'Nine times out of 10 you don’t win that game': Saffrons left sick as Down snatch victory

Down's Conor Poland celebrates his late goal as Down came from five behind to snatch victory over Antrim at Pairc Esler. Picture by Philip Walsh
Down's Conor Poland celebrates his late goal as Down came from five behind to snatch victory over Antrim at Pairc Esler. Picture by Philip Walsh Down's Conor Poland celebrates his late goal as Down came from five behind to snatch victory over Antrim at Pairc Esler. Picture by Philip Walsh

Allianz Football League Division Three round two

Down 2-18 Antrim 2-17

THIS was a night when preconceptions took a pasting.

Down, flying high at the start of the year, buoyed by an opening win in Tipperary, were sure things. Antrim, on the other hand, had lost out to Offaly at home last weekend, having come off the back of a Dr McKenna Cup campaign that left more questions than answers.

Would it be good to look at? Probably not. Down would sit deep, wait for the Saffrons to walk into their web and gobble the game up from there.

Given how defensively sound the Mournemen were for most of the game at Semple Stadium, this new-look Antrim would do well to cause too much bother.

A complete mockery was made on all of those fronts as Andy McEntee’s men bucked pre-match predictions with a confident, composed display during an unexpectedly hell for leather, don’t-look-away-for-a-second Ulster derby scoreathon.

Four goals, 35 points, a host of other half-chances at both ends, this was exactly as it sounds, with both counties serving up breathless stuff from beginning to end at Pairc Esler.

Unfortunately it was marred somewhat by two nasty looking injuries, with Antrim’s Dermot McAleese sustaining a broken jaw after an accidental collision six minutes in, while Clonduff forward Barry O’Hagan had to be stretchered from the field towards the end of the first half.

“His knee is in a brace and he’ll be assessed tomorrow,” said Down boss Conor Laverty, “we’re still not 100 per cent sure just the extent of it.”

Make no mistake, though, this was a game the Saffrons should have won. The better team for most of the game, five up with five minutes to go thanks largely to goals from Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann in either half and the buccaneering brilliance of midfielder Conor Stewart, Antrim’s performance merited putting two points on the Division Three board.

Indeed, when roving goalkeeper Michael Byrne turned playmaker, taking out three Down defenders with a lovely left footed pass for Patrick Finnegan to finish, it looked to have put the seal on a night to forget for the Newry faithful.

But football doesn’t work that way, with only a spark required sometimes to start a fire.

And when the chips were down, it was two of the Mourne County’s youngest who stood up and forced the issue. With Down pressing hard, 22-year-old Ryan McEvoy did well to regain possession under the stand before freeing 20-year-old Odhran Murdock.

Even when things weren’t going well, the Burren man never gave up the fight. His third score brought the crowd to life, and when the excellent Michael Byrne’s subsequent kick-out fell short, Pierce Laverty was on it like a whippet.

Rather than try to weave pretty patterns as Down had tried, and mostly failed, through the course of a pulsating evening, the Saul man lumped it into the square.

A scramble ensued, and eventually it was left to substitute Conor Poland to scoop home from a few yards out.

With the wind at their backs, and Antrim wondering what the hell had just happened, the Mournemen were visibly lifted as a frenzied finish unfolded.

Pat Havern, who had been quiet, launched over a super score to put Down ahead – 2-17 to 2-16 - for the first time since Andrew Gilmore palmed home a 28th minute goal.

McEvoy’s reaction to Havern’s score, leaping into the air as the crowd’s roar pierced the night sky, said it all. Relief, and a challenge reinvigorated. They wouldn’t, couldn’t, let it slip now.

Andrew Gilmore could have killed it off altogether with another goal minutes later, before Havern laid off for sub Mark Walsh to curl over and release the pressure valve a little more.

Typical of how Antrim had refused to cede any ground all night, Dominic McEnhill reduced it to the minimum once more. But, just as they ran out of luck, so they ran out of time on a swinging pendulum of a night for both counties’ League ambitions.

“Yeah, I think most people, if they had any sort of a neutral view at all, would probably say that,” offered Antrim boss McEntee when it was suggested the better team had lost. But how, from such a commanding position, had it gone so wrong?

“Maybe a little bit of inexperience,” said the Meath man, shaking his head, “we coughed up a couple of soft possessions. Our kick-outs, which had been really excellent the whole game, one of them dropped short and we concede a goal from it.

“It never looked like Down were going to catch us without scoring a goal.”

But, as has been the hallmark of the Kilcoo sides Laverty has graced across the past decade, Down just didn’t know when to quit.

For all the wasted possession, the soft goals, the running head-first into trouble time and again, his side had shown something that only comes to the fore when it has to. You either have it or you don’t.

Smash and grab? Yes. But there was solace in spades as Down take four points into another all-Ulster clash with Fermanagh in a fortnight.

“You have to credit the character of the players and the never say die attitude in playing right to the final whistle. It’s a sign of a team with a bit of heart,” said Laverty.

“If you asked me what I wanted a Down team to have when we came in, we had a lot of different boxes we wanted to tick, and having heart and desire would’ve been right up near the top of the list.

“I felt that, even though things weren’t going right for them tonight, they showed tremendous heart and desire in the closing stages to grab that game that was probably gone.

“Nine times out of 10 you don’t win that game, but tonight these Down players showed that there’s something different about this group.”

Down: N Kane (0-1, 45); P Laverty, R McEvoy, P McCarthy; C Francis, R Magill, M Rooney; N Donnelly, O Murdock (0-3); C Doherty, D McAleenan, L Kerr (0-3); Andrew Gilmore (1-4, 0-2 frees), P Havern (0-2), B O’Hagan (0-3, 0-1 free). Subs: N McParland for McCarthy (32), E Brown (0-1) for O’Hagan (35+6), M Walsh for Doherty (45), S Miller (0-1) for Rooney (48), C Poland (1-0) for Donnelly (48)

Antrim: M Byrne (0-2, 0-1 45, 0-1 free); P Healy, D Lynch, J McAuley (0-1); D McAleese, J Finnegan (0-1), M Jordan; K Small, C Stewart (0-3); P Finnegan (0-2), A Loughran (0-1), R McCann (Creggan - 0-1, 0-1 free); R Murray (0-2, 0-1 free), R McCann (Aghagallon - 2-1, 0-1 mark), P Shivers. Subs: S O’Neill for McAleese (6), D McEnhill (0-3) for Shivers (32), C McLarnon for Small (HT), O Eastwood for Murray (57), P McCormick for Healy (63)

Black card: S O’Neill (45-55)

Yellow cards: A Loughran (27), R Murray (55)

Referee: B Tiernan (Dublin)