Down deliver when it really matters to seal Croke Park shot

Danny Magill celebrates after scoring Down's crucial 68th minute goal during Saturday's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan. Picture by Adrian Donohoe
Danny Magill celebrates after scoring Down's crucial 68th minute goal during Saturday's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan. Picture by Adrian Donohoe Danny Magill celebrates after scoring Down's crucial 68th minute goal during Saturday's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan. Picture by Adrian Donohoe

Tailteann Cup quarter-final: Cavan 0-15 Down 1-17

IT would be easy for the Tailteann Cup to mess with the mind. We’re told it doesn’t matter, that the competition is for also-rans. Attendances have been hit and miss - mostly miss – as the struggle to escape the shadow of Sam rumbles on.

And yet Saturday’s quarter-final victory over Cavan felt, by some distance, the most significant of a topsy-turvy year for Conor Laverty’s Down.

Beating Donegal in the Ulster Championship was great, a day to savour when previous years have gifted so few. The sun was shining and Pairc Esler was packed - even the unseemly, borderline sinister plane incident couldn’t kill the mood.

The Tir Chonaill’s recent upsurge casts that win in an even more favourable light two months on, yet it still carried the sense of a standalone occasion in this Down side’s development, rather than a major building block.

Armagh represented a different challenge entirely at that point in time and duly swept their neighbours aside in the Clones rain. But, even if the Mournemen had managed to make it to a provincial decider, were they really ready to enter an All-Ireland round-robin series after a League campaign when promotion from Division Three ultimately proved elusive?

Despite fears of one-sided whippings, Westmeath, Louth and Sligo have been steeled by the experience, raising their games and raising expectations going forward as a result. Perhaps Down could have done the same.

Instead, though, the Tailteann Cup has brought Laverty’s men along roads less travelled, and the journey has been no less rewarding as a result - a Croke Park semi-final lies ahead, while the carrot of securing next year’s All-Ireland Championship shot is well within reach.

Coming up against Cavan, at whatever stage that arrived, was always going to provide the truest test of whether Down were improving or standing still. After patchy performances against Meath and Longford, margin for error was narrowed to the minimum.

The Mournemen had to get so much right against the Breffni bogeymen who eased across the line in last year’s Tailteann Cup meeting before repeating the dose in the League back in March, a strong second half showing that day effectively putting paid to Down promotion hopes.

On Saturday, Down emphatically answered any lingering questions with their most rounded display of the year – never allowing Cavan to lead, showing the tactical flexibility to pose different kinds of problems and holding their nerve when the second half fightback came.

“We knew we needed a complete performance,” said assistant manager Mickey Donnelly.

“There was a huge amount riding on today, and we had questioned their character all week, what way they were going to respond. Anybody who was at the match today saw the way they did respond.”

For the second week in-a-row it was Danny Magill who popped up with the all-important goal, this time finishing off a flowing move started by Shealan Johnston’s diagonal pass inside to Pat Havern, Magill bursting onto the Saval man’s offload to cushion beyond Ray Galligan.

Arriving in the 68th minute, that major moved the Mournemen into a 1-15 to 0-14 lead after Cian Madden and Padraig Faulkner – on a one-man mission at times - kept Cavan in contention, a subdued home crowd finally finding its voice as a grandstand finish was anticipated.

But Down have shown many times this year that they are made of stern stuff, the fitness to implement that draining back to front style for 70-plus minutes in fairly claustrophobic conditions a feature of Saturday’s game.

In the absence of Paddy Lynch – who bagged 2-5 in the League meeting – the Breffnimen looked lost for ideas. Playing on Down’s tendency to mark space rather than men, clever use of the attacking mark kept Cavan in touch as Oisin Brady repeatedly darted out in front to collect short kicks, converting from two, while a further two were changed to frees and brought forward.

Defensively dogged at one end, Down were more direct and carried a greater threat at the other, either when going long into Havern or Odhran Murdock, or when raiding from deep at pace through Magill, the returning Ryan Johnston, Liam Kerr – who landed four from play - Ceilum Doherty and Daniel Guinness.

And then there was Rory Mason. The Loughinisland man opted off the panel after barely getting a kick during the League, was convinced to return a fortnight ago on the back of his club form, and – following an impressive late cameo against Longford - was the best player on the field on Saturday.

Although strong and deceptively quick, it is Mason’s composure and accuracy with the boot that makes him a compelling counterpoint to Down’s other attacking options – his highlight reel 47 metre free from under the stand was a thing of beauty, the outside of the left effort carried with the wind just enough to raise the biggest cheer of the first half.

The biggest cheer of the second half? When Mason was brought off in the dying seconds of added time, job all but done.

The genie is out of the bottle now, and the 29-year-old will be a marked man no matter who Down face on Sunday, while Cavan are left to pick up the broken pieces of another Tailteann Cup campaign that ends on a low note.

In truth, for all the good the spring months brought, the shocking nature of their Ulster Championship exit to Armagh would ultimately prove a point of no real return.

“Without a doubt,” said Graham, who will take time to consider his future in the months ahead after six years in the Cavan hot seat.

“We would always have targeted the Ulster Championship, it’s something we would pride ourselves on, but we were very flat after that - we were frustrated with it.”

The Down journey carries on, leaving behind the back roads and taking the M1 straight to Jones’s Road. Unable to draw Meath due to the previous pairings rule, none of Antrim, Carlow or Laois will want to see their name come out of the hat on Monday morning.

Cavan: R Galligan; C Reilly, P Faulkner (0-2), N Carolan; Ciaran Brady, O Kiernan (0-1), Conor Brady, G Smith, K Clarke; C Madden (0-1), D McVeety, T Madden (0-1); Brandon Boylan (0-1), G McKiernan (0-1), O Brady (0-8, 0-4 frees, 0-2 marks). Subs: R O’Neill for Conor Brady (23), C Moynagh for Boylan (58), J McCabe for C Reilly (62), C McGovern for G Smith (70+2)

Yellow card: O Brady (30)

Down: N Kane; P McCarthy (0-1), P Laverty, A Doherty; M Rooney, C Doherty, P Branagan; D Guinness, O Murdock; L Kerr (0-4), R Mason (0-4, 0-1 free), D Magill (1-1); R Johnston (0-1), E Branagan, P Havern (0-5, 0-2 frees, 0-1 mark). Subs: S Johnston for E Branagan (44), R McEvoy for Laverty (60), S Annett (0-1) for R Johnston (66), G Collins for R Mason (70+2)

Yellow card: D Guinness (65)

Referee: S Mulhare (Laois)