'Our boys were deadly nervous before the match, they just felt an awful lot of pressure': Down survive scare to see off Longford

Liam Kerr attempts to drive past Iarla O'Sullivan during Down's Tailteann Cup victory over Longford in Newry on Saturday night. Picture by Philip Walsh
Liam Kerr attempts to drive past Iarla O'Sullivan during Down's Tailteann Cup victory over Longford in Newry on Saturday night. Picture by Philip Walsh

Tailteann Cup preliminary quarter-final: Down 1-20 Longford 1-12

IT looked set to be another shocking Saturday night against Longford, but a second half blitz inspired by some familiar names from the bench saw Down into the Tailteann Cup quarter-final hat on Monday morning.

Having lost both previous Championship meetings with the Midlanders, in 2002 and 2016, some anxious looks were exchanged leaving the field at half-time as Longford passed up a series of gilt-edged goal chances that would have hammered home their advantage in a helter-skelter first 35.

Niall Kane won’t be rushing to revisit the one that did hit the net, Joe Hagan’s left footed effort taking a deflection on the way through, then somehow slipping under Kane’s reach and trickling over the line.

However the Kilcoo ’keeper redeemed himself with some important saves - especially when denying Hagan a minute after the goal - before Patrick Fox sent his low shot agonisingly wide of the post in a kamikaze climax to the half, Longford piling on the pressure as Down dawdled.

Conor Laverty’s side trailed by three going into the changing room, but it could – should – have been far worse, with a brilliant save from Longford ’keeper Patrick Collum to tip Odhran Murdock’s added time penalty onto the post compounding the Mourne misery.

But, inspired by the introductions of Ross Carr, Danny Magill and Rory Mason – sons of former county stalwarts Ross sr, Miceal and Brendan – they eventually managed to prise open a gap before bursting through it as the game wore on.

Danny Magill’s brilliant solo goal 10 minutes into the second half levelled it up at 1-10 apiece, the Burren dynamo darting through the defence before keeping his head to coolly slip the ball beyond Collum.

And Longford legs could hold out no longer as the Mournemen made them pay down the stretch to ensure an away quarter-final showdown against Antrim, Limerick or Cavan next weekend, the impressive Pat Havern adding a generous flourish to the scoreboard that looked like being so different at one stage.

“We lacked a wee bit of energy, I don’t know if that was nervousness,” said Down assistant Mickey Donnelly, who hopes brothers Ryan and Shealan Johnston could be ready for quarter-final action.

“People looking in from outside probably think we hadn’t a lot to gain from today, maybe that’s why there was that wee bit of flatness.

“Our boys were deadly nervous before the match, they just felt an awful lot of pressure, when you see the Division Four teams winning, teams coming away from home winning. We had an awful lot to lose.”

And they played with that kind of anxiety in the first half.

Ceilum Doherty dragged one effort wide of the post 11 minutes in, while several clear opportunities for scores were passed up as Down instead went in search of goals that weren’t always on.

Given how profligate they had been in front of the posts against Meath the previous weekend, kicking 17 wides, Donnelly felt Saturday night’s over-eagerness was a direct consequence of what had unfolded on the way to defeat in Parnell Park.

“Definitely,” said the Tyrone man, “it’s like if you go to a nightclub and you keep asking women out and they keep saying no, the next night you go out you’re a wee bit more reluctant to ask.

“No, you’re trying to work the ball into the scoring zone, you’re taking that extra care and how that manifests itself, we went hunting goals that weren’t really there, when it would have been good enough to box the ball over the bar a couple of times or dink it over from the edge of the D.

“We certainly did that in the second half and that was very pleasing.”

For Longford, though, it will have been a tough journey home on a night when the difficulties in front of goal that beset their League campaign resurfaced to bring an end to their Championship summer.

What made it doubly disappointing for boss Paddy Christie was how composed they had been out the field until Magill’s crucial goal, with Hagan lighting up Pairc Esler while the tricky forward pairing of Keelin McGann and Darragh Doherty were causing all manner of problems.

The former Dublin defender would have appreciated the bravery of Anthony Doherty’s goal-denying blocks in both halves but Christie knows better than most that, when you’re on top, you have to make it count.

And, even though they finished with 13 after late black cards for Aaron Farrell and Daire O’Brien, the real damage was done by the failure to capitalise when opportunity repeatedly knocked.

“We had six goal chances, the fact we didn’t convert some of them, obviously that hurt us,” said Christie.

“If we went in six, seven up half-time, it would’ve been a huge mountain for them to climb.

"But the fact that we went in, having played quite well and created those chances, and still only ended up winning the first half by three points, that’s probably where we struggled.”

The goal from Magill - who replaced Shane Annett at half-time - galvanised the Mournemen, while Carr’s catch from Mason’s wayward shot to claim, then convert, a mark moments later was a thing of beauty.

With the game opening up, and Down finally finding their mojo, Mason was suddenly the conductor of the orchestra, finishing with three scores to his name while Paddy McCarthy, Ceilum Doherty and Eugene Branagan pushed the Mournemen out the gap and into the last eight.

Down: N Kane; P Laverty, P McCarthy (0-1); G Collins; R Magill, A Doherty, D Guinness; S Annett, O Murdock; C Doherty (0-1), D McAleenan (0-1), L Kerr (0-1), E Branagan 0-2; A Gilmore (0-3, 0-1 free), P Havern (0-6, 0-2 frees). Subs: R Carr (0-2, 0-1 mark) for G Collins (33), D Magill (1-0) for Annett (HT), R Mason (0-3, 0-2 frees) for McAleenan (47), EBrown for Gilmore (55), P Branagan for R Magill (68)

Yellow cards: R Carr (49), C Doherty (70+4)

Longford: P Collum; P Fox (0-1), Andrew Farrell; M Quinn; B Masterson, I O’Sullivan, P Lynn; R Moffett, D Gallagher (0-1, sideline); J Hagan (1-3), D Reynolds (0-1), Aaron Farrell, D Farrell (0-2, 0-1 free); K McGann (0-2, 0-1 45), D Doherty (0-2, 0-1 mark). Subs: B O'Farrell for D Farrell (58), M Duffy for Doherty (67), D O'Brien for Reynolds (70+1), R Harkin for Lynn (70+1). Blood sub: B O'Farrell for Lynn (21, reversed 24)

Black cards: A Farrell (68), D O'Brien (70+4)

Yellow cards: P Lynn (19), Andrew Farrell (33), M Quinn (70+4)

Referee: A Nolan (Wicklow)