Down subs sink Carlow in dramatic finish at rainswept Ballycran
NHL Division 2A, round one: Down 2-10 Carlow 1-12
ON a day when waders and oilskins would have been useful the combination of a several subs and a Fisher man sank Carlow, losing in Ballycran for the second year in a row.
Ballygalget's Marc Fisher netted the game's crucial third goal in the third minute of added time, following good work from fellow replacements Chris Egan and Daithi Sands, but Down still had to survive five more minutes and several long range shooting opportunities for the visitors to snatch the draw they probably deserved.
Carlow boss Tom Mullally fulminated against referee Thomas Gleeson - during and after the game - but the official from Dublin gave the Barrowsiders every chance to share the spoils in those closing moments.
Instead, Down held on to the narrow half-time lead they'd eventually dug out, 1-4 to 0-6, with Carlow unable to make the strong wind advantage count in their favour after the teams turned around.
Even so, a Nolan show had seemed set to infuriate Down hurling folk, with John Michael Nolan coming off the bench to put them in front in the 65th minute, leading for the first time since the game's opening goal from another Naomh Eoin clubman - Oisin McManus of the Belfast variety - coolly converted in the 28th minute.
After that, though, the lightness of the home forwards had often seemed a disadvantage against some Carlow man-mountains, but the speed of Daithi Sands and Fisher cut through them after Egan took possession near half-way.
Carlow then went down to 14 men when wing-forward Sean Murphy saw red and saw red, sent off for striking down Down corner-back Tom Murray.
The visitors still could have won, and should have snatched a draw, but Stephen Keith tipped over a shot from Conor Kehoe then, the next minute, Martin Kavanagh could not add to his tally of six frees.
Carlow got one last chance with another long range free, but Kavanagh passed to centre half-back Diarmuid Byrne and his huge effort drifted agonisingly wide.
Down manager Ronan Sheehan hailed the outcome as "an absolutely super result. At half-time it didn't look good, we felt we left a few scores behind us, missed a couple of frees, which is very unlike us.
"They're the kind of games you need to win. What you need is character - and this team has oceans and oceans of character."
Mullally felt the hosts were also favoured by the ref, who sent him off for loudly and rudely disputing one - admittedly pretty bad - call on the hour mark, as Carlow tried to level the game: "No one is looking for perfect refereeing, all you're looking for is consistency. Today I didn't see that anyway.
"Maybe I have my Carlow goggles on, but it doesn't take a genius to see that frees were being blown at one end and not the others. I don't think that's sour grapes. What we're looking for is fairness.
"A lot of time and investment going into playing matches right throughout the country and all we're looking for is a little bit of fairness."
In terms of score-able frees, though, the distribution seemed fairly equitable: Down converted seven frees, missed three, and sent another couple short; Carlow scored six frees, missed three, and spurned that last-gasp chance.
The decisive goal may have been a classic Ards combination - Ballycran to Portaferry to Ballygalget for the finish - but this team truly represents the county, 'the mainland' as well as the peninsula.
Players from nine different clubs lined out in the red and black, with former county champions Ballela and Liatroim represented, along with Newry Shamrocks, Bredagh - with two starters - and Carryduff.
Beyond those last two Belfast area clubs there's another city side involved, indeed another county, as opening goalscorer McManus now plays his club hurling outside the county, with St John's of Antrim.
The fact that they produced a win was all the more remarkable given their sluggish start despite having the fierce wind at their backs.
Down took more than a quarter hour to get on the scoreboard, with the outstanding Conor Woods converting a free from his own half, but were in front in the 23rd minute through a similar score by the Ballycran man.
The Portaferry duo of Murray and Eoghan Sands combined to set up McManus for his goal, and Down were also thankful for the continued long range free-taking accuracy of Woods, especially with Paul Sheehan unusually off-target on several occasions.
It was then score for score in the second half, until Carlow surged ahead, only for two more free conversions by Woods and that well-worked goal to secure a vital opening win, to manager Sheehan's delight:
"Today was a great victory - you've got to remember, Carlow a couple of years ago were playing in Division One and the Liam MacCarthy and that's two wins in a row we've put in against them here."
Down: S Keith; C Cassidy, J McManus, T Murray; C Taggart, C Woods (0-5 frees), L Savage; E Sands (0-1), M Conlon; R McCusker (0-1), P Sheehan (0-1 free), R Costello; P Og McCrickard (0-1, sideline), D Hughes, O McManus (1-1, 0-1 free).
Substitutes: D Sands for McCrickard (h-t); G Hughes for Cassidy (40); C Egan for Sheehan (49); M Fisher (1-0) for Costello (50); P Doran for O McManus (72).
Carlow: B Treacy; P Doyle, C Lawlor, M Doyle; J Kavanagh, D Byrne, J McCullagh; F Fitzpatrick, K McDonald (0-1); S Murphy (0-3), M Kavanagh (0-6 frees), J Doyle; S Treacy (0-1), C Nolan, C Kehoe (0-1).
Substitutes: J M Nolan (1-0) for S Treacy (50); T Joyce for J Doyle (62); D Tobin for Fitzpatrick (66); R Coady for Lawlor (71).
Yellow cards: Kehoe (57); Byrne (58).
Red card: Murphy (73).
Referee: Thomas Gleeson (Dublin).