Down have long carried a reputation for florid football but they adapted to the modern game as well as anyone yesterday in Cavan and it made for a game of wincing physicality and fitness against the Ulster and All-Ireland champions.
The consequence was a spectacle that, aesthetically, was almost devoid of beauty and the low-scoring nature of the final scoreline only hints at the paucity of magical moments on an afternoon when might was almost always right.
By the finish, the free count had exceeded 60.
In the end, it was the three sublime points by Colm McFadden in the mid-to-late part of the second period that made the ultimate difference, proof perhaps that individual genius is not quite an archaic concept just yet.
The rationing of memorable moments was especially rigid in an opening period which delivered just the one score of creative note — Mark Poland’s jinking run past three defenders — and that came after 32 mundane minutes of bish and bash.
Donegal ended that half with six points. Four of them, including all three they managed from play, were sourced directly from turnovers in the Down defence or midfield and Down’s struggles were even more pronounced further afield.
Poland’s effort was their only score from play in the first half, one which extended past 39 minutes, while Donal O’Hare added three more white flags from frees. It took them 28 minutes to manage an attempt that reached Donegal’s end line.
Fittingly, that drifted wide.
It was only natural amidst all that to look on at Benny Coulter gasp for possession like a fish for water and think of his treatise on the game in Ulster some years ago when he claimed he wouldn’t pay to watch a game of football.
Yet, in fairness to the Mayobridge man, he fed well off the meagre scraps that came his way while Conor Laverty buzzed about with intent before being shackled somewhat by young Ryan McHugh.
Donegal’s full-forward line was equally deprived, marooned like their opposite numbers at the far end behind the barbed wire of a half-back line reinforced by troops sporting double digits on their backs.
Down played with not one but two sweepers although the poster boy for this safety first football was Donegal’s Mark McHugh who ran forward and back the length of the pitch in a metronomic hypnotic loop.
That said, it was the kind of shift that Donegal needed more than ever, what with Karl Lacey and Neil Gallagher missing from the off through injury and Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn following suit due to a concussion in the first period.
It was a half that ended with Down kicking a free 15 metres back towards their own goal, a reaction perhaps to the litany of turnovers committed by both sides, and that claustrophobic theme continued after the break.
Down’s defence, deprived of four starters from last year’s Ulster final defeat against Donegal, stood up favourably in a first half when Donegal enjoyed the bulk of possession and the focused turned towards Donegal thereafter.
The injuries to Bradley and McGlynn may have necessitated two switches but the difficulties Donegal were experiencing all afternoon were evidenced further by the two other substitutions made before the 46th minute.
Down pushed hard early in the second half especially but bad options cost them. If they weren’t carrying the ball unwisely into contact they were delaying over a point attempt on the rare occasions when space was not at a premium.
Coulter, of all people, was guilty of the most glaring example of the latter when attempting to play in a team-mate for a goal chance on a day when none presented itself, while McFadden was far more economical.
Try as they might, Down could never get the gap down to just a single point and when substitute Ryan Mallon spilled the ball in the last second of injury-time as he bore down on Donegal’s goal, the last chance was lost.
James McCartan’s reaction said it all. The Down manager ripped the earpiece from his lobe and flung his walkie-talkie to the ground. For all their injuries and Down’s efforts, Donegal had found a means to survive.
As champions do.
Scorers for Down: D O’Hare (0-6, five frees), M Poland, J Johnston, D Savage (0-1 each).
Scorers for Donegal: C McFadden (0-5, three frees), M Murphy (0-5, one free), R Kavanagh, P McBrearty (0-1 each).
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, D Rooney; R Boyle, P Turley, K Quinn; K King, K McKernan; C Laverty, M Poland, A Rogers; D O’Hare, N Madine, B Coulter.
Subs for Down: R Mallon for Quinn (49), J Johnston for Coulter (57), D Savage for Nadine (62).
DONEGAL: P Durcan; N McGee, E McGee, P McGrath; Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson; R Bradley, R Kavanagh; David Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh; C McFadden, M Murphy, C McFadden.
Subs for Donegal: M O’Reilly for David Walsh (34), M McElhinney for Bradley (35), R McHugh for McGlynn (ht), R Wherity for McLoone (46), D Molloy for McBrearty (66).
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois).