Ulster SFC semi-final
Down 1-14 Monaghan 0-15
The Down swagger is making a comeback and some way, somehow, after a couple of miserable seasons, Eamonn Burns has got a county believing again.
Most of the young people who flocked onto the pitch in the Athletic Grounds on Saturday night were not born or don’t remember the last time Down won an All-Ireland, back in 1994, but they know their tradition.
A horrible run of 14 straight league and championship defeats faded into distant memory when Burns steadied the ship in the spring and earned a draw in Cork which kept his team in Division Two, and there was further sign of progress when they surprised Armagh three weeks ago in Ulster.
Yet they were still ranked as 10/1 outsiders heading into this two-horse race against Monaghan — but these boys don’t play in red and black for nothing.
The roulette wheel is spinning again and Down people are starting to feel this could be one of those years when they come from nowhere and win big.
Burns is in charge on the casino floor and ticked off the punters who’d already cashed in their chips on a Monaghan victory after his team upset the odds in a thrilling Ulster semi-final.
“Everybody on TV last week forgot themselves, thinking it was a Monaghan v Tyrone final,” he said.
“Down are a very proud county. Now I didn’t use that as a stick to motivate these boys at all, but everybody on the panel registered that, and they came down here to do a job.
“We’ll go to the Ulster final and we’re going to be massive outsiders.
“Tyrone will be red-hot favourites, we know that. But Down will play Down football and we’ll see where that takes us.” Down got in Monaghan’s faces early doors.
A few yellow cards were flashed in their direction but they didn’t take a backward step, hustling Monaghan and refusing to give them a second on the ball.
Having beaten Down by 19 points in last year’s first round, Monaghan were entitled to expect a much closer game yet probably the same outcome, but Down tore up the script.
Wasteful Monaghan kicked four wides in the opening seven minutes and that was all the opening Down needed.
From 0-4 to 0-2 behind after 16 minutes, they exploded into life, hungrily pouncing on every loose ball and forcing Monaghan into uncharacterstic turnovers.
Burns, played on the last Ulster and All-Ireland-winning Down team in 1994, keeps reminding his players of their rich heritage and they played like it meant something, mustering up the most fantastic of responses to deservedly reach a first Ulster final since 2012.
“Look, we were on everybody’s beaten docket,” Burns said.
“Somebody said to me we were 10-1. I would have liked £10 on us. When you come into a game and you’re 10-1 against to win it, you have to take the game to them. I’m immensely proud of all of them. They played the way we asked them to.”
Connaire Harrison’s demolition of Monaghan’s enforcer Drew Wylie was just one of the many individual battles won by the men in red and black.
Ryan and Jerome Johnston were livewires, the former tirelessly covering huge ground, while Darragh O’Hanlon was excellent kicking 1-5.
Down kicked five points in a row in a seven-minute spell to steam ahead, Harrison, Shay Millar, and Kevin McKernan on target, but Monaghan rallied with three of the last four points before the break to reduce the damage to 0-10 to 0-8.
A two-point lead was never going to be enough for Down, but they scored a quickfire 1-2 early in the second half, O’Hanlon burying a 42nd minute penalty after Colin Walshe fouled Niall Donnelly, to stretch it out to seven.
And they needed every bit of that lead as Monaghan rallied like champions.
They were clearly out of sorts, and at times seemed to panic and forced the play, but they fought hard with five points in a row.
McManus, Kieran and Darren Hughes were all on target as the game worked its way into a frenzy, the gap down to a point heading into six minutes of injury time.
Monaghan were always going to get one chance to level it, but Jack McCarron missed an equalising free and Down sub Donal O’Hare, in his first appearance of the year, popped over the insurance point.
They were thrashed by 19 points by Monaghan in last year’s first round, so how did Down pull off a 21-point swing inside 12 months to win this one by two?
“The boys were hurt, we got wrote off all year,” said penalty hero, Darragh O’Hanlon.
“Nobody gave us a chance of staying in Division Two, nobody gave us a chance of beating Armagh, nobody gave us a chance of beating Monaghan.
“Last year everyone was embarrassed about what happened. We were just really hungry for this game.
“I know a lot of people outside the county were thinking it was going to be an absolute hammering match. We are proving a lot of people wrong.”
They’ll hope to keep doing that. Tyrone have been warned.
Scorers for Down:
D O’Hanlon (1-5, 5 frees, 1-0 pen), C Harrison (0-3), K McKernan (0-2), C Maginn, S Millar, D O’Hare, M Cunningham (‘45’) (0-1 each)
Scorers for Monaghan:
C McManus (0-6, 3 frees), J McCarron (0-3, 2 frees), D Hughes (0-2), C McCarthy, O Duffy, R Wylie, K Hughes (0-1 each)
M Cunningham; N McParland, G McGovern, D O’Hagan; D O’Hanlon, C McGovern, C Mooney; K McKernan, N Donnelly; P Turley, C Maginn, S Millar; J Johnston, C Harrison, R Johnston
D O’Hare for Harrison (53), J Murphy for C McGovern (58), D McKibbin for Mooney (6), A Carr for Turley (68), M Poland for R Johnston (68)
R Beggan; F Kelly, D Wylie, R Wylie; C Walshe, V Corey, N McAdam; K Hughes, K O’Connell; D Hughes, K Duffy, O Duffy; C McCarthy, J McCarron, C McManus
R McAnespie for McAdam (41), D Mone for K Duffy (47), D Ward for O Duffy (47), D Malone for McCarthy (57), C Forde for Beggan (70)
David Coldrick (Meath), replaced h-t by P Neilan (Roscommon)
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved