Down head for exit after failing to rise to Lilywhites test
Kildare 1-8 - Down 0-11
It's always demoralising for any side to exit the All-Ireland Football Championship. But to do so with nothing more than a whimper hints at utter desolation.
This is precisely what Down experienced at Pairc Esler, Newry yesterday when, having offered rich promise in a tingling third quarter, they inexplicably collapsed thus allowing Kildare to canter past the winning post.
Make no mistake about it, this was a savage blow to the very psyche of Down football.
James McCartan's side found themselves with home advantage against a side supposedly still reeling from their inglorious removal from the Leinster championship at the hands of Meath and yet they meekly surrendered having gained parity of esteem at 0-10 each with 20 minutes remaining and the game very much in the melting pot.
A loss of authority at midfield coupled with a startling unwillingness to track back and a sudden penchant for committing unforced errors combined to leave Down with faces as red as their playing shirts.
Kildare needed no second invitation to seize the moment, either, spooning over the last seven points without the merest suggestion of a response from their beleaguered hosts.
And yet the warning lights had been flashing for Down in the first half. Kildare's fluency and energetic support play were contributory factors to their early dominance and but for some poor finishing they might have enjoyed an even better advantage at the break.
As it was, their direct and robust style brought quick-fire early points from Gary White and Cathal McNally but by the eighth minute Down were back on terms at 0-2 each thanks to two converted frees from Donal O'Hare.
But they were not to score again until the 35th minute when veteran Benny Coulter snapped up their only score from play of the first half.
In the interim, Kildare drove forward almost relentlessly, spraying crossfield passes, finding space to exploit and keeping the Down defence at full stretch.
Padraig Fogarty led their parade of scorers with Eamon Callaghan, Padraig O'Neill (2), and lively substitute Alan Smith finding the range as Down remained on the back foot, allowing the Lilywhites to assemble their 0-8 to 0-3 interval lead.
It was a different story in the third quarter, though. Within seven minutes of the re-start, Down were back on terms, Coulter (2), O'Hare, McKernan and O'Hagan posting the points that copper-fastened their recovery.
But it was a false dawn. And even if Padraig Fogarty's point that took Kildare into a 0-13 to 0-11 was tainted by controversy – it looked wide from the Press Box – the manner in which Jason Ryan's team remained in overdrive for the remainder of the game emphatically negated any feeling of ill-luck that their opponents might have harboured.
In a majestic finale, a procession of spectacular points from all angles and distances was complemented by a 68th minute goal from Tommy Moolick could be the score of the season.
By then, of course, it was all academic. The curtain had already come down on the Mourne side's season, their initial optimism now replaced by agonising heartbreak.
Certainly from Down's perspective, sport provided the unkindest cut of all, the side ushered into the shadows even before the All-Ireland series has engaged top gear.
Down: M Cunningham; D McCartan, D Rooney (0-1), D O'Hagan (0-1); C McCartan, C Garvey, K McKernan (0-1); D Gordon, P Turley; B Coulter (0-3), C Maginn (0-1), M Poland; D O'Hare (0-3, all frees), N Madine, C Laverty (0-1). Subs: C Toner for Turley (33 mins), R Johnston for Madine (half-time), B McArdle for D McCartan (48), D Turley for Johnston (63).
Kildare: M Donnellan; C Fitzpatrick, H McGrillen, O Lyons; E Bolton (0-1), F Conway, K Cribbin; T Moolick (1-0), G White (0-1); C McNally (0-2), N Kelly (0-2), P O'Neill (0-3); E Callaghan (0-1), P Fogarty (0-4, 0-1 free, 0-1 '45'), E O'Flaherty (0-1). Subs: A Smith (0-3) for Callaghan (24 mins), M McGrady for White (45), H Lynch for White (50), E Doyle for Bolton (57), M Conway for McNally (70).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).