Down see off Antrim to progress to Ulster Championship semi-final
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Down 1-18 Antrim 0-14
From Andy Watters at Pairc Esler
ONE of the smallest crowds ever for an Ulster Championship match saw Down canter past disappointing Antrim in Saturday evening's Pairc Esler quarter-final.
Scheduling and ticket prices were key factors as only 5,589 supporters turned up to watch a low-key affair that was effectively settled when Kevin McKernan slotted the ball into Antrim's net late in the first half.
To their credit, the Saffrons broke even in the second period but the damage had been done by then. They got their gameplan horribly wrong before the break by conceding Down's kick-outs and retreating into their own half only to allow the pacey Mourne forwards to run through their defence like rain through a grate.
It was 1-9 to 0-5 at the interval and a second half red card for Ricky Johnston compounded a forgettable evening for Lenny Harbinson's men.
Meanwhile, Down manager Eamonn Burns will have been encouraged by what he saw. His side lost McKernan to a comic-capers black card immediately after his goal but even without him, and with dangermen Caolan Mooney and Connaire Harrison below par, they had far too much for Antrim.
Antrim boss Harbinson surprised everyone with his tactics, but they backfired. The plan was to draw Down out, turn them over, build attacks patiently and get their capable shooters into the game and it might have worked in Division Four, but not in the Ulster Championship.
With time and space to work in, Down attacked using the width of their home ground and picked Antrim off with nine scorers on the night.
There were 13 wides too though and McKernan and Donal O'Hare had both passed up chances before Matthew Fitzpatrick opened the scoring with a classy point off the outside of his right boot.
Unfortunately for Antrim, that was Fitzpatrick's best moment of the game and, although Paddy McBride landed a free to double their advantage, Down settled and began to take control of the game.
With Antrim defenders watching on, Mooney surged forward and blasted over a trademark swerving point and then fellow wing-back Darren O'Hagan's pacey break brought full-forward Harrison in the game.
Johnston fouled the Glassdrumman full-forward and O'Hare swung over the first of his seven points to equalize.
McKernan's cross-field ball picked out Shay Millar who sent Down ahead for the first time and they never trailed again in the game.
Ryan Murray, isolated up front with only McKeever in support, equalized with a superb finish before Down kicked on with four points on the spin.
O'Hare landed a free and Antrim quickly found themselves hemmed into their own half with no attacking outlet ball.
Goalkeeper Chris Kerr went short with his kick-out but Championship debutant Ronan Millar read his intentions, intercepted and O'Hare fed McKernan who fisted the ball over the bar.
Shay Millar's second point (this one off his right boot) quickly followed and Down worked the ball from one side to the other before Benny McArdle joined the attack from full-back to send them Mournemen four points ahead.
Conor Murray and O'Hare swapped points and with Peter Turley and Niall Donnelly dominating in midfield, it was obvious that the game was there for the taking for Down.
Paddy McBride and Harrison scored at either end before another short Kerr kick-out was intercepted.
It was the other Millar brother (Shay) this time. He beat Matt Fitzpatrick to the ball and picked out McKernan who stroked a low shot into the net.
Kerr blasted his next kick-out long and Mooney gathered the break and launched a superb pass to McKernan who was unmarked in the full-forward position.
All he needed to do was catch, turn and shoot, but he fumbled the ball and – in frustration – dragged down covering Antrim defender Niall Delargy. Referee Derek O'Mahony had no option but to show him a black card and the Burren veteran trudged off apologizing to his team-mates as the half-time whistle went with Down 1-9 to 0-5 ahead.
Harbinson used the interval to reorganize and Antrim threw off their defensive shackles in the second half and pushed up on the Down kick-outs.
Paddy McBride landed an early free but it was quickly cancelled out when he fouled Ronan Millar and Anthony Doherty – whose mature performance must have been among the most pleasing aspects of the game for the Down management – floated the long-range free over the bar.
O'Hare added another free before Ryan Murray replied for Antrim who were showing more attacking intent, but Down still had it all their own way and were able to build attacks at their leisure.
Sean Dornan (on for McKernan) won another free for O'Hare and the consistent Conor Maginn extended the lead to nine points.
Antrim dropped three shots short – each greeted by an ironic cheer/groan from their supporters – as they tried to rally and O'Hare had the chance to absolutely finish the game off when he took Maginn's sliderule pass and bore down on the Antrim goal.
Kerr spread himself well to deflect the shot over the bar and then Ryan Murray added two points either side of a Dornan effort for Down.
The game was petering out, but the Saffrons refused to wave the white flag even though they had to finish the game without Ricky Johnston, who was red-carded after an altercation with Down substitute Johnny Flynn.
As Down rang the changes from the bench, Antrim out-scored their hosts from there to the finish with points from Colm Duffin, McBride, Conor Murray and two from Kristian Healy against efforts from O'Hare, Dornan and Doherty for Down before referee O'Mahony called time.
Antrim head for the Qualifiers taking positives from their second half display while this comfortable win will have done Down's confidence no harm at all going into their Ulster semi-final.
Down: M Reid; C Flanagan, B McArdle (0-1), A Doherty (0-2 frees); D O'Hagan, N McParland, C Mooney (0-1); P Turley, N Donnelly; K McKernan (1-1), C Maginn (0-1), S Millar (0-2); D O'Hare (0-7, 0-5 frees), C Harrison (0-1), R Millar
Subs: J Flynn for R Millar (51), R McAleenan for Flanagan (57), D McKibbon for Mooney (57), C McGrady for Harrison (60), N Madine for O'Hare (67)
Yellow cards: Donnelly (29), Flanagan (39)
Black card: McKernan (37) replaced by S Dornan (0-2)
Antrim: C Kerr; P Healy, P Gallagher, N Delargy; K O'Boyle, R Johnston, J Laverty; P McAleer, N McKeever; M Sweeney, C Murray (0-3), R McCann; R Murray (0-4, 0-1 free), M Fitzpatrick (0-1), P McBride (0-3, 0-1 free)
Subs: C Duffin (0-1) for Gallagher (ht), S Beatty for McKeever (49), K Healy (0-2) for McCann (49), D Lynch for Laverty (56), O Eastwood for McAleer (63), M McCarry for P Healy (70)
Yellow cards: McAleer (34), McBride (38), Beatty (65)
Red card: Johnston (58)
Referee: D O'Mahony (Tipperary)