Trailing by five points after Ruairí Deane’s 33rd-minute goal for Cork, having had a welter of wides before that, the Mourne Men were back to within a point of their hosts after 10 minutes of the second- half but then a trio of Cork points in response looked to have settled them once more.
With 10 minutes remaining, it was 1-10 to 0-10 for Peadar Healy’s side after captain Paul Kerrigan rounded off a nice counter-attacking move, but still Down weren’t done.
In the end, it was brothers Ryan and Jerome Johnston who helped to stave off Division 3 as they combined for three points.
A good score from Ryan in the 62nd minute was followed by a Jerome 45 in the second-last minute of normal time, but they had live on their wits as Cork sub Donal Óg Hodnett had a shot saved by Down goalkeeper Michael Cunningham.
Another Jerome Johnston 45 didn’t have the same effect as the previous one, but there was one more chance whey won a free out on the right and he curled over a lovely effort, with results elsewhere ensuring Down survived on scoring difference.
“That’s not good for your heart,” laughed Down manager Eamonn Burns.
“Cork got a goal towards the end of the first-half and gave themselves a bit of breathing space, but we talked at half-time about battling it out and I have to say we couldn’t have asked any more of the team.
“They worked hard and grafted away, closed the lead and, at the end, Jerome had a fantastic score. You get to the end and you’re waiting on results and fortunately it went for us.”
In ways, this game was Cork’s league in microcosm, a mix of the good and the bad with an underwhelming outcome.
“It was a frustrating league, to be honest, like our second-half today,” said manager Peadar Healy.
“We should have done better and got consistent performances. We should have won that one again today, we should have beaten Meath and we should have beaten Galway above, that would have been three extra points. We just seemed to look very dead out there today, I don’t know. You could put it to trying players and trying out things, you hope that they work for you.
“What was very frustrating was a nine-point lead against Meath and not winning, things like that, going up to Galway and being up two points with a couple of minutes to go. They’re games we should be winning and we’re not clinical enough at the moment.”
Down might have won comfortably but for nine first-half wides, with three of them coming before Jerome Johnston opened the scoring with a free in the seventh minute.
Once Cork got going through Colm O’Neill from a placed ball, they soon got on top and the corner-forward added two more while John O’Rourke also pointed in the 14th minute to make it 0-4 to 0-1, though he might have opted to go for goal.
Points by Down’s Caolán Mooney and Darragh O’Hanlon were answered in kind by an O’Neill pair and then, after Ryan Johnston scored a nice point following a pass from his brother Jerome, Ruairí Deane struck for the goal.
Paul Kerrigan had exchanged passes with Peter Kelleher to the right of goal and his lovely pass was into the path of Deane, who had come charging through the midfield. With just goalkeeper Michael Cunningham in front of him, he deftly side-stepped the netminder and fired in from close range for a five-point lead. Cunningham did have the final score of the half, a free from outside the 45m, line, and Down built on that on the resumption as Barry O’Hagan, Caolán Mooney and Shay Millar all pointed.
Cork seemed to have quelled that upsurge as O’Neill got his sixth, Kerrigan fisted over and then Deane added another to make it 1-9 to 0-8 by 51, but Jerome Johnston had two frees in reply.
Kerrigan restored the goal lead for Cork, but it was to prove to be their final score as Down managed to salvage a sufficient result.
C O’Neill (0-6, 4 frees), R Deane (1-1), P Kerrigan (0-2), J O’Rourke (0-1).
J Johnston (0-5 (4f, 1 45), R Johnston, C. Mooney (0-2 each), D O’Hanlon (free), S Millar, B O’Hagan, M Cunningham (free) (0-1 each).
K O’Halloran; M Shields, Tom Clancy (Clonakilty), K Crowley; C O’Driscoll, J Loughrey, S Cronin; A O’Connor, R Deane; K O’Driscoll, J O’Rourke, I Maguire; C O’Neill, P 0Kelleher, P Kerrigan.
A Walsh for O’Connor (half-time), D Óg Hodnett for Kelleher (46), B O’Driscoll for Maguire (48), J O’Sullivan for Clancy (53), J McLoughlin for Shields (57), D O’Connor for O’Rourke (70).
M Cunningham; D O’Hagan, B McArdle, R McAnallen; D O’Hanlon, C McGovern, J Flynn; C Mooney, P Turley; K McKernan, C Maginn, R Johnston; B O’Hagan, J Johnston, S Millar.
S Dornan for O’Hagan (46), J Murphy for Flynn (51), M Poland for Maginn (64), A Davidson for Millar (64).
J Molloy (Galway).
60 Second Report
Jerome Johnston’s two pointed frees in immediate response to Cork moving 1-9 to 0-8 in front meant Down couldn’t be shaken off.
Down surviving by a very narrow margin will take the focus, but Cork’s inability to see out a game comes into question again.
Cork supporters may have been asking themselves just that after Ruairí Deane’s goal — their first since beating Fermanagh on February 26.
Down manager Eamonn Burns spoke of how they rejigged their side to go with two men inside rather than one, with Caolán Mooney impressive after moving from wing-back to midfield.
Cork’s goalscorer Deane continued his good spring form as he benefits from greater game-time.
Hard to fault any of James Molloy’s calls.
Everything we have seen since February is rebranded to ‘only the league’ status, and both counties face into championship — Cork against Waterford on the last weekend in May and Down against Armagh a week later.