By Francis Mooney
Down 1-18, Antrim 0-14: Down are 70 minutes away from a second successive Ulster SFC final, and after this comprehensive defeat of Antrim at Pairc Esler, they will feel they can get the better of either Donegal or Derry in the last four.
Kevin McKernan’s goal in first half stoppage time was a direct result of goalkeeper Chris Kerr’s ill-fated short kick-out strategy which put his side under pressure through the opening 35 minutes.
And when the Saffrons went down to 14 men following the straight red card dismissal of defender Ricky Johnston on 57 minutes, there was no way back, with the Mourne men already reaching out for the finish line with a ten points lead.
That short-handed Antrim out-scored the home side by six points to three in the final 15 minutes said as much about Down’s casual approach in those closing stages as it did about Saffron spirit.
Antrim’s bright start, with Matthew Fitzpatrick and Patrick McBride both on target, gave their supporters in the crowd of 5,589 cause for optimism, but Down were soon into their stride, picking off scores through Caolan Mooney, Donal O’Hare and Shay Millar.
Debutant Ronan Millar was always busy, putting the Antrim kick-out under pressure and setting up a score for McKernan, before defender Benny McArdle pushed forward to make it 0-7 to 0-3 by the 24th minute.
Antrim had scores on the breakaway from Patrick McBride and the excellent Conor Murray, but the kick-out tripped them up in the 36th minute when Shay Millar intercepted Kerr’s short re-start and sent McKernan in to finish to the net from close range.
McKernan received a black card moments later, but he had given his side a 1-9 to 0-5 interval lead, which was to be built upon by O’Hare and long range dead ball specialist Anthony Doherty.
McArdle, Colm Flanagan and Niall McParland were able to gather a string of aimless Antrim deliveries and set the home side back on the attack, with O’Hare continuing to hit the target from play and frees, and substitute Sean Dornan adding a couple.
The Saffrons lost Johnston to a straight red on 57 minutes, but battled to the end, hitting scores through the Murray brothers, Ryan and Conor, as well as substitute Kristian Healy, who scored twice.
As Down allowed the intensity to drop, Antrim finished with a flourish, but Eamonnn Burns’s side finished strongly with scores from Dornan and Doherty.
Down: M Reid; C Flanagan, B McArdle (0-1), A Doherty (0-3, 3f); D O’Hagan, N McParland, C Mooney (0-1); P Turley, N Donnelly; K McKernan (1-1), C Maginn, S Millar (0-2); D O’Hare (0-7, 5f), C Harrison (0-1), R Millar.
Down subs: S Dornan (0-2) for McKernan (BC, h-t), J Flynn for R Millar (50), D McKibbibn for Mooney (56), R McAleenan for Flanagan (56), C McGrady for Harrison (59), N Madine for O’Hare (66).
Antrim: C Kerr; P Healy, P Gallagher, N Delargey; K O’Boyle, R Johnston, J Laverty; P McAleer, N McKeever; M Sweeney, C Murray (0-4, 1f), R McCann; R Murray (0-2, 1f), M Fitzpatrick (0-1), P McBride (0-4, 2f).
Subs: C Duffin (0-1) for Gallagher (h-t), S Beatty for McKeever (49), K Healy (0-02) for McCann (49), D Lynch for Laverty (55), O Eastwood for McAleer (62), M McCarry for P Healy (70).
Referee: D O’Mahony (Tipperary).