MARTIN CLARKE epitomises Down’s ability on the ball and superb use of possession.
I saw him first five years ago in the All-Ireland minor final win over Mayo and marked him out as an outstanding talent. He lined out at centre-forward that day and was the standout player. Since then he has grown bigger, stronger and more experienced from his time in the AFL.
He stood out yesterday, as he has done all season, and sprayed the ball around with self-confidence, vision and ability that inspired his team-mates and left Kildare demoralised. No Kildare defender had his measure.
In Pete McGrath’s All-Ireland winning teams of 1991 and 1994, Greg Blaney was the team’s playmaker and the most important figure in the side. In Clarke, James McCartan has another master craftsman and Cork must come up with a plan to limit his influence.
It is not just Clarke that did the damage and showed composure in possession. Danny Hughes, Kevin McKernan, Benny Coulter, Peter Fitzpatrick and Mark Poland used the ball astutely too and never seemed flustered on the ball.
Hughes was my selection for man of the match for his winning of breaks, darting runs up field and two fine scores from play in the first half. He was immense.
Kildare were more gung-ho and less composed and it cost them dearly.
Kieran McGeeney will have been disgusted with the amount of times his players kicked possession straight to a red jersey. I counted eight (at a minimum) of those unforced errors and turning over cheap possession to a team of Down’s quality will not get you into an All-Ireland final. Nor should it. Even in the last few minutes, both Padraig O’Neill and Robert Kelly shot wides when they should have worked the ball into a better scoring area. What would Coulter, Clarke, Hughes or Murtagh have done if the roles were reversed?
NOT unlike Dublin last weekend, Kildare coughed up some very cheap scores for Down with kamikaze-style tackling. Emmet Bolton, Brian Flanagan and Hugh McGrillen were all penalised for some very lazy tackles that all led to converted frees for the Ulster men.
It is not easy in there with open spaces, especially with the pace of the likes of Hughes, McComiskey and Poland coming at you. But dragging a man down or just belting him with your fists when he is on the ball is not the way to tackle effectively – it is the easy way out rather than pressurising the opponent into an error.
McGeeney played in an Armagh defensive system that meant that individual players were rarely isolated and left one-on-one with their direct opponents. However yesterday it was Down that had the extra men at the back, their system was superior and they had the players to carry it out.
Down break from their half-back line with pace and precision. They are difficult to stop and in the likes of their centre-back Kevin McKernan, who scored two points, they have men that can score from distance.
Conor Counihan has been warned and the likes of Paul Kerrigan, Paddy Kelly and Pearse O’Neill will be left in no doubt about their dual mandate.
Yes, Down were the superior team yesterday. And yes, they have the better individual footballers.
They deserved to win but were given a colossal boost when Coulter’s goal was allowed to stand, despite it being a square ball.
Why no free out? Pat McEnaney is always being held up as the blue chip model of the best referee in the land, but yesterday he and his team (well two of them anyway) got that call badly wrong. Kildare were doing well, leading by 0-3 to 0-1, when Coulter struck and Down added two quick points from McKernan and a Poland free immediately after. So from being two up, the Lilywhites were three down. They never led again. Games are decided on such calls and in a tight game like yesterday, the team that gets the bit of luck often comes through.