Down do enough to deter Oisín McConville’s Wicklow

Down didn’t have it all their own way against a Wicklow side shorn of potentially NFL bound goalkeeper Mark Jackson

Down's Ryan McEvoy holds off Wicklows Joe Prendergast
At close quarters: Down's Ryan McEvoy holds off Wicklows Joe Prendergast. Picture: Louis McNally

Allianz NFL Division Three Round 1

Wicklow 0-13

Down 0-18

Conor Laverty’s Down footballers got their 2024 Division 3 campaign off to a superb start when emerging from a windy and dreary Echelon Park Aughrim as 0-18 to 0-13 winners over Oisin McConville’s Wicklow on Sunday afternoon.

With away wins likely to be precious commodities in what has all the hallmarks of a tricky league voyage, the points and the confidence that will flow from it could prove vital come the business end of the adventure.

There was plenty to be pleased about for the Down supporters who made the journey down to the Garden County on Sunday, with very impressive performances from the likes of Pierce Laverty, Ryan McEvoy, Daniel Guinness, Odhran Murdock, Liam Kerr and the stylish Pat Havern, a significant impact off the bench and a relatively efficient showing in front of the posts.

A significant area of concern for Conor Laverty and his backroom team will be the three goal chances created by Wicklow in the opening half when playing against the wind, two from turnovers. Had one or all three of those been converted, the spin home may have been far quieter and more subdued than it likely was.

Down produced some very impressive bursts throughout this game. They opened smartly, Liam Kerr bagging two points (a mark and a free) either side of a tasty effort from Oisin Savage.

Wicklow recovered and fired over two of their own, but the visitors added another three with the wind at their backs, Finn McElroy, Pat Havern with the first of his five points and a wicked effort from Odhran Murdock who got through a pile of work to leave it 0-6 to 0-2 after 19 minutes.

Wicklow closed the gap to two by the 24th minute and they had missed two of those three goal chances in that same time, but Down seemed to have a bit more about them going forward, the excellent Daniel Guinness finding a gap in the Wicklow rearguard and then adding another when blazing over when he might have had a goal if he could have kept his rocket under the crossbar.

Brian Nesbitt struck back for Wicklow but Down drove on with two Havern peaches making it 0-10 to 0-5 and Conor Laverty making the second of two first-half changes, bringing in Conor McCrickard for Gareth McKibben having earlier replaced James Guinness with Shealan Johnston.

Conor McCrickard has hurled for Down at minor and U20 level, and is now part of Ronan Sheehan's senior squad - while remaining part of Conor Laverty's county football panel. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Jack of all trades: Conor McCrickard has also hurled for Down at minor, U20 level, and senior level.

A late Wicklow flurry left it 0-10 to 0-7 at the break with the home supporters expecting a bright second half given that Oisin McConville’s side would be enjoying the wind at their backs in the second half.

That sense of optimism was blown away on the bitterly cold wind within the first 10 minutes of the second half when Down hit the ground galloping with points from Pierce Laverty, two from Havern and a miraculous effort from Rory Mason that had to be seen to be believed.

This surge opened up a 0-14 to 0-7 lead and left Wicklow with a huge mountain to climb, even more so with the loss of free-taker Chris O’Brien to injury after nine of the second half.

They replied with two tasty efforts but Down moved up through the gears, working the ball well through the lines and the congested Wicklow defence and creating scoring chances for the likes of Daniel Guinness, Liam Kerr, Guinness again and a Rory Mason free making it 0-18 to 0-10 after 27. Game over, essentially.

Wicklow needed goals but they never looked like scoring any in the second half, choosing to pop over points rather than drop late frees down on the visitors’ square in the hope of rescuing something from this game.

A fine win for Down. They survived some defensive jitters in the first half and produced a very impressive second to run out very convincing winners.

Speaking to Down GAA TV after the match, coach Mickey Donnelly cut a satisfied figure:

“We knew it was going to be tricky coming down the road. We didn’t mention all week that Oisín McConville and Mark Doran knew us, probably better than anyone else in the division, so it’s good to get a good result and get the league up and running.

“(We have) Limerick on Saturday evening, hopefully a big Down support can get behind the lads and hopefully we can get another two points.”

Wicklow: Shane Doyle; Tom Moran, Matt Nolan, Jack Tracey; Joe Prendergast, Paddy O’Keane, Jacques McCall; Dean Healy, Craig Maguire; Chris O’Brien (0-5, 4f), JP Nolan (0-1, f), Cathal Baker; Brian Nesbitt (0-3, 2f), Kevin Quinn (0-4, 1m, 2f), Johnny Carlin. Subs: Oisin McGraynor for C O’Brien (44, inj), Gearoid Murphy for JP Nolan (50), Declan Doyle for J Carlin (55), Gavin Fogarty for J McCall (62), Darragh Fee for C Baker (62)

Down: John O’Hare; Peter Fegan, Pierce Laverty (0-1), Ryan McEvoy; Finn McElroy (0-1), Daniel Guinness (0-4), Paddy McCarthy; Odhran Murdock (0-1), Johny Flynn; Ryan Magill, Liam Kerr (0-3, 1m, 1f), James Guinness; Gareth McKibben, Pat Havern (0-5), Oisin Savage (0-1). Subs: Shealan Johnston for J Guinness (28), Conor McCrickard for G McKibben (32), Connor Francis for F McElroy (H/T), Rory Mason (0-2, 1f) for L Kerr (temp, 44, reversed after 50), Rory Mason for O Savage (65), Ryan Mcgill for N McPartland (62). Anthony Doherty for L Kerr, 68, inj).

Referee: Alan Coyne (Westmeath)