The day inches really mattered

HILL 16 and its controversial new perimeter might have been all the talk last week but the Davin Stand end of Croke Park has been the epicentre of the summer’s drama and so it proved again yesterday.

It was at the old Canal end that Joe Sheridan made his leap into the history books and it was there, too, that Donncha O’Connor did his best Cool Hand Luke impression to land a hat-trick of late frees against Dublin.

Rob Kelly came close to topping them both. Talk of fingernail margins is usually the preserve of the swimming community but there was no more fitting way to describe such a margin between victory and defeat.

Seven points down with a dozen minutes to go and playing well below themselves, Kildare launched a stirring comeback to trail their opponents by just two as the last of four extra minutes came to a nerve-shredding end.

The better side for all but a handful of the regulation 70 minutes, Down had retreated further and further into their half as the clock wound down until 14 of their number swelled the ranks inside their 45.

David Lyons had one effort saved low by goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh. Shouts of ‘penalty’ went unheeded by Pat McEnaney when a Down defender appeared to play the ball on the ground.

Then Brian Flanagan was fouled 20 metres out and Kelly ran forward seven or eight more before unleashing a shot that grazed Kalum King’s digits before rattling the crossbar and being evacuated from the conflict zone.

Down had survived, but only just.

Justice had been done. Down had clearly played the better football and could boast the majority of the game’s best players but there was huge sympathy for a luckless Kildare regardless of those facts.

Slow starters all summer, they had emerged quicker from the blocks only to have their momentum thieved by a goal from Benny Coulter that should have been disallowed for square ball.

There were only 13 minutes played but there was already a sense that this would not be Kildare’s day as Alan Smith’s legitimate looking point was waved wide six minutes earlier. An unfortunate set of circumstances, no doubt, but the Leinster side added to their problems through a mushrooming collection of wides and loose passing which left them trailing by five points at the half-time break.

Down were primed to make gains.

Danny Hughes and centre-back Kevin McKernan were creating overlaps and havoc in equal measure by going forward in a manner that no-one aside from Eamonn O’Callaghan in the first quarter could replicate for Kildare.

If there was any area of equality it was in the middle third where neither Ambrose Rogers nor Dermot Earley managed to resume sufficient fitness and play a part as a result of their much-publicised injuries. No Henry-style resurrections here.

Peter Fitzpatrick, in for Rogers, was the game’s outstanding midfielder but the statistics at half-time and again at the game’s end suggested that neither county had profited much more than the other in that zone.

The balance of power wavered during the second half’s opening exchanges as Callaghan hit the butt of McVeigh’s post at one end and then Fitzpatrick’s goalbound shot was blocked by Morgan O’Flaherty at the other.

Down were still in front by four when the last quarter punched in and that gap was stretched to seven soon after thanks to a trio of scores from a Martin Clarke free, Conor Maginn and Fitzpatrick.

That seemed to be that.

Clarke was simply immense by that point. A grafter in defence and the puppet master up front, he was all things to all men, the perfect link between his side’s robust defence and swift counter-attacks.

Nor was he alone.

Danny Hughes was a colossus of similar stature and Coulter, though not on top of his game, grew in influence as the afternoon went on and provided a dependable outlet when moved into full-forward.

Kildare had few such inspirations in which to turn. Five of their starting forwards were kept to three points from play between them. Only Callaghan of their attackers managed more than two scores from play.

As the game went on, Down began to hunt in packs. Time and again, Kildare players were chased like alley cats down dead ends leaving the man in possession with no option but to put boot to ball and hope for the best. Ironically, it was one such hopeful punt that rekindled the contest. The lucky break – Kildare’s only one of the day – came courtesy of a bounce off Kavanagh and Callaghan picked up the loose ball before recording the goal.

Cue a manic closing act in which a lethal mixture of bad luck – a Kelly point attempt off the bar – and bad shooting – a terrible wide from Padraig O’Neill from distance – conspired against Kildare.

Sometimes, it just isn’t your day. Or your year.

It may yet be Down’s.

Down: Brendan McVeigh; Daniel McCartan, Dan Gordon, Damien Rafferty; Declan Rooney, Kevin McKernan (0-2), Conor Garvey; Peter Fitzpatrick (0-1), Kalum King; Daniel Hughes (0-2), Mark Poland (0-3), Paul McComiskey (0-1); Benny Coulter (1-2), John Clarke, Martin Clarke (0-3). Subs: Aidan Brannigan, Conor Maginn (0-1), Ronan Murtagh (0-1), James Colgan.

Kildare: Shane McCormack; Peter Kelly, Hugh McGrillan, Andrew MacLochlainn; Morgan O'Flaherty (0-1), Emmet Bolton (0-1), Brian Flanagan; Daryl Flynn, Hugh Lynch (0-2); James Kavanagh (0-1), Padraig O'Neill, Johnny Doyle (0-6); Eoghan O'Flaherty, Alan Smith, Eamonn Callaghan (1-1). Subs: Ronan Sweeney, Karl Ennis (0-1), David Lyons (0-1), Robert Kelly, Tomas O'Connor.

Referee: P McEnaney (Monaghan).

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