For the second week running, Down mustered a late rally to force extra-time, but the Exiles responded positively and a goal from sub Luke Hand set up a Croke Park date with Wicklow.
“It took serious character to respond the way we did,” said Phelan. “We’re still a new team – there’s only three or four left from last year and the players need time to gel. But these lads are serious hurlers. A lot of our games have been away this year, and we said we weren’t going to lose it at home today. The players stood up.”
Phelan saw his side get off to a dream start at Ruislip, Martin Finn atoning for an early penalty miss by drilling an eighth-minute goal.
The expert free-taking of centre-back Conor Woods kept Down in contention, and although they were twice denied by last-ditch London defending late in the half, the Mournemen would have been confident of overturning their 1-7 to 0-5 interval deficit.
However, it wasn’t until the midway point of the half that Down found their rhythm. A goalmouth scramble saw Michael Ennis net on 52 minutes, and the visitors dramatically forced extra-time when Woods slammed home a last-minute penalty.
Down had the wind in the first period but failed to take advantage, and fell behind again through Hand’s cool finish after a Hail Mary ball from Lee Mackey broke his way.
The London defence stood firm in the second period and booked their place in a Croke Park decider for the fourth time in as many years. “We’re liking this habit,” laughed Phelan.
Scorers for London: M Finn 1-4 (4f), K Walsh 0-4, J Maher 0-3, L Hand 1-0, PJ Rowe 0-2, T Dunne, J Egan, T Hogan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Down: C Woods 1-8 (1-0pen, 6f, 1 ‘65’), M Ennis 1-0, F Conway, E Clarke 0-2 each, P Sheehan 0-1 (1f).
LONDON: D Russell; E Walsh, B Costello, G Fennelly; M Walsh, D Maher, L Mackey; C Quinn, PJ Rowe; P Sloane, J Egan, S Egan; J Maher, M Finn, T Dunne.
Subs: K Walsh for S Egan (44), B Smyth for Sloane (60), H Vaughan for J Egan (70), T Hogan for D Maher (72), L Hand for Dunne (75), S Ryan for Quinn (80),
DOWN: S Keith; P Smyth, M Hughes, S Ennis; F Conway, C Woods, M Cunningham; A Savage, P Keith; P Sheehan, M Ennis, A O’Prey; E Clarke, D Hughes, M Turley.
Subs: C Bailie for Sheehan (43), A Clarke for D Hughes (46), E McGuinness for Turley (52), D Hobbs for Keith (h-t in extra-time),
Referee: T Carroll (Offaly).