Down's spirit seizes the day
Derry 1-15 Down 2-17: Even allowing for their hackneyed, cliched description of being a team that can blow hot and cold, Down defied us to think in any other terms as they emerged victorious from this most Jekyll and Hyde of performances in Celtic Park.
Trailing by four points at half-time, they sliced open Derry with 2-5 in 14 minutes to take control of this game and book their passage to an Ulster semi-final against no less than Donegal.
Down manager James McCartan's reaction to that prospect? "Yippee!"
Nineteen years ago, both these sides had met five times in four years when they were genuine contenders for All-Ireland honours. They may have slipped down the rankings a small bit since then, but they did the memory of the 1994 classic between these two, some good with a passable cover version, at the same venue. After the destruction of Tyrone the previous week by a remorseless Donegal machine under foreboding showers and grey-slate skies, there was an appetite for theatre and summer drama. While both teams set up in the Ulster house style of the blanket defence, it didn't prevent a glorious opening half from unfurling in the Bogside.
Down had spent a spring trying to fine-tune a sweeper system, stitching Peter Turley into the role for this game.
But you cannot beat serious pace on the inside and accurate kicking from outside the range.
Benny Herron was the locksmith who unpicked the Down defence with his heat-seeking passing to Eoin Bradley.
Turley was slow to double-up on the full-forward who had four points by half-time.
Interestingly, both sides had conducted their warm-ups with conditioned games designed to face a blanket defence but it didn't seem to matter a jot as 20 scores were amassed by half-time, only two of them coming from placed ball.
Down opened the more lively and when Benny Coulter took on the Derry defence and squared to championship debutant Niall Madine he ought to have done better than merely fisting over, with the goal at his mercy. With Bradley giving his marker Brendan McArdle a tough time of it Derry fought their way into control.
They hit 1-5 between the 25th and 31st minutes, two unreal efforts by James Kielt adding aesthetic value before a sweeping movement involving a ball sent in from Herron – helped by Turley's failure to act quick enough to Bradley – who threaded a ball through to Derry captain Mark Lynch and he obliged by sliding the ball to the net. Shortly before half-time with the Down defence all at sea, Bradley gave a Seamus Darby-style nudge to throw McArdle off balance, before he sent an exocet goalbound. Veteran goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh kept it out with an incredible stop.
Enter Mark Poland in the second half. He got onto the end of a move incorporating a one-two with Conor Laverty, before squaring it to Donal O'Hare who flicked it home for a goal.
Another strong Poland run took him past Ryan Bell as he set up O'Hare for a point, before he grabbed the decisive score.
Both teams were content to conceded possession with uncontested short kickouts, but as Ryan Scott was bringing the ball out of the Derry defence, his hand-pass was charged down by Laverty, who drew Mark Lynch at the perfect time before releasing to O'Hare.
The Burren youngster returned the favour by squaring to Poland who slid it to the net, soccer-style.
In search of some action, Eoin Bradley came hunting for ball further out the field as Bell made a journey in the opposite direction. Without 'Skinners' threat close to goal, Derry became increasingly toothless although they landed three consecutive wonderpoints from James Kielt, Brian McCallion and Lynch to leave two points in it with eight minutes to go.
That's when Kevin McKernan showed what kind of man he was with two glorious points; the first coming at the end of a 70-yard run, the second when he caught a McVeigh kickout and charged forward before splitting the posts for his fourth of the day.
Substitute Jerome Johnston added the last point of the game for Down, shortly after O'Hare clipped the post having been set up by sub Ryan Mallon.
A strange day. Down won, Derry will be annoyed at their incompetence. But for all the thoughts and theories of blanket defences, how wonderful it was to be gripped in the excitement of a genuine shoot-out.
Most un-Ulster indeed.
DERRY: E McNicholl; G O'Kane, C McKaigue, R Scott; C Kielt (0-1), M Lynch (Capt) (1-1), B McCallion (0-1); P Bradley, R Bell; A McAlynn, J Kielt (0-5, 1xf), E Lynn (0-1); B Herron (0-2, 1x'45'), E Bradley (0-4), C Devlin. Subs: Mullan for Bell (51m), McGuckian for Devlin (59m), Brown for McCallion (62m), Gormley for P Bradley (66m), Kennedy for Herron (70m)
Yellow cards: O'Kane (3m), J Kielt (51m)
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, R Boyle; D Rooney (0-1), P Turley, K Quinn; K King (0-1), K McKernan (0-4); A Rogers (0-1), M Poland [Capt] (1-2), B Coulter; D O'Hare (1-4, 2xf), N Madine (0-3), C Laverty. Subs: Savage for Rogers (50m), Mallon for Quinn (59m), Johnston (0-1) for Coulter (64m), Costello for Poland (72m)
Yellow cards: King (4m), Laverty (54m), Boyle (66m).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)