Doggedness that defined Down's season saves McDonagh Cup status
Joe McDonagh Cup: Down 2-28 Meath 2-19
IT was fitting that the game which saved Down’s season was ultimately decided by the kind of doggedness and determination that defined it.
With 13 minutes left to play in Ballycran, victory was anyone’s as the sides stood level for the 11th time on a nervy afternoon. Yet it felt as though the Ardsmen, moreso than Meath, had everything to lose.
The Royals came to McKenna Cup with a smash and grab in their sights; a one-off game that could spare them the drop back down to Christy Ring Cup and provide some solace after a forgettable 2022 that had already seen them relegated from Division 2A.
Score difference was now irrelevant as, if Meath won, they would retain their Joe McDonagh Cup status via head to head results. Whether or not they deserved to avoid the drop mattered not one damn - this was their chance and they were determined to take it.
Up by a point at half-time, thanks largely to a Jack Regan penalty and a Chris Reilly goal, and within touching distance until the chase headed down the final straight, the Royals battled hard and gave themselves every chance of springing an upset.
All the pressure, therefore, rested on Down shoulders.
They were the ones who set a standard through the spring, pushing hard to for promotion to the top tier, and while the Ardsmen may have shown they belong in the McDonagh Cup, they still had to earn the right to remain.
Down looked edgy at times on Saturday, some poor decision-making bringing trouble to their door, while long balls into the square – particularly in the first half – caused the kind of mayhem from which Meath were able to thrive.
But, just as they had done against Carlow, Westmeath, Meath and Kerry already this year, Ronan Sheehan’s side found a way to get across the line when it mattered – two super-subs turning the tide in their favour.
With the game all square Ryan McCusker, three minutes after being sprung from the bench, lashed home a 57th minute goal when Meath ’keeper Charlie Ennis – perhaps losing the yellow sliothar beneath the sun - batted Pearse Og McCrickard’s effort straight to the Ballela man.
The experienced Conor Woods might not have hit the net himself but he had a major impact after being introduced with 61 minutes on the clock.
A fractured thumb sustained against Offaly three weeks earlier looked to have ended what could be his final campaign in county colours but, if it is to be the end for the 33-year-old, what a way to go.
Within a minute he used the breeze at his back to send over a free from just in front of the Down square – the first of four before the day was out. And he also had a hand, or a hip, in the Ardsmen’s crucial second goal as Down finally created some daylight.
This time Woods was loitering in the square as a long puck in was won by Meath full-back Sean Geraghty, only for the Ballycran man to block his path out, forcing a scramble that led to the sliothar trickling across the line via a combination of Royals backs Padraig Potterton and Brendan McKeon.
“That just summed up our year,” said Meath coach Seoirse Bulfin with a rueful smile, “we got very little breaks. Maybe we’ll get them next year.”
John McManus, Matt Conlon and Liam Savage were inspirational at times, driving Down forward, while the pace and directness of Tim Prenter proved too hot for Meath to handle all day as he finished with five points from play.
And when that own goal went in, there was only one winner – no more than the Ardsmen deserved both on the day, and for their efforts in a year when momentum was impressively maintained.
“We knew they were going to come in and give everything for it because it was a shot at nothing for them,” said Sheehan.
“We were confident enough at half-time - we’d done all the hurling, they got a couple of goals from long balls in around the square. We knew that wouldn’t be as much of an option in the second half, so we were confident if we kept going, we would get over the line.
“Once Ryan McCusker got the goal, I don’t think there was any doubt who was going to win the game. Look, if we’d lost here today and been relegated from the Joe McDonagh Cup, it would’ve been a disaster.
“Obviously you can’t say that the week before a match because it piles pressure on people, but I said to the boys during the week that this was a more important game than the 2A final [against Westmeath].
“In terms of long-term development, this is where we want to be. Next year will be our third in the McDonagh Cup, that’s fantastic, you can see the difference it’s making to players – and we just want to keep that going.”
Down: S Keith; J McManus, B Trainor, D Mallon; C Taggart (0-1), M Fisher (0-1), T Murray; L Savage (0-2), P Og McCrickard (0-2); E Sands (0-1), M Conlon (0-2), C Egan (0-2), P Sheehan (0-7, 0-6 frees); D Sands (0-1), T Prenter (0-5). Subs: R McCusker for Conlon (blood sub 1, reversed 3), C Cassidy for Fisher (41), R McCusker (1-0) for Prenter (55), M Hughes for Mallon (59), C Woods (0-4, frees) for Sheehan (61), J Doran for Egan (65)
Meath: C Ennis; B McKeon, S Geraghty, P Potterton; J Kelly (0-1), D Kelly, S Morris; M Burke (0-1), S Whitty; K Keena, J Regan (1-10, 1-0 pen, 0-3 65s, 0-7 frees), M O’Sullivan (0-4); M Cole, D Healy, C Reilly (1-1). Subs: N Potterton (0-1) for Morris (6), J Walsh (0-1) for Cole (31), E O Donnchadna for Keena (40), P O’Hanrahan for N Potterton (62), A Gannon for Reilly (68)
Yellow cards: M O’Sullivan (1), M Cole (21), K Keena (35+6)
Referee: T Gleeson (Dublin)