Down hold on to end wait for Allianz Football League win as Royals are rumbled in Newry
Allianz Football League Division Two: Down 1-13 Meath 0-14
AS Donal Lenihan stood about 20 metres from goal sizing up his do-or-die free five minutes into added time, it felt as though Down could be about to suffer the ultimate sucker punch.
The ball was flashed into the square and when Meath wing-back Willie Carry diverted it goalwards, Pairc Esler let out a collective groan. If it ends up in the net, the Royals will have grabbed a draw they didn’t deserve while Down are left to lick their wounds again.
Careering towards goal, the deflected effort clipped the top of the crossbar and bounced over - Down had won by two points.
There weren’t enough people inside the Newry ground on Saturday night to merit describing scenes of jubilation but you could see what it meant to the players who, along with manager Eamonn Burns, found themselves in the firing line after losing their opening two games to Fermanagh and Clare.
These are the fine margins between winning and losing and the men in red and black finally brought to an end a 22-month winless streak in both League and Championship to score a first meaningful victory for boss Burns.
“Phewww!!” Mark Poland’s one-word tweet an hour after the final whistle was all that needed said. Phew because they had narrowly avoided a cruel late sting, and phew because the book can now finally be closed on references to that last League win over Laois in April 2015.
“I’d be very aware that the players are working very hard, they’re keen to make progress,” said a relieved Burns.
“There was a lot of speculation during the week about the number of people we have at training sessions, and our training sessions have always been top end 35, and this week was no different.
“Their commitment can’t be questioned, their work rate’s great, it’s just some days on the field you make wrong decisions.
“Tonight we were tight at the back and at the other end of the field we were able to get the scores.”
Having brought in the experience of Darragh O’Hanlon, Conor Maginn, Peter Turley and Kevin McKernan following the collapse in Cusack Park a fortnight previous, Down weren’t short of leaders as they rumbled the Royals.
McKernan, fresh from helping St Mary’s College to Sigerson Cup glory, brought confidence, composure and, most importantly, the bit of wiliness and know-how to get over the line in close games that Down have been sorely lacking.
Take the final minutes as an example. After sending a late free wide of the posts, and with Meath on the offensive, the Burren man ran 50 yards at full pelt to rugby tackle Brian Power to the ground.
With less than 60 seconds of added time left, a black card was gleefully accepted so long as any Meath momentum had been stymied.
Not long before that incident McKernan, one eye on the clock, politely informed team-mate Benny McArdle there was no need to rush to his feet after he had been fouled. Cynical? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely.
The omens looked good from early on for the Mournemen as they got a fortuitous break just 92 seconds into the game. Darragh O’Hanlon’s free appeared to be drifting wide, only for Joe Murphy to rise above Carry and fist past Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal.
Towering full-forward Brian Sheridan proved a handful early on, with Donal Lenihan reliable from frees all night, but after taking that early lead Down would never let it go.
With Darren O’Hagan a free man on the left, playing just behind the superb Caolan Mooney, Down started to get some joy down that side and when Mooney burst through the Meath defence 20 minutes in and laid off to Barry O’Hagan on his left shoulder.
The Clonduff forward missed the goal by a distance, slicing his effort high off the outside of his right boot but, thankfully for Down, referee Martin McNally – after consulting with his umpires - awarded the point.
Four scores in-a-row, three from O’Hanlon and one from Maginn, gave Down a healthy five-point lead at the 33 minute mark, further points from Ryan Johnston and Aidan Carr extending that advantage before Meath’s Graham Reilly boomed over the last point of the half.
Royals midfielder James Toher fired over the score of the night from right on the sideline as the Royals started the second half well, but after an inspirational Conaill McGovern point – starting and finishing the move himself – Down didn’t look back.
Barry O’Hagan spurned another goalscoring opportunity in the 47th minute, Mooney again the architect as his electrifying pace left Shane McEntee chasing long shadows. Perhaps he should have taken the shot on himself as O’Hagan was denied by Paddy O’Rourke.
McKernan slotted over to make it 1-11 to 0-8, although he could possibly have played in unmarked substitute Jerome Johnston, but Meath responded with a Lenihan free and a point from Bryan McMahon to stay in touch.
With the game heading into the dying minutes, McKernan again found himself at the centre of the action. A Lenihan free dropped right under the Down crossbar and was palmed out by Reid under major pressure, Aidan Carr got on the ball, fed McKernan and he cut inside on to his right foot before slotting over.
The swipe of the air that followed was borne of pure relief.
A Lenihan free and that Carry near miss filled the night air with tension as the clock ticked down, but the Mourne county weren’t to be denied.
The wait for a win is over, next stop Derry this Sunday, while Royals boss Andy McEntee was left to rue a bad night at the office.
He said: “The goal was the difference in the end – the goal and the three points we gifted them in the first half.
“A couple of handpasses got turned over, then the goal was very soft – five or six points, that’s a big mountain to climb when you’re giving away soft scores like that. Lack of accuracy, lack of composure… it’s hard to put your finger on it.
“If we did our business we’d have got something out of the game and we didn’t perform to the level we would’ve like to have performed to.”
Down: M Reid; R McAleenan, G McGovern, D O’Hagan; D O’Hanlon (0-4, 0-3 frees), C McGovern (0-1), C Mooney; P Turley, A Carr (0-1; K McKernan (0-2), C Maginn (0-1), J Murphy (1-0); S Millar, B O’Hagan (0-2), R Johnston (0-1). Subs: B McArdle for C McGovern (48), J Johnston (0-1) for B O’Hagan (50), M Poland for C Mooney (65), P Devlin for R Johnston (67)
Black card: K McKernan replaced by N Donnelly (73)
Yellow cards: R Johnston (25), B O’Hagan (32), C McGovern (36), A Carr (42)
Meath: P O’Rourke; D Keogan (0-1), C McGill, R O Coileain; W Carry (0-1), B Power, S McEntee; B Menton, J Toher (0-2, 0-1 free); A Forde, C O’Sullivan, C O’Brien; G Reilly (0-2), B Sheridan, D Lenihan (0-7, 0-6 frees). Subs: B McMahon (0-1) for C O’Sullivan (HT), E Wallace for C O’Brien (47), J Wallace for A Forde (59), D Toner for S McEntee (62), S Tobin for B Sheridan (67)
Yellow cards: R O Coileain (25), A Forde (57), G Reilly (72)
Referee: M McNally (Monaghan)