So what was an 11 point margin last year in the Ulster final was now cut to three. And still, when Down look back on this it will be with regret that they weren't able to come out on top.
Before the game, Liam Doyle and Aidan Carr were spotted carrying water bottles along the line.
Another member of last year's defence – Dan Gordon – was nestled into the main stand directly in front of the Press box yesterday. Without such big figures, surely Down were heading for humiliation?
"There was a lot of nonsense talk in the lead-in to the game and stuff about big winning margins. It's complete and utter nonsense," said Donegal manager Jim McGuinness.
"Every game is a different game and the Ulster final last year was very similar to today only for that we pulled away in the second half. We were planning for that. We knew that was coming down the track and that stood to us in the second half."
Donegal have only conceded four goals in 15 Championship matches and there were times here when it looked like a sniff of a goal might come, but the bare facts are that there was not one shot on either goal.
Each point came through sheer hard work but there were moments when Down were architects of their own downfall in producing some horrendous final passes.
"That's Championship football," was McGuinness' view.
"It's fine margins. Offensively ourselves there were times when we could have got in on goals but we did enough to get over the line and that is what we are focusing on for now but we have four weeks to work on stuff now and that is a good thing."
This was far from vintage stuff from the champions and it was summed up by the kind of day Patrick McBrearty had. McGuinness revealed that the Kilcar youngster had to be brought to the dentist late on Saturday night to deal with a troublesome abscess.
That's a neat metaphor for the kind of trouble Down put them in here, a constant nagging reminder that they couldn't pull away from.
The tape will tell a story of the amount of possession that Donegal lost in the tackle.
McGuinness held fire on that facet however, stating: "I need to look at it before I comment on it but the most important thing is that we won the game and we found a way to win the game.
"We were very much tested and challenged and people were saying 'are Donegal going to have the bottle?' I could feel that coming from the stands. When you take four or five players out of the team that are normally leaders, and you find a way to win in those circumstances, that is the most pleasing aspect."
It was a rueful McCartan standing in the sunshine of Kingspan Breffni Park, wondering what it is he can do to bridge the margins of defeat to victory in a game of this stature.
The Down boss has done a magnificent job in rejuvenating and reviving his county, even allowing for the mass exodus he seems to have to deal with on an annual basis.
His pride, he maintains, only grows for these boys every day he goes out. "I was always proud of these boys from day one," he said. "Nobody goes out to put in a poor performance, but we have had some of them over the years.
"These boys have always tried to bounce back from them."
Moving onto the media criticism of Down after their spectacular Championship exits in recent years he added: "It's difficult whenever boys are writing you off at every corner.
"The boys are reading the Press and it is seeping in.
"You are trying to do a little bit of psychology to keep the minds right.
"But I felt in the first 10 to 12 minutes we treated them with too much respect."
He continued, "We came here to win the game, we didn't do that and we are immensely disappointed.
"We tried to cocoon the players from the punditry that told us there was no point in us showing up.
"We put Donegal on the back foot for long periods.
"It's because we didn't take all the chances we created that we are not going through to the Ulster final."
That was acknowledged by McGuinness when he concluded: "It's nowhere close to our best performance but we found a way to win the game."
The word after the Tyrone game was that the Donegal management were livid with the performance.
Heaven help the lads going to training this week as they prepare for yet another Ulster final.