On each occasion that Down have defied the pundits and mocked the cynics during the course of what has proven an inspirational summer, their manager James McCartan has prefaced virtually every post-match analysis of his team’s performance with what has become a familiar refrain: “Nothing has been won yet.”
So it was no great surprise when the Mourne boss once again reiterated this mantra at Croke Park yesterday just after his side had their passport stamped for a trip into next month’s All Ireland final against Cork.
In terms of trophies, Down have of course, as McCartan maintains, nothing to show for their labours to date, but they have won over a whole new generation of fans, earned huge respect far beyond their county boundary and given the All Ireland Championship an allure which many felt it would lose with the demise of recent superpowers such as Tyrone and Kerry.
McCartan’s goal though is ‘Sam.’ And even this most cautious and courteous of managers could not mask the glow of satisfaction and feeling of utter relief he clearly felt after his side hurdled a Kildare outfit that threatened to commit a dramatic smash-and-grab raid in the dying seconds of a titanic semi-final battle.
“We were six points up with 10 minutes to go but, typical of Kieran McGeeney himself, his team came right back at us,” said McCartan.
“It went right down to the wire, Robert Kelly’s last-second free coming back off the crossbar. Had that gone in it would have been heartbreak for us.
“You have to give Kildare great credit. We know that we only won by a point, but we’ll take that. We controlled the game in patches but they never gave up.”
If McCartan had harboured concerns prior to the match because of the absence of skipper Ambrose Rogers then he had reason subsequently to hail the performance of his deputy Peter Fitzpatrick given that this proved a key tenet of Down’s success.
“I think that Peter showed his full potential while Kalum King had another monster game alongside him,” said McCartan.
“I thought we started poorly and were living on scraps. We got that goal all right — square ball or no square ball — and that really brought us back into the game. We were able to kick on from there.”
And he praised too the outstanding contribution of Martin Clarke whose vision, distribution and selflessness highlighted Down’s victory.
“Martin is now producing the goods on the biggest stage of all. We have other players in there doing very well too, of course, but we are certainly happy to have Martin back from Australia and in this kind of form,” said McCartan.
While McCartan’s own playing career was embossed with success, Benny Coulter has spent 11 years in the Down side with nothing to show — yet — for considerable toil and commitment.
It’s hardly surprising then that the Mayobridge clubman has perhaps more reason than most for hoping Down can now “finish the job,” as he puts it, against Cork.
“We had a five-point lead at half-time which was useful, particularly in view of the way that Kildare came back at us,” he said.
“We thought Kildare would come out flying at the start and we were maybe a bit surprised that we opened well. That first-half effort stood us in good stead for the remainder of the game.”
He added: “We were probably hanging on at the end, to see the ball hit the crossbar, we were just relieved to see it stay out.”
Over a decade after making his senior debut, Coulter admitted he could not believe what was unfolding in those final frenetic moments, when he heard referee Pat McEnaney say there was just 10 seconds left.
“I thought they had to score direct, but then Pat left it go for a second or two afterwards and I was just thinking ‘we can't lose this now',” said Coulter.
“We worked so hard this year that we weren't going to throw it away in the last 10 seconds. We weren't letting that ball go into the net, we were going to get anything on it and Kalum King got a hand on it, onto the crossbar.”
Like Coulter, Danny Hughes has soldiered in the trenches for several years and yesterday he again underlined his personal work ethic in a team strategy that proved too much for Kildare.
“We knew that Kildare would stay with us right to the end and we were very glad to get the win,” said Hughes whose two trademark points from play came at crucial stages of yesterday’s game.
“To be going in against a team like Cork, who have been most people’s favourites to win the All Ireland even before a ball was kicked in the Championship, will be a massive challenge for us, but we will certainly be up for it.”