Down did not so much press the self-destruct button as stand on it when once again capitulating to Cork in Sunday’s Allianz Football League semi-final.
Even at their most optimistic, Conor Counihan’s side could not have envisaged the helping hand they would receive from a Mourne side that offered spirit and sparkle in abundance in the first half before being assailed by all too familiar demons after the break.
A catalogue of handling mistakes and wrong options that were nothing less than embarrassing not only denied James McCartan’s side a place in the final against Mayo but served to nurture doubts and apprehension in advance of the Ulster Championship confrontation with Fermanagh.
A paltry 11,300 Croke Park crowd made for an almost eerie atmosphere — and Down’s performance was certainly the stuff of nightmares.
While the absence of experienced duo Dan Gordon and Daniel Hughes was clearly felt, the lack of cohesion, fluency and indeed work-rate in the second-half contributed in no small measure to this setback.
Cork in contrast were clinically efficient without scaling any great heights in terms of skill and flair — indeed, they themselves were guilty of shooting a succession of second half wides.
But in Paul Kerrigan they had a stand-out performer who linked defence and attack and a potent striker in Colm O’Neill who proved a constant threat.
In a match in which a championship intensity was overtly lacking, Down, lively and inventive in the opening phase, streaked into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead with points from their entire full-forward line of Arthur McConville, Conor Laverty and Benny Coulter before Cork had roused themselves.
But when they did Kerrigan and Pearse O’Neill found room in which to manoeuvre and their probing helped Colm O’Neill snap up a brace of points before will o’ the wisp Laverty was on target for the second time.
Kerrigan and Donnacha Walsh, though, eased Cork ahead with fine scores but when Mark Poland levelled matters Down, having gained composure at the back, looked as if they might begin to dictate terms.
However, with Aidan Walsh moving out from full-forward to pick up valuable possession and Pearse O’Neill a willing workhorse, the way was paved for Colm O’Neill to again hoist over a score that gave the Leesiders a 0-7 to 0-5 lead.
Yet Down’s resilience, sharpness and clever use of the diagonal ball helped to sustain their challenge and after Laverty and O’Connor had traded points it was the turn of Down full-back Brendan McArdle to show the way by landing a spectacular score from long range.
Cork though mounted dangerous raids down both flanks and Kerrigan slickly pocketed a 32nd minute point that left his side in front by 0-9 to 0-7 at the break prior to which Laverty, who had picked up an injury, was replaced by Conor Maginn.
It was in the second half that the wheels came off for Down — this, too, after they had trimmed Cork’s advantage to just two points (1-14 to 1-12) following Aidan Carr’s firmly-hit 53rd minute goal from a penalty.
But in the last quarter Cork virtually toyed with their opponents, particularly after midfield ace O’Connor rammed in a gift goal in the 60th minute.
Manager McCartan sent on a raft of substitutes in a bid to stem the tide but Cork by now were in overdrive.
Colm O’Neill (2) and substitute Daniel Goulding plundered further points to take Cork comfortably into their third consecutive league decider.
And on the evidence offered yesterday it would indeed be a brave person who would bet against them being separated from their booty.
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle (0-1), D Turley, K McKernan, N McParland, C Garvey, A Rogers, K King, P Turley, M Poland (0-1), A Carr (1-2, 1-0 pen, 0-1 free), A McConville (0-1), C Laverty (0-3), B Coulter (0-3). Subs: C Maginn (0-1) for Laverty (35 mins), N Brannigan for D McCartan (46), A Brannigan for D Turley (47), D O’Hare for McConville (54), K Quinn for P Turley (61).
Cork: A Quirke; R Carey, M Shields, E Cotter, N O’Leary (0-1), E Cadogan, P Kissane; A O’Connor (1-0), P O’Neill (0-3), F Goold, P Kelly, P Kerrigan (0-3), C O’Neill (1-6, 0-1 free), A Walsh (0-1), D O’Connor (0-1).
Subs: B O’Driscoll (0-1) for Walsh (half-time), D O’Sullivan for Cadogan (46 mins), M Collins for Goold (55), D Goulding (0-1) for D O’Connor (64).
Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).