Defeating Donegal in Ulster SFC delights Down assistant manager Marty Clarke
A STAT to show the significance of this win: it was 4.35pm, around 45 minutes after the game ended, before Pat Havern finally left the Pairc Esler pitch, Down's top scorer wearily stripping off his jersey as he walked towards the changing rooms.
The full-forward from Saval had scored 1-3, including a coolly converted penalty goal 10 minutes into the second half as the hosts moved five points clear, a lead they held at the long whistle to spark joyous celebrations and a pitch invasion.
All of his tally was from placed balls, and he had no more room for manoeuvre after the game ended, as well-wishers and autograph-hunters engulfed the Down players.
The Mournemen's assistant manager Marty Clarke acknowledged that this was a major breakthrough for his county, with their only other Ulster SFC wins since the 2017 Final coming against Antrim and Fermanagh:
"We were absorbing it up there [in the Newry Shamrocks complex]; it was a significant step for us to get a victory against a really good team in the Championship. We're fully aware that it is only one step in this year's Ulster Championship, but it was great for the boys to see it out.
"To have Newry fairly well filled and have Down people out onto the field after a Championship win, it was an important stage in our journey."
Clarke was thrilled by the manner of the build-up to their second goal, the penalty, awarded after Donegal full-back fouled Ryan Johnston: "If you're watching us this season, that's the epitome of how we like to go about it.
"We were moving the ball fast, taking no touches, and we got the penalty. Odhran Murdock is our penalty-taker but Pat Havern stood up and put it away really well."
With Armagh already assured of their place in the new 16-team Sam Maguire Cup series, Down need to reach the Ulster Final to join them, which Clarke sees as extra motivation for the Mournemen:
"That adds another layer to the importance of it for ourselves. Getting to an Ulster Final with this group would be enormous in its own right, but to potentially be moving into the All-Ireland series is another carrot for the group, and something that we'll look at. From [Monday] on we'll certainly be focussed on that fixture."
Donegal manager Aidan O'Rourke missed out on facing up to his native county next weekend but he was dreadfully disappointed by Donegal's display – especially their defending for the two Down goals:
"They scored a lot of goals in the League and we were acutely aware that we had to track their runners all the time. They got two runners away in the game. [Liam] Kerr got away for the first goal and Ryan Johnston got away for the penalty. Both runs weren't tracked.
"They'd a bit of luck for the first goal in terms of how the goal broke to Kerr, but he made the hard run and got his reward for it. We switched off for the two goals and that's unacceptable."
The Dromintee man was also strongly critical of Donegal's shooting, saying: "In the first half I felt we missed opportunities to put more scores on the board. We took the foot off the gas a bit when we got the goal and that allowed them to get a foothold in the game instead of pushing on.
"It isn't close to good enough - I think we'd 34 shots in the game so, if you take that return, it is not good enough at this level."
O'Rourke did praise the Donegal players' efforts: "I thought they put in a serious shift. They owned the kick-out count and had a lot of possession throughout the game.
"But if you don't turn that into scores, you are giving your opponent opportunities. Between kicking wides and turning the ball over, we really shot ourselves in the foot…
"In the second half, we really hurt ourselves - they scored 1-5 directly from us giving the ball away and you'll not win any games at this level giving the ball away as much."
An Riocht clubman Clarke was understandably delighted that Down without Donegal's late surge, saying: "When they got those three [scores] in a row to bring it back to one point I think we actually lost that next kick-out but then we won it back and got a score – and that was a really big moment for us.
"We were able then to stretch that [lead] out and Donegal were really chasing hard late in the game as the clock was ticking down. That's an important part of the development of this squad to be able to see that game out."
Getting past Armagh will be an even tougher task – but at least Down football is on the up.