairi McCann (Aghagallon), Peter Healy and Adam Loughran - holes that they had to plug with willing rookies.

Andy McEntee had to keep the back door firmly shut because, for all of the fault lines in how Down play, they are a team that counter punch so well, evidenced by their blitzing of Antrim in the last 15 minutes of their League meeting at Corrigan Park two months ago.

Down’s game-plan depends on their opponents leaving holes at the back. Antrim didn’t leave many on Saturday night but they didn’t find enough holes in Down’s defence either.

And the chances they did fashion, they didn’t take. Down ‘keeper John O’Hare reacted quickly to deny Joe Finnegan a goal after just nine minutes.

Eoghan McCabe might have aimed lower and gone for goal on the hour mark when a green flag was essential for Antrim.

After swinging over a beauty in the first half, Antrim’s half-forward Conor Hand screwed a couple of other efforts wide.

Ruairi McCann, Patrick McBride and Marc Jordan tried their best to conjure something but the visitors couldn’t reduce Down’s lead by any less than three points in the second half.

Down’s powerful wing-back Daniel Guinness is so adept at drifting into unguarded alleyways which allowed him to mine two early second-half points.

Odhran Murdock was never going to be allowed the room to dominate a game like Saturday evening; instead, the Burren man’s performance was one of moments.

His shimmy around Ruairi McCann and fisted score in the first half was quality, so too was his dummy down in the corner of Pairc Esler that completely flummoxed two Antrim defenders before he off-loaded to Guinness to score his second and push Down’s lead out to 0-9 to 0-5 after 48 minutes.

Shorn of Pat Havern’s services after just 25 minutes didn’t help Down’s attacking flow either. Liam Kerr, another key attacker, was bottled up well by Antrim new boy Kavan Keenan.

Perpetual mover Ryan Johnston tried to pick holes in the Antrim defence with mixed results while Barry O’Hagan - back in Down’s starting line-up after over a year out with a knee injury - didn’t get many sights of Antrim’s posts but got much-needed minutes in his legs.

So often Down’s attacking base, full-back Ryan McEvoy couldn’t find many ways through after opening his side’s account within a minute.

With everybody bottled up inside, the Mournemen needed scores from deep positions - and they got enough of them.

In between some horrible wides, Guinness (0-2), McEvoy (0-1) and Miceal Rooney (0-1) kept the scoreboard ticking over for the home side and Ceilum Doherty - tasked with shadowing Jordan again - popped up to put six in it in stoppage-time.

Substitute Patrick McAleer certainly improved Antrim’s chances after his 53rd minute introduction while Cargin’s towering attacker Pat Shivers might have been sprung from the bench earlier, if only to test Down’s aerial resolve at the back.

Every time Antrim nipped a score in the last quarter, Down responded at the other end with one of their own and did enough to win.

But it was a slog that nobody really enjoyed on Saturday evening – probably not even the players themselves.

As Antrim ponder another Tailteann Cup campaign, Down are already in a crouched ambush position for the Ulster semi-finals knowing that they must improve by a fair bit to go any further in the series.

Down: J O’Hare; P Fegan, R McEvoy (0-1), C Doherty (0-1); M Rooney (0-1), P Laverty, D Guinness (0-2); S Johnston, O Murdock (0-1); C McCrickard, L Kerr (0-1), R Johnston (0-1); B O’Hagan, P Havern (0-1 free), D Magill (0-1 free) Subs: O Savage (0-2, 0-1 free, 0-1 mark) for P Havern (25 inj), E Brown for C McCrickard (48), S Annett (0-1) for B O’Hagan (53), R Magill for S Johnston (63), R Mason for D Magill (70+5)
Yellow card: O Murdock (0)
Antrim: M Byrne (0-1 ‘45); R Boyle, E Walsh, K Keenan; D Lynch, J Finnegan, D McAleese; C Hynds, M Jordan (0-1); C Hand (0-1), P McBride (0-1 free), E McCabe; R McQuillan (0-3, 0-2 frees), R McCann (0-1 free), D McEnhill Subs: N Burns for D McEnhill (h/t inj), P McAleer for R Boyle (53), E Hynds for E Walsh (70 inj), P Shivers for R McQuillan (70+5)
Yellow cards: J Finnegan (0), K Keenan (35)
Black card: C Hand (3-13)
Referee: B Cassidy
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Patrick McBride was one of Antrim's bright sparks in their Ulster SFC defeat (seamus loughran)
BARRY Cassidy sent off the wrong backroom team member from Antrim just before the restart on the advice of his umpire. Not Cassidy’s fault. Correct not to send Kavan Keenan off. Correct black card for Conor Hand. Supporters feared the worst when the Bellaghy man booked two players before throw-in but there weren’t many cards thereafter. Nevertheless, there was a lot of tactical fouling that probably warranted censure.
RYAN McQuillan and Conor Hand hit first-half beauties for Antrim but the most eye-catching of the evening was Ryan Johnston’s converted ‘mark’ just before half-time. Got ridiculous bend on the ball when its trajectory looked like it was going 20 yards wide of Antrim’s posts. Even so, the advanced ‘mark’ should be binned because it’s a pockmark on the game.
A GAME devoid of turning points, really. Down were always in front. Antrim threatened on a couple of occasions to reel their hosts in but just didn’t have the firepower or momentum to shift the balance.
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Conor Laverty will be wanting more improvement from his Down players PICTURE: SEAMUS LOUGHRAN (seamus loughran)