A four-point lead and an extra man advantage, following the straight red card dismissal of Down sweeper Conall McGovern after half time, should have been enough to give Derry comfortable passage to an Ulster SFC semi-final against Armagh or Donegal.
However Down’s decision to go man-for-man after the loss of their sweeper, allied to Derry collapsing and failing to score for 21 minutes, combined to produce an exciting second half, which either side could have won.
Eoin Bradley’s tap-over free in the second minute of injury-time, after Darren O’Hagan was black carded for dragging down Kevin Johnson, saw a relieved Derry win their first Ulster championship match since 2011.
It was only a second championship win out of six at Celtic Park in the Brian McIver era and coming on the back of a poor league campaign that ended in relegation, there was a sense that they fell over the line in this one.
“It was a good first half but a poor, poor second half from us,” admitted McIver. “We went into our shell.
“When we had the extra man, we seemed to over-elaborate and took too long on the ball. We were coming across the field, whereas we were moving the ball at pace in the first half.
“I said to one of the selectors just after it (McGovern’s red card) ‘this will do us no favours’. I’ve seen it happen so often in the past, but thankfully we got out of it with a result. It sets us up for a semi-final in a good way, because we know we have work to do.”
Down will have plenty of regrests. A tentative first half, after which they trailed 0-8 to 0-5, and their seven second half wides being top of the list.
They missed other opportunities in the last quarter. Jerome Johnston and Paul Devlin kicked wides and Mark Poland dropped one short into the ‘keeper’s hands. They were crucial misses at a time when Derry were on the ropes.
After a quiet opening, Fergal Doherty and Mark Lynch came to the fore at the end of the opening half and combined to steer Derry into a three-point lead.
The sides were level twice in the opening nine minutes, Eoin Bradley and Kevin McKernan both scoring great points. Bradley, who won a lot of possession in the first half, scored three early on as Derry opened a 0-4 to 0-2 lead after 19 minutes.
Derry’s excellent fullback line bottled up the Down forwards and rookie Brendan Rogers, playing in his first senior inter-county match, did a fine job on playmaker Mark Poland for most of the game.
Mark Lynch struggled with his free-taking in the wind but converted his first in the 24th minute. The score lifted him, and he hit three subsequent points from play before the break.
Kevin McKernan split the posts after 32 minutes to leave the visitors trailing by 0-6 to 0-5 but Lynch scored two vital points to open up a cushion Derry needed to cling onto.
Down, inspired no doubt by their victory here two years ago when they came from five points down to pip the Oak Leafers, reacted positively to the loss of McGovern for an alleged off-the-ball strike on Enda Lynn.
Conor Laverty pulled the strings and orchestrated matters and they grew in ascendancy.
They nailed four points in a row to draw level after 56 minutes, three Devlin frees and a cracker from Laverty leaving shellshocked Derry looking like they might get pipped.
Caolan O’Boyle and Devlin swapped points in a tense finish.
The game looked certain to end in a draw in an absorbing last ten minutes but when Derry mounted one last attack, Bradley released Kevin Johnston, who was dragged down by Darren O’Hagan.
The Down defender picked up a black card and Bradley tapped over the winning free that puts a relieved Derry through to an Ulster semi-final against Armagh or Donegal on June 27.
McIver was pleased with the performance of rookie Brendan Rogers, who had the better of the hugely experienced Poland until the latter stages.
Having been without Eoin Bradley, who chose soccer when given an ultimatum by McIver last year, Derry were reminded once again yesterday of what they had missed while he was away with a five-point hail.
“He has really looked forward to getting back playing football for us and you know what you’re going to get with Skinner,” purred McIver.
“He’ll give you everything on the pitch and that’s what he did today. He was a real handful and a threat for them every time we attacked.”
M Lynch 0-5 (2f), E Bradley 0-5 (3f), E Lynn 0-1.
P Devlin 0-6 (6f), C Laverty, K McKernan 0-2 each, D O’Hare 0-1 (f).
C O’Boyle (0-1) for Heron (53), T O’Brien for Lynn (63).
P Downey for Maginn (48), J Johnston for Fitzpatrick (60), A McConville for Mooney (66), N Madine for Devlin (69), D O’Hanlon for O’Hagan (BC, 70).
Eddie Kinsella (Laois).