EirGrid All-Ireland U20 semi-final: Down v Kildare (Saturday, 7pm, Parnell Park – live on TG4)
AS Down disappointments go, few have been more keenly felt than the All-Ireland U20 semi-final defeat to Roscommon in 2021. With little to shout about at any level for too long, having an Ulster title-winning team galvanised a county craving success.
A special group boasting the precocious talents of sweeper ’keeper Charlie Smyth, Shealan Johnston, Andrew Gilmore, Odhrán Murdock, John McGovern, among many others, hopes were high that they could go all the way to the big one.
And, leading by two with five minutes left, it was right there in the palm of their hands. Roscommon, though, had other ideas – a perfectly-timed purple patch, during which time they bagged 1-5 without response, seeing them into an All-Ireland final with Offaly and leaving Down heads spinning.
Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke could barely talk in the moments after. Truth be told, it still hurts now. Legendary former Meath boss Sean Boylan, a man who had seen it all during a storied career with the Royals, was brought on board for the wise counsel he could offer that management duo as well as the young men before him.
Leaning against a wall in the corridors of Kingspan Breffni, chatting to county chairman Jack Devaney, Boylan appeared shell-shocked by what he had just witnessed.
Two years on, there are only three survivors as Down’s class of 2023 bid to make their own breakthrough after edging past Derry in a cat-and-mouse Ulster final.
And the Burren trio of Murdock, Paddy McCarthy and captain Ryan Magill – an injury doubt for Saturday night’s All-Ireland semi showdown with Kildare – have already warned their team-mates about the perils of walking away from Parnell Park with what-might-have-beens.
“Those lads spoke at training,” said Darragh O’Hanlon, part of Laverty’s management team this year, “they’ve been here before and maybe didn’t do themselves justice that day in Breffni.
“These lads are determined to get into an All-Ireland final.”
And, just as was the case a few years back, it is within their gift to get there – but a repeat of their first half performance against Derry won’t cut the mustard against a Lilywhite outfit carrying a fair bit of hurt themselves after All-Ireland final defeat to Tyrone last year.
A superb late burst saw Down edge home in a game when, for the vast majority, they had been marginally second best. The movement of Charlie Diamond and Matthew Downey caused bother while the Mournemen were far too predictable at times - the sides mirroring each other but the Oak Leafs more effective on the counter once possession had been won.
Yet Derry just couldn’t gather up enough of a lead to ever feel comfortable, the pace and accuraery of Oisin Savage posing problems all evening and, when the clutch scores came, it was Down who got them.
Murdock ghosted into the square to collect an exquisite Callum Rodgers pass with nine minutes left, finishing low past Ben O’Connor, before super-sub Jamie Doran put the result beyond doubt with Down’s second goal.
Having impressed en route with wins over defending champions Tyrone, and then Monaghan, coming out the right side of that kind of gut check should stand to them at Parnell Park.
Kildare, though, are hardly lacking in this department either. With seven survivors from last year’s final defeat to the Red Hands, they had to hold their nerve to retain the Leinster Championship last month.
Trailing or level for most for their provincial final against Dublin, Brian Flanagan’s side found themselves a point behind in the dying moments. The Dubs were playing keep ball, trying to run the last of the legs out of Kildare – but they weren’t done yet.
Instead Colm Dalton cut in from the left to send over a super score at the start of the third minute of three added, and when extra-time came Kildare made that momentum count by finishing the job in style.
The intensity with which they hunted Dublin down should serve as due warning to the Mournemen, with concentration key as another war of attrition looks likely to unfold. Down will hope that, with lessons learned from the past, this is their time.
Waiting in the decider, meanwhile, will be the winner of Saturday’s other semi-final between Kerry and Sligo (4.45pm, Pearse Stadium, live on TG4).
The Yeatsmen showed last year’s Connacht title triumph was no flash in the pan when they toppled Galway, justifying the favourites’ tag earned after swatting aside Mayo in the last four.
There were question marks over Tomas O Se’s Kerry when they needed extra-time to get over Clare in the Munster semi-final, but the Kingdom were impressive in dispatching Cork the next day out.
They lost Ardfert half-forward Rob Monahan to a second half red card against the Rebels, but his availability on Saturday is a huge boost as they bid to reach a first All-Ireland final at either the U21 or U20 grade since 2008.