Down comeback sets up mouth-watering replay against Tyrone
Cavanagh's last-gasp equaliser is a kick in the teeth for mccartan
Tyrone 2-11, Down 3-08: If any further proof were required that league and championship football are poles apart, then it was supplied in spades at saturated Healy Park, Omagh yesterday.
A game that shuffled along almost apologetically in its initial stages suddenly discovered fresh momentum and ultimately transported an enraptured audience into a sporting paradise.
Indeed, if the second-half contained the entire ration of tension, courage, passion and skill of this Ulster Championship, then there would still be no complaints of under-changing.
The energy, character and saltiness that characterised the contest ensure that Saturday's replay at Pairc Esler, Newry has become a must-see event.
But before that, the respective managers Mickey Harte and James McCartan will dissect what was a throbbing, frenetic confrontation in minute detail in a concerted bid to steal a march on each other.
Yet for a spell yesterday, Tyrone seemed destined for the winners' rostrum. Even a litany of eight first-half wides failed to detract significantly from their authority as they bossed the exchanges, particularly in the opening 25 minutes by the end of which they had constructed a 1-4 to 0-2 lead, that advantage cemented by Peter Harte's 23rd minute penalty goal.
And it was referee David Coldrick's decision not to invoke the black card sanction on Down's Conor Maginn which led to the penalty in the first place that became the first of many talking points from what was to prove a compelling narrative.
Donal O'Hare's brace of points in tandem with another from Ambrose Rogers were Down's only scoreboard dividend from the first-half with Tyrone, having benefited from points from Sean Cavanagh (2), Niall Morgan and Kyle Coney, preparing to slip into the comfort zone at 1-5 to 0-3.
But the game did not so much move into overdrive as ascend to a different planet in the second-half.
Scarcely had the players become familiar with playing into different ends when Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan hauled down Jerome Johnston – an act which earned him a black card – and from the resultant penalty, Aidan Carr not only gave Morgan's replacement Michael O'Neill a sharp welcome to championship football but signalled most dramatic renaissance in the Ulster Championship since they last won the title in 1994.
The revival, indeed, had its roots deep in the bowels of the stadium's dressing-room complex at the interval when manager McCartan ordered the ageless Benny Coulter along with Johnston and his talented sibling into the fray with Peter Turley, Rory Boyle and Ambrose Rogers.
Coulter and the powerful Kevin McKernan formed a new midfield partnership to which Tyrone simply had no answer and suddenly the fervour, intensity and raw courage that characterise the championship engulfed the arena.
When Coney responded to Carr's clinical strike from the spot by whipping over a brace of points, the thought that normal business had been restored entered our heads – and then became utter conviction when Darren McCurry drilled in Tyrone's second goal in the 54th minute.
But Down were about to butcher the pre-match script. A seven-point deficit on away soil in the last quarter constitutes Everest-high odds but Down deployed their acquaintance with diversity to stunning effect.
From the 55th to the 62nd minute they served up a brief but devastating master-class in finishing, sparked by a smart O'Hare goal and tailed off by a typical Coulter opportunist point.
Sandwiched in between these scores and against a raucous cacophony of noise from the now-mesmerised gallery, Maginn flashed home a spectacular third goal and Mark Poland and Conor Laverty pilfered points.
Incredibly, Down had not only thrust themselves into the driving seat but seemed set to journey to an impossible victory.
Not for the first time though, Tyrone boss Harte turned to his heavy artillery to man the barricades when it seemed like surrender was an option.
The names of Justin McMahon, Stephen O'Neill, Conor Gormley and Martin Penrose were not on the official match programme but they were certainly on the lips of everyone before the game had ended.
The quartet impose themselves on the final phase of the action when all around them players in white shirts were clearly spent with back-tracking almost forgotten.
Yet even when the force was with them, Down contrived not so much to shoot themselves in the foot as to inflict heartbreak on their very psyche.
With injury-time beckoning, a golden opportunity to close out the game arrived but inexplicably, O'Hare missed a close-in free – something he has not done for a long time.
Yet it was seen as nothing more than a temporary blip – until that is, Declan Rooney compounded this error.
With no danger threatening on the left-hand touchline, Rooney needlessly upended Sean Cavanagh and the latter once again underlined his immense value to his side by spooning over an equalising point.
No matter, Harte's beaming smile on the touchline said it all. His team had just experienced a roller-coaster championship ride that, ironically, prove to be to their benefit as they reset their championship schedule.
For Down, this was a contest that effectively dispelled the hollow feeling that has prevailed since they lost their last two league games and entered the championship rather more in hope than expectation.
Bring on the replay!
Tyrone: N Morgan 0-1 ('45'); A McCrory, D McBride, B Tierney; T McCann, M Donnelly, P Harte 1-0 (pen); C Cavanagh, C Clarke; M Donnelly, S Cavanagh 0-5 (0-2 frees), C McGinley; D McCurry 1-2 (0-2 frees), N McKenna, K Coney 0-3. Subs: R McKenna for McCann (27 cms), M O'Neill for Morgan (39), S O'Neill for McKenna (52), C Gormley for Tierney (54), Justin McMahon for Garvey (58), M Penrose for McGinley (60).
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, R Boyle; D Rooney, A Carr 1-0 (pen), C Garvey 0-1; P Turley, A Rogers 0-1; C Maginn 1-0, M Poland, K McKernan; D O'Hare 1-2 (0-1 free), N Madine 0-1, C Laverty 0-1. Subs: B Coulter 0-1 for Turley, R Johnston 0-1 for Boyle, J Johnston for Rodgers ( all half-time), L Doyle for J Johnston (50 mins), D Turley for Garvey (58), P Devlin for Maginn (70).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)