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Down's Championship summer ends at hands of Mayo

STANDFIRST

Down’s Kevin McKernan battles for possession with Mayo’s Fionn McDonagh at Pairc Esler on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh
From Neil Loughran in Pairc Esler

All-Ireland SFC Qualifying round two: Down 1-11 Mayo 1-16

THERE may have been a bit of a kick-up about the throw-in time before, but the huge travelling support was in no rush to leave Pairc Esler when all was said and done.

Packed bars from early in the afternoon, one bus after another emptying enthusiastic visitors out onto footpaths, and a main stand that more closely resembled MacHale Park by throw-in. There’s a unique kind of mania that Mayo fans bring to the GAA, and on Saturday night Newry got a small window into their world.

Five points – not six as referee Fergal Kelly, and the scoreboard, had it – was the difference in the end as the westerners held off a bold Down challenge to banish memories of last year’s Newbridge nightmare.

And what unfolded afterwards had to be seen to be believed.

Lee Keegan will rarely have had more of a chasing than from the posse of screaming teenagers, clad in green and red everything, who bounded after him as he headed for the dressing room.

Aidan O’Shea had the audacity to pose for selfies and sign autographs a good 20 minutes after the final whistle had blown as the Mayo fans flat out ignored any attempt to stop them getting onto the field.

There were two die-hards who had only arrived in Ireland on the morning of the game – one having travelled from New York, the other from the Bahamas. They didn’t make that journey for an All-Ireland final, not even a Connacht final; they crossed the Atlantic for a second round Qualifier against a Division Three county.

And as Mayo survived a couple of second half scares to secure their place in the pot this morning, the bandwagon officially back up and running, no doubt it will be looked upon as money well spent.

“We’re delighted to get through with the win,” said boss James Horan.

“It was hairy enough in the second half at times. Once we got the goal we seemed to just step off half-a-yard and gave them quite a few goal chances.

“That wasn’t great but I think we were enough ahead just to keep our noses there.”

It could have been different – Down had no shortage of scoring opportunities, more than their opponents in fact – but it wasn’t. And the reasons for that are clear.

In a game like this, the Mournemen needed everything to come off. Every half-chance had to count. Over the course of the 70-plus minutes, there were far too many shots dropped short or kicked wide at crucial times. From four 45s, they scored none. From three genuine goalscoring opportunities, they took one.

Five different free-takers were tried as they attempted to get a foothold in a game, and when it came to big match cuteness/cynicism, call it what you will, James Horan’s men held all the aces.

A few timely wrestling matches broke out as the Mournemen attempted to force themselves back into the game late on, a trick learned first hand from the Dubs in the dying minutes of their 2017 All-Ireland final defeat.

Even in the continued absence of Cillian O’Connor, they still have so much quality. Horan dismissed rumours of a bust-up with O’Connor, who wasn’t even part of the matchday squad despite suggestions he was ready to go, but in the end they didn’t need him.

And in O’Shea they had the evening’s outstanding performer. The Breaffy man-mountain was a colossal influence and it was a tough ask for young Owen McCabe – brought in just before throw-in after Johnny Flynn tweaked a hamstring in the warm-up – to measure up to such an experienced campaigner.

He stuck manfully to the task, but unfortunately his evening ended in hospital after suffering a suspected broken jaw during the second half.

Despite their dominance at times, Down also exposed the vulnerabilities evident against Roscommon four weeks ago.

The searing pace of Caolan Mooney cut through the Mayo rearguard time and again, and his brilliant ninth minute goal – slotting calmly to the net despite losing possession somewhere in the middle of a breathtaking run – provided Down with a platform to build upon.

Feeding off scraps from kick-outs, and out-of-sorts from dead balls, they struggled to make much more of a dent on the scoreboard and trailed by three at half-time, 1-4 to 0-10.

Had the Rostrevor man rattled the net a second time six minutes after the break following another burst from deep, the Mayo support may not have been in such jubilant mood afterwards. Score a goal then, and Down only trail by a point. Instead his shot flew over the bar.

Ninety seconds later a brilliant bit of quick-thinking from the evergreen Andy Moran caught the Mournemen napping, with his free finding Conor Loftus who beat Rory Burns to the ball before finishing into an open goal. Behind by six, it was a long way back.

Lee Keegan was swiftly moved inside from the wing to prevent Mooney wreaking further havoc. Not only did he do that, the 2016 Player of the Year also ghosted forward to land three second-half scores of his own in a dominant display.

Typical of this Down side under Paddy Tally, however, their heads didn’t dip. Cory Quinn’s introduction from the bench lifted the crowd, and Donal O’Hare almost gave Mayo a sweat heading into the final 10 when he brilliantly caught a long ball in from Kevin McKernan.

However, when he eventually managed to get his shot away, there just wasn’t enough on it and David Clarke saved comfortably.

The Mayo fans were delighted on the final whistle but, unlike in previous seasons, there was little despondency among the Down support. And despite the early finish to their Championship summer, Tally is happy with where the Mourne county is headed after his first year at the helm.

“They have to realise if they want to go further at this level of football, you have to become better,” said the Galbally man.

“But next year we will take a lot from this year. You can see the maturity growing with the players. We had 13 Championship debutants this year and that's a lot. And these things don't happen overnight.”

Down: R Burns; D O'Hagan, B McArdle, G Collins; R McAleenan, K Kernan, D Guinness; C Mooney (1-1), O McCabe (0-1); C Poland, C Francis, P Laverty, P Havern (0-1); D O’Hare (0-3, 0-2 frees), C Harrison (0-2). Subs: J Guinness for Laverty (41), J Johnston (0-1) for D Guinness (47), C Quinn (0-2) for Havern (50), B O’Hagan for McCabe (54)

Black card: D O’Hagan (60, replaced by P Devlin)

Yellow cards: K McKernan (30), D Guinness (43), G Collins (59)

Mayo: D Clarke; C Barrett (0-1), B Harrison, K Higgins; L Keegan (0-3), C Boyle, P Durcan; D O'Connor (0-1), A O’Shea (0-1); F McDonagh (0-2), C Loftus (1-4, 0-3 frees), J Doherty; K McLoughlin (0-1), D Coen, A Moran (0-2). Subs: F Boland for Doherty (53), M Murray for McDonagh (61), C Treacy (0-1) for McLoughlin (67), M Plunkett for Moran (70+1), J McCormack for O’Connor (70+5)

Black card: D Coen (14, replaced by E Regan)

Yellow cards: D O’Connor (26), J Doherty (29), E Regan (37), K McLoughlin (59), C Boyle (70+2)

Referee: F Kelly (Longford)

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