Down got what they needed from January

Niall Toner was the game's outstanding player, kicking five points from play. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Niall Toner was the game's outstanding player, kicking five points from play. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Down 3-9 Derry 1-15 (Derry win 3-2 on penalties)

WHAT odds, really, about a McKenna Cup when you get all you need from it even in defeat?

Yesterday’s rip-roaring semi-final would easily have passed for a tail-end league game. Derry won it, Down lost it. That part was decided by a penalty shootout that pivoted just as the 70 minutes before it had.

Down might have liked another game, another week of holding on to the extra panel members that will now be cut before they start their league campaign down in Thurles in 13 days’ time.

Derry, with their threadbare numbers that tallied just 22 fit players yesterday, and Tyrone will get another slap at other in Armagh on Saturday evening.

When you compare it to the farce of what’s going on in other provinces, the Ulster teams have had a completely different level of preparation.

“It is very well known that Down have got their act together under new management team, to their great credit,” enthused Rory Gallagher afterwards.

“They have got everyone training, training exceptionally hard, you can see the level of fitness and power they have in comparison to where they were, it is light and day.

“Kilcoo have been heavyweights, Burren have some excellent minors teams as well so we know there are good players there, from playing against them in colleges.

“But I am delighted with our response. I think we were the better team. Mistakes in the first half handed them 1-2 which was cruel, in the sense of instead of being four or five up, we were two up.

“We responded well to the two goals, not happy about giving two goals away but it is early in the season.

“We haven’t done a lot of work on the pitch, defensively or anything like that. But we responded well, missed a lot of chances, but an awful good experience for the lads.

“From day one, you want to be a team for all seasons, it’s the start of the journey for Lachlan Murray, it’s the start of the journey for Ben McCarron to an extent. Eoin McEvoy, Brendan Rogers playing in the middle of the park.

“Obviously Lynchy, Clucky and those boys are still young. They have had a successful season last year, but the more games they play, the more tests they get, the more challenges they get, the better they know the game.”

Gallagher said they’d review Chrissy McKaigue’s second-half sending off before deciding whether to appeal, although in pointing to Padraig Hampsey successfully having his dismissal from last week’s meeting with Derry overturned, he was perhaps leaning towards at least trying.

Down’s McKenna Cup campaign brought victories over Division One opposition Monaghan and Donegal, and they took Derry the distance.

There’ll be no trophy at the end of it but having won just three games in this competition against county teams in the last ten years, the promise in their opening to the year was reflected by the packed and noisy stand in Newry.

“We’ve got a wee bit of meterage into the legs,” said coach Mickey Donnelly.

“Three games against three decent teams. Donegal and Monaghan were both very understrength, Derry maybe to a lesser extent.

“Just trying to get a wee bit of belief into these lads that they can be competitive, and trying to be competitive in all games. It’s massive preparation for Tipp in 13 days.

“We’re all competitive, whether you’re playing darts or cards or snooker, you wanna win. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a Down jersey, a Derry jersey or a Kerry jersey, these lads play football because they wanna win football matches.

“Putting belief in a group is probably about having that wee sense of togetherness as well, and I think we’re getting there,” said the former Derry U20 manager.