Suddenly, the coveted Sam Maguire Cup looms like a great, sacred prize for Down.
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History not so much beckons as bellows to the Mournemen to once more leave their aristocratic imprint on the biggest competition in Irish sport.
Their five final appearances to date spanning 1960-1994 have produced five triumphs — now, for the first time ever in a decider, Down will confront Cork on September 19 in a bid to make to enhance their immaculate record following yesterday’s stupendous semi-final victory over gallant Kildare in front of 62,182 enthralled fans at Croke Park.
The gradual shifting of the sands in gaelic football has indeed dramatically thrown up the certainty of a showpiece finale which the current captivating Championship series so richly deserves.
And a matter of months into his role James McCartan not only faces the inviting prospect of replicating the success as his county’s manager which he enjoyed as a player but could find himself in line for sporting canonisation should ‘Sam’ return.
His team, buttressed by a towering spirit and fortified by fresh reserves of self-belief, provided more than a broad hint yesterday that the ultimate glory is within their compass.
Kildare’s recent vexed history in the closing stages of the All Ireland Championship returned to haunt them but really it was the spectre of poor distribution, questionable shooting options and a lack of sustained cohesion up front that proved their undoing.
In contrast, Down were pugnacious, resourceful and unrelenting. After a succession of blighted dawns over the last 16 years in the demanding championship arena, the Mourne side ascended a fresh peak of commitment and valour to finally defuse phase after phase of white terror in a white-knuckle ride closing segment.
Indeed, seldom has a winning team dug deeper to gain victory at Headquarters.
With the arena plugged into a deafening raucous roar, McCartan’s men somehow managed to survive a frenzied late onslaught that might well have transported Kieran McGeeney’s side into a sporting heaven had not Kalum King’s finger-tips diverted Robert Kelly’s last-second free onto the crossbar — the third occasion game on which the woodwork
had come to the Ulster side’s rescue. It was that close — and indeed Kildare felt that referee Pat McEnaney erred in not awarding them a penalty instead of a free, a view that will be supported by many.
But today a team that contains some players who only a short time ago had the recognition factor of ball boys are preparing to script what they hope will prove one of the most glorious chapters in GAA history.
With Martin Clarke’s sublime passing and finishing threatening to thieve the breath away, Kevin McKernan imposing at centre-half-back, Peter Fitzpatrick and Kalum King striking up an immediate bond in midfield and both Danny Hughes and Benny Coulter unstinting in their efforts up front, Down revealed a level of organisation, maturity and style that Kildare were unable to encounter.
The efficiency of the Fitzpatrick-King alliance was such that not
only did the Down attack enjoy the kind of quality possession on which it tends to thrive but the loss of skipper Ambrose Rogers did not prove a burden of any consequence.
Kildare, though, not only badly missed their talisman Dermot Earley but had replaced Daryl Flynn before the end of the first-half, sending in Ronan Sweeney whose partnership with Hugh Lynch bore no real fruit in the central area against the marauding Down pair.
And if there was a touch of fortune to Benny Coulter’s 12th minute goal that whipped his side into a 1-1 to 0-3 lead — he looked to be inside the small square when he flicked home Martin Clarke’s speculative lob — then the Mournemen again enjoyed the assistance of lady luck again when substitute Kelly’s goal-bound free four minutes into added time was pushed against the crossbar.
Otherwise, they relied on an abundance of effort, ferocious tackling and astute marksmanship — nine players in all shared in the scoring — to carry them a step further on what is proving a truly memorable voyage.
By half-time they had had already sounded a declaration of intent in relation to booking their passage into the final. They then
led by 1-9 to 0-7, Coulter’s goal being supplemented by a second-quarter points blitz to which Hughes (2), Poland, Clarke, McComiskey and Coulter all contributed as Kildare were forced onto the back foot, skipper Doyle proving their only real threat and from frees at that.
If McGeeney’s men did not see this particular bullet coming, then they armed themselves much better in the second period, never better than after Eamon Callaghan’s 57th minute goal that reduced what had threatened to become an embarrassing deficit to just four points (1-14 to 1-10).
And even after managing to regain their breath and ease ahead at 1-16 to 1-12, Down could not prevent their opponents from pirating the last two points of the match.
It could have been worse, though. But no one in Down today is tainted by negativity — next three weeks leading up to the showdown with Cork promise to rekindle the sense of expectation, fervour, colour and pageantry that accompanied the county’s five previous successful invasions into the All Ireland final.
And to think too that ‘Sam’ might yet be paraded again through the Kingdom of Mourne exactly fifty years after he made his debut there.
Talk about the icing on the cake of the Golden Jubilee celebrations!
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan (0-2), C Garvey; P Fitzpatrick (0-1), K King; D Hughes (0-2), M Poland (0-3, all frees), P McComiskey (0-1); B Coulter (1-2), J Clarke, M Clarke (0-3, 0-2 frees). Subs: A Brannigan for Garvey (44 mins), C Maginn (0-1) for J Clarke (46), R Murtagh (0-1) for McCumiskey (60), J Colgan for Poland (70). Yellow cards: Rooney (34 mins), King (63).
KILDARE: S McCormack; P Kelly, H McGrillan, A MacLochlainn; M O’Flaherty (0-1), E Bolton (0-1), B Flanagan; D Flynn, H Lynch (0-2); J Kavanagh (0-1), P O’Neill, J Doyle (0-6, 0-5 frees); E O’Flaherty, A Smith, E Callaghan (1-2). Subs: R Sweeney for Flynn (30 mins), M Ennis (0-1) for E O’Flaherty (44), D Lyons for M O’Flaherty (46), R Kelly for Smith (55), T O’Connor for Lynch (72). Yellow cards: Bolton (24 mins), Eoin O’Flaherty (36), McGrillan (48), Lynch (54).
Referee: Pat McEnaney (Monaghan).