Staring Down the barrel...

James McCartan joked that he had a taxi ordered and the engine was running.

Staring at a nine point deficit with his team being comprehensively outplayed in every department, the Down boss was embarrassed and dejected as the first-half of an incredible game drew to a close at the Athletic Grounds.

Monaghan were coasting, it seemed, into an Ulster final when they led by 0-11 to 0-2 with the first-half almost over.

Conor McManus was wreaking havoc, Owen Lennon and Dick Clerkin were winning everything in midfield, and the scores were flying over from everywhere, admittedly with the aid of a strong gust.

Then came the first twist.

Conor Laverty won a penalty in first-half stoppage time, which Aidan Carr converted, and Down sensed there was still something there for them in this game.

It was a lifeline, and boy, did they make the most of it.

The second-half ebbed and flowed before Down somehow hit the front for the first and only time in the match when Darren O’Hagan fisted the ball over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

It is hard to lay the finger of blame at anyone in particular. Yet Dick Clerkin will be distraught at missing a opportunity of an equaliser from 20 yards out. He took a shot into a tricky wind, when Ciaran Hanratty was unmarked inside him screaming for the ball, and missed.

Down fired over the first five points of the second-half and you see their players visibly grow in belief and confidence. The Down swagger was back and Conor Laverty causing huge problems.

Monaghan thought they had weathered the Down storm when Tommy Freeman, sprung from the bench only moments earlier, blasted in a goal in the 57th minute.

It was disputed by Down, who thought the play had been stopped for the referee to book Brendan McArdle, but quick-thinking by McManus teed Freeman up and he finished superbly.

It put them four points up but they were outscored by six points to one after it.

Down still trailed by three, 1-13 to 1-10 with five minutes remaining and there was a touch of irony about the late points from Benny Coulter and Liam Doyle.

Here were the survivors of the 2003 Ulster final debacle — when Down led by nine points against Tyrone only to draw the game and get hammered in the replay – dragging Down back into the final for the first time since then.

Only seven weeks after breaking his ankle, Coulter came on with four minutes remaining and scored a point within 20 seconds of his introduction.

Doyle converted a difficult free before Aidan Carr got the equaliser with time almost up.

There was still time for one more twist. In the first minute of stoppage time, a long ball from Carr was fisted by the goalkeeper. The rebound fell nicely for defender Darren O’Hagan who fisted it over the bar for a dramatic winner.

Monaghan played all the football in the first-half and led by nine points, 0-11 to 0-2, heading for the interval.

Conor McManus destroyed Conor Garvey. Down’s defence was all over the place and Dan McCartan paid the price with an early call to shore.

Paul Finlay was clearly far from fully fit but he also chipped in with important scores as Monaghan romped into what looked to be an unassailable lead.

Owen Lennon twice blocked down Ambrose Rogers’ shots and made a vital interception when a Down goal looked on. It was all going Monaghan’s way. They had a strong wind, and they had all the momentum.

The game-changer was undoubtedly the penalty, which lifted Down’s spirits after being so comprehensively outplayed.

Going in at 0-11 to 1-2 behind, they still had a chance.

It seemed at times they had 16 men to face in the second-half, such was the bizarre nature of some of Michael Duffy’s calls.

The worst decision was to deny Down a blatant penalty when Danny Hughes seemed to be pushed in the back midway through the second-half.

Down’s comeback was already well underway by then, though, and they got over all the hurdles put in front of them to somehow get over the line in the best football game of the summer so far.

Scorers for Down: D O’Hare 0-5fs, A Carr 1-2, (1-0 pen, 1 45), C Laverty 0-2, D O’Hagan, B Coulter, L Doyle, K Duffin, A Rogers 0-1 each.

Scorers for Monaghan: C McManus (3fs), P Finlay (3fs) 0-5 each, T Freeman 1-0, D Hughes 0-2 (1f, 1 45), D Clerkin 0-1.

Subs for Down: K Duffin for D McCartan (21), L Doyle for Duffin (63), B Coulter for O’Hare (66).

Subs for Monaghan: T Freeman for K Hughes (50), K Duffy for Dooney (50), N McAdam for Turley (66), C Hanratty for Gollogly (70).

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