Down 1-17 Kerry 1-18
Thirteen-man Kerry held their nerve to squeeze through to a second successive Christy Ring Cup final in a dramatic encounter at Pairc Esler.
With 14 minutes to play, the Munster men held a commanding eight points lead, and appeared to be on their way to a handsome victory.
But then it all started to go wrong for John Meyler’s side. Two players were sent off, and Down pegged back the deficit to go level in stoppage time.
Gary O’Brien (two yellow) and Tom Murnane (straight red) were sent off in the closing stages, and Down’s Paul Brannif led the Down fightback with five late points.
However, the Kingdom steadied the ship deep into stoppage time, and Shane Nolan shot the winner from a free.
It all looked so promising for Down in the early stages, when they raced into a 1-3 to 0-1 lead.
Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnson steered over a couple of points, and in the fourth minute, the speedy Brendan Ennis showed a clean pair of heels to his marker to blast home a goal.
But self-doubt began to creep in, and a series of misplaced puck-outs and clearances invited Kerry pressure, and the men from the Kingdom accepted with a string of well taken scores.
Darragh O’Connell converted a handful of frees, but the home side kept their noses in front with points from Ennis and Paul Brannif.
Kerry were gradually taking control, and it was only a matter of time before they were in front.
At the start of the second quarter, they laid siege to the Down goal, hitting a 1-7 salvo in the space of 12 minutes.
Shane Nolan, skipper Michael Boyle and O’Connell all tagged on points, and in the 26th minute, substitute Mike Conway, with his first touch, netted from John Egan’s cross.
Egan and Boyle floated over further points, and at the break, Kerry led by 1-12 to 1-6.
They stretched the advantage through Boyle and Darren Dinneen, and Boyle was denied a goal by a smart Graham Clarke save.
Down did stage a minor revival, pulling back points through Stephen Clarke and Ennis, but Kerry were always composed on the ball, building patiently through Colin Harris, Dinneen and Jason Casey.
And once they had sight of the target, they finished with aplomb, Conway and O’Connell tagging on further points to open out an eight points gap.
But the second yellow card dismissal of wing forward Gary O’Brien 12 minutes from the end, and a straight red to full back Tom Murnane four minutes later, changed the game dramatically.
Down began to thrive on the extra space afforded to them, and full forward Braniff drilled over five points, with substitute Scott Nicholson scoring twice, to bring them level in stoppage time.
Kerry were on the brink of what would have been a sensational defeat, but one last breakaway attack yielded a free, from which Nolan made no mistake to see them through to the decider.
Down: G Clarke, M Hughes, F Conway, S Ennis, K McGarry, C Woods (0-1), M Ennis, A Savage (0-1), E Clarke, S Clarke (0-1), G Johnson (0-3, 3f), C O’Prey, J Coyle, P Braniff (0-7, 4f), B Ennis (1-2).
Subs: C Coulter for McGarry, A Clarke for Coyle, S Nicholson (0-2) for O’Prey
Kerry: B Rochford, J Godley, T Murnane, E Fitzgerald, C Harris, J Casey, A Keane, D Dinneen (0-1), J Griffin, D O’Connell (0-7, 7f), M Boyle (0-4), G O’Brien, J Flaherty, S Nolan (0-4, 1f), J Egan (0-1).
Subs: M Conway (1-1) for Flaherty, P Boyle for Conway, L Boyle for O’Connell
Referee: S Whelan (Wexford)