Everything comes to those who wait.
If Down had to exercise considerable patience and even more fortitude in their bid to book an Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final with reigning title-holders Tyrone then their staying power and resilience were amply rewarded at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey yesterday when they inflicted yet more provincial heartache on Donegal.
In a match that bore a few layers of eccentricity and yet remained gripping on a fierce, visceral level throughout the Mournemen's greater level of versatility and more polished finishing skills up front ultimately ensured a winning baptism in the competition for their manager James McCartan.
More sure of their optimum game plan than their opponents and imbued with the ability to respond robustly to potentially fatal strikes, Down gradually acquired a level of cohesion and confidence that was to steer them through the turbulent waters of extra-time to a victory that for spells during the first half in particular might have been deemed fanciful.
And while the team as a unit was bonded by commitment, never-say-die spirit and a willingness to immerse themselves in the murky underworld of contesting second-phase possession and capturing invaluable turnovers then the glistening skills of skipper Benny Coulter, the rich touches of Daniel Hughes and the significant selflessness of Martin Clarke further illuminated a performance that has at the very least shortened the odds on an Ulster title coup.
Donegal scored just one point from play in their first half total of 2-3 whereas Down had given a mild hint that they might just have a little more in their locker with Hughes (2), Mark Poland (2), Coulter, John Clarke and Martin Clarke all helping to keep Donegal in check with fine points.
And that hint broadened into a bold declaration of intent after the break. With Coulter even more influential when he moved outfield, Kalum King burrowing ferociously in midfield, Dan Gordon posing a menace in at full-forward, Hughes as ever a beacon of accuracy and their defence adhering like glue to their opposite numbers Down’s economical use of the ball coupled with their rapier-like breaks down the flanks suddenly had Donegal confronting a health warning.
When Hughes, Clarke and Coulter flighted over telling scores between the 52nd and 58th minutes they not only brought their side back on level terms but effectively roared out the message that for the third week in succession a success by the away team was on the cards in the Ulster Championship. And indeed that’s just how it turned out. David Walsh may have nosed Donegal in front in the 61st minute but an outrageous point from the now rampant Coulter steadied the Down ship again before Martin Clarke, cool as a cucumber, steered over a ‘45’ that looked to have stamped his team’s passport into the semi-final in normal time.
That was until Rory Kavanagh blazed over a Donegal equaliser in injury-time to herald extra-time - and that’s when the irrepressible Coulter really came into his own.
Dignified as a statesman as a frenzy detonated all around him, the Mayobridge clubman sailed skywards on several occasions, clutching the possession that was to prove such a key deposit in reaping a rich dividend.
His opening point in injury-time climaxed a billowing run before he provided the ammunition for Hughes to shoot another hole in Donegal’s morale before substitutes Colm McFadden and Mark McHugh dragged the north-west side back on level terms again as the tension became almost unbearable.
It was then that Coulter applied the coup de grace, sweeping onto Clarke’s immaculate pass with four minutes remaining to drill home the match-winning goal with the outside of his right foot — a score that was a monument to inherent genius.
Donegal’s last-gasp point was no more than that — a forlorn gesture that had already been rendered redundant by Down’s solid character in general and Coulter’s sublime artistry in particular.
DONEGAL: Durcan, McGlynn, McGee, Lacey, Cassidy, Monaghan, McGuire, Gallagher, Kavanagh (0-1), Walsh (0-1), Toye, Dunnion, Molloy (1-3, 0-2 frees), Murphy (0-1, free), Dunne (1-0). Subs: Hanlon 0-1 (for Toye 43 mins), Thompson (for Monaghan 52), McHugh 0-1 (for Gallagher 63), McFadden 0-1 (for Molloy 66), McGrath (for McGlynn 79), Wade 0-1 (for Walsh 85).
DOWN: McVeigh, McArdle, Rooney, Rafferty, McKernan, Colgan, Garvey, Gordon, King, Hughes (0-4), Poland (0-3, 0-2 frees), McComiskey, Coulter (1-4), M Clarke (0-3, 0-1 ‘45’), J Clarke (0-1). Subs: Maginn (for J Clarke 46), Fitzpatrick (for McComiskey 50), O’Hagan (for McKernan 62), Laverty (for Poland 78), Murtagh (for Garvey 85).
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).