Down can rise to toughest test
In overcoming Tyrone in the Ulster senior football championship quarter-final last month, Donegal served up a chilling message of intent.
Both the provincial title and the Sam Maguire Cup, it appeared, would remain in their custody for another year at least, their clinical efficiency in that particular contest confirming this theory.
Up until last Sunday, there had been no real indication that any team had the capacity to unduly trouble Jim McGuinness's side let along mount a smash and grab raid on their cherished silverware.
Yet if McGuinnes proved a superior tactician to triple All-Ireland winning boss Mickey Harte in the white heat of a MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey shoot-out that marked Donegal's explosion into life after their league hibernation, then the Glasgow Celtic guru certainly met his match last Sunday.
McGuinness, of course, has locked horns with James McCartan more than once in the recent past, most recently in the Allianz League when Donegal triumphed by 0-12 to 0-7, but on this occasion a ration of good fortune rather than a generous dose of skill helped to pilot the north-west side across the line. And in providing the All-Ireland champions with their biggest scare since the outstretched leg of their goalkeeper Paul Durcan deflected a goal-bound shot from Tyrone's Martin Penrose to safety in the dying moments of last year's provincial semi-final, Donegal also spawned the notion that maybe, just maybe, they are not altogether invincible.
Mind you, 14 wins in 15 championships outings under the McGuinness baton hints at a level of consistency that other teams can only dream about.
Still, though, the manner in which Down gate-crashed Donegal's defence with almost monotonous regularity in the second-half suggested that even the presence of Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn on the field of play might not have helped to stem the Mourne tide.
Feeble efforts lobbed gently into the welcoming arms of goalkeeper Paul Durcan, shot selection options that were questionable, ball retention that was a little too fallible and passing that veered towards the erratic rather than the accurate – these were the flaws that tarnished the final ten minutes of what was overall a herculean Down effort.
Yet despite the garlands which have engulfed his side, manager McCartan will doubtless conceive a different tactical print-out for the next match – and he would be dead right.
What he did superbly on Sunday was plan with precision and almost total success for a situation that he expected his players to confront.
Down may have been feted through the decades for their almost cavalier-like approach with attack their only mantra but the installation of not one but two sweepers in Kingspan Breffni Park to cope with Donegal's formidable attacking arsenal proclaimed a safety-first policy.
It came close to paying handsome dividends, too. Mark Poland, a busy bee throughout, should have earned a free in the closing stages, Ryan Mallon inexplicably lost possession when galloping in along the end-line and Donal O'Hare, the essence of accuracy throughout, saw a superb late strike come back off a post. The draw for the second round of the qualifiers will be made live on TV3 on Monday morning and I am convinced that no team will want to be paired with Down given the application, intensity and cohesion that brought to the table in such generous measures on Sunday.
But let us remember that Ulster has a penchant for producing the most riveting qualifier ties just indeed as the provincial championship leaves those of the other three provinces in the shade in terms of meaningful, combative, competitive matches.
While teams rarely embark on the qualifiers with any great degree of enthusiasm, the competition is still regarded as a safety net and has produced some of the most memorable championship matches of past few seasons.
Secretary Sean Og McAteer often alludes to Down as "a proud football county" and with every justification, too, given the five All-Ireland titles which have been garnered to date. The team's presence will most certainly provide spice in Monday's draw.
Any takers for a Down v Tyrone set-to? Wouldn't that be tasty!