Down answer character questions after Sligo see-saw to seal Tailteann Cup final date

Odhran Murdock’s penalty in extra-time proved the clinching score for Conor Laverty’s side

Odhran Murdock celebrates after slotting home Down's crucial extra-time penalty as they eventually saw off Sligo on Sunday. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Odhran Murdock celebrates after slotting home Down's crucial extra-time penalty as they eventually saw off Sligo on Sunday. Picture by Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

Tailteann Cup semi-final

Down 1-20 Sligo 2-15 (after extra-time)

OKAY, so it wasn’t quite Castlebar and the helter-skelter chaos of Derry’s resurrection. It may not have matched the magnitude of Louth’s last-gasp victory over Cork either - but Down had to survive a kamikaze climax in Croke Park before securing their place in another Tailteann Cup decider.

Despite playing a Sligo side reduced to 14 following Nathan Mullen’s red card for a challenge that left Oisin Savage motionless on the ground - the Loughinisland forward eventually stretchered off - Down crept rather than cantered across the finish line.

No matter how they did it, though, winning that way is an important step for Conor Laverty’s side.

At the same stage last year, the Mournemen hit Laois for eight goals on the way to a 22-point win. Having been starved of any kind of success for so long, the county was on a high. But the bubble was burst by Meath in the final.

Then on Down’s next trip to Croke Park, they were hustled out of it by Westmeath in a turgid Division Three decider. A landmark Ulster semi-final win over Armagh, one which would have guaranteed a crack in the All-Ireland series, was within their grasp with minutes to go a few months back until Aidan Nugent, then Jason Duffy right at the death, brought further frustration to the door.

Do Down have the heart to win those games? Can they grind it out when it matters?

That kind of talk swirled around. Banging in goals and racking up big scores is great, but sometimes it is every bit as satisfying getting the job done the hard way.

And Laverty has been part of enough Kilcoo sides who have done exactly that to know the potentially transformational impact those days can have.

“I’m just delighted about the character that this young Down team showed,” he said.

“With Meath last year and Westmeath this year and whenever games were going against us, we probably felt that we didn’t show the character that we needed to get ourselves back into the game so I’m really proud of them.

“People questioned this Down team about why they weren’t able to do that but everybody knows that you can’t buy experience and you can’t buy them situations - you just have to be in them time after time.

“You probably learn more from defeats and you take something away from it every time you come here.”

Laverty, meanwhile, hadn’t received an update on the injury that forced Savage from the field towards the end of normal time, but was clearly still shaken by the incident.

“I haven’t heard - I haven’t even been in our changing room yet. I know he was bad whenever I was out on the pitch… it was genuinely scary, that’s the truth.”

Football pales into comparison when such moments unfold, no matter how high the stakes.

Despite the worrying wait while their team-mate was treated, Down managed to regain their composure as the remaining moments of normal time were played out at a relentless pace; real throwback stuff as the heart of a brilliant battle was played out in the skies, with both counties carving out scores and goal chances as space opened up behind.

Caolan Mooney, seconds after coming on, levelled it up when he slalomed through and fired over four minutes into the eight added. Back came Sligo, Darragh Cummins profiting from a pressure-relieving Brian Cox catch to edge the Yeatsmen ahead again.

Conor Laverty was proud of his Down players after Sunday's Tailteann Cup semi-final win over Sligo. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Conor Laverty was proud of his Down players after Sunday's Tailteann Cup semi-final win over Sligo. Picture by Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

Then Ryan McEvoy jumped for joy when his effort sailed between the posts before Mooney had the chance to win it. Having spent so long on the sideline, what a story that would have been.

But just as the RGU Downpatrick clubman loaded up, Eddie McGuinness dived full length to get down on his boot and force it out. With Pat Havern withdrawn, McEvoy fancied his chances from the subsequent 45 – but the body language told a different tale this time, the Kilcoo man’s shoulders slumping as the ball drifted wide to send the game into extra-time.

With Sligo players dropping like flies, Down had to make the man advantage pay. And yet they could never create any real daylight – even when Odhran Murdock’s penalty, converted after McEvoy’s buccaneering run was brought to a halt by Mikey Gordon, looked to have Down home and hosed heading down the straight in extra-time.

Tony McEntee’s men gave every last drop to the cause, but a bit more composure before the posts, and in front of goal, could have had the Mournemen out the gate long before the long whistle.

Where they couldn’t miss against Laois 12 months earlier, John McGovern, Danny Magill and Ryan Johnston all saw goalscoring opportunities go begging, while ‘keeper Aidan Devaney pulled off a superb reflex stop to prevent Eddie McGuinness’s deflection from spinning into the Sligo net.

The nature of the two goals conceded will be revisited in the video analysis sessions between now and July 13, when acquaintances are renewed with a new-look Laois under Armagh All-Ireland winner Justin McNulty.

The first came when Cian Lally went full Forrest Gump, just keeping on running as the red and black sea parted, before releasing Patrick O’Connor to slot home. The second, after similar space was granted to Mullen, ended with Canice Mulligan palming home the kind of goal Laverty would have been delighted with.

Room for improvement is there, but then Down wouldn’t be in the Tailteann Cup if that wasn’t the case. Now, at least, they have quelled some of the questions about character as another date with destiny looms – one, this time, they cannot afford to pass up.

Down: J O’Hare; P Fegan, R McEvoy (0-2), P Laverty (0-2); M Rooney (0-1), D Guinness (0-1), S Johnston (0-1); P McCarthy, O Murdock (1-0); D Magill (0-1), P McCarthy, R Johnston; C Doherty, P Havern (0-7, 0-4 frees), J McGovern (0-1). Subs: L Kerr (0-3) for McElroy (HT), O Savage for R Johnston (54), C McCrickard for McGovern (58), R Magill for D Magill (65), E Brown for Savage (temp sub, 66), C Mooney (0-1) for Havern (70+3), Havern for R Magill (ET), R Johnston for S Johnston (75), D Magill for Havern (83), E Brown for Doherty (87)

Yellow card: D Guinness (40)

Sligo: A Devaney; P McNamara, E Lyons, E McGuinness; B Cox, N Mullen, D Cummins (0-2); P Kilcoyne, C Lally; C Mulligan (1-0), A McLoughlin, L Deignan (0-2); S Carrabine (0-4, 0-2 frees), P O’Connor (1-1), N Murphy (0-3, 0-2 frees). Subs: M Walsh (0-1) for O’Connor (66), E Smith for McLoughlin (69), M Gordon for McNamara (69), D Conlon for Lally (70 +7), L Casserly for Deignan (ET), D Quinn for Carrabine (76), P O’Connor for Kilcoyne (80), P Spillane (0-1) for Mulligan (86)

Yellow cards: B Cox (10), S Carrabine (38), N Murphy (44)

Red card: N Mullen (60)

Referee: D O’Mahoney (Tipperary)