Eugene McGee: Spirit of past glory saves the day for Mourne men
Published 25/06/2012 | 05:00
No team has ever won their first All-Ireland and enjoyed such prolific long-term benefits as Down after they beat Offaly in the 1960 final. Not only did they make history with that triumph, they created a legacy that set the template for Down football thereafter, which has resulted in another four All-Ireland titles.
But the Down supporters who had to endure their team's abject performance in the first half against Monaghan in Armagh yesterday must have been shocked to the core, particularly as the only thing in common between this Down side and their former great teams was the colour of the jerseys.
All the characteristics of the excellent Down teams of old were missing -- the razor-sharp tackling of defenders, the nullification of opposing midfielders by breaking the ball when needed and, above all, the crisp attacking play that has made Down so spectacular to watch for neutrals on so many occasions.
Football games often turn on one incident and, just on half-time, we witnessed the defining moment of this clash. The hitherto brilliant Monaghan defence conceded a needless penalty which Aidan Carr despatched and this goal left Down with a chance of saving the game, as it cut the half-time deficit from nine points to six.
Mourne manager James McCartan, from a family that has often epitomised the spirit of the county, then got the inspired response that a great GAA tradition can often evoke.
In a flash, the demeanour of the two teams was completely altered. A flurry of Down scores left them only a point behind after just 14 minutes of the second period and the players in red and black were transformed.
They started to dominate midfield through Kalum King and their passing, which had been shoddy in the first half, became a model of perfection. The scores kept coming from all distances and angles and suddenly the Monaghan players looked to be in serious trouble.
After exuding confidence and charisma in the first half, many of them looked under stress and their play became edgy. Over the years, there's been no better team than Down to exploit a weakness like that in opponents.
Vincent Corey, the Monaghan full-back, was one of the few men to stand tall in the face of the Down onslaught, but in the end, it wasn't enough.
Monaghan showed clear signs of panic by giving away so many frees in the second half that produced several points for Down and this was in such contrast to the economical defence their backs had shown in the first period.
McCartan made two super substitutions in the closing minutes when the contest was there to be won, after Tommy Freeman's brilliant goal in the 57th minute looked like it had steadied the Monaghan ship and given them a 1-12 to 1-8 lead.
Benny Coulter was sprung from the bench and instantly landed one of his trademark points. Liam Doyle then arrived to score a great free in the 67th minute.
Down were rampant at this stage and showed their old swagger by rattling over four unanswered points in the final five minutes -- an incredible transformation from their dreadful opening-half display when they failed to get any scores from play and only got three scores from dead balls as Monaghan rattled over 11 points.
This was as dramatic a finish as we will see in this year's championship and, overall, I enjoyed the contest, which was a good example of old-style championship football.
Sure, the quality was not great at times, but the entertainment and excitement was first class, with several impressive individual performances on view for both sides.
The first-half midfield dominance of Eoin Lennon and Dick Clerkin really set the standard for Monaghan and their forwards produced some marvellous scores with long, often diagonal passes to Conor McManus, who was brilliant in that half.
It was no surprise that McCartan had to make the hard, but correct decision after just 20 minutes to take off his brother Daniel, who simply could not cope with McManus.
Monaghan will wonder for many a day how they managed to lose this game and they will particularly regret that even in the dying minutes, after Down drew level, they were not organised enough to win the kickout and at least try to hold onto a draw.
Down will gain a lot from their feat in salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat, especially if Coulter is able to play a bigger role in the Ulster final.
Of course, their manager and the players will also wonder why they performed so badly in that opening half.
The motivation not to repeat such an abysmal display against Donegal or Tyrone in the final will be huge for the Down players, who have rarely snatched a more dramatic or satisfying result in their careers.
Darren O'Hagan deserves to be named as the star of the show, as his coolness at the end allowed him snatch the winning point.