Cavanagh rescues Tyrone in dramatic Ulster opener
Down 3-08 Tyrone 2-11
Sean Cavanagh was the Tyrone hero as they rescued a draw from the jaws of defeat with a late free to ensure both teams will have to do it all again.
The dramatic finish and second-half flurry of scores was in complete contrast to a dour opening period when Mickey Harte’s side looked to be in control without ever firing on all cylinders.
In a topsy-turvy second-half, Down turned a six-point deficit into a one point lead in just seven second-half minutes and looked to be heading for an unlikely victory until Cavanagh struck the crucial free with virtually the last act of the game.
There were a switches on either side before a ball was thrown in as Conor Laverty replaced long-serving Benny Coulter in the Down attack while Mark Donnelly replaced Paddy McNeice for Mickey Harte’s Tyrone.
Without overly impressing, the home side looked in control throughout the opening half with the wind and rain contributing to a rather lacklustre Ulster championship opener.
A Niall Morgan 45 and a point from Sean Cavanagh got Tyrone off the mark before Donal O’Hare responded for the visitors who struggled to make inroads against the Tyrone defence.
Darren McCurry tacked on a score with Kyle Coney trying his best to replicate his scintillating league form, though Down’s use of the sweeper meant space was at a premium.
After 25 minutes Tyrone made a crucial break-through. Referee David Coldrick judged that Mark Donnelly had been hauled down by Conor Maginn and Peter Harte emphatically finished from the spot to push their lead to five points. The only surprise was how Maginn escaped without a black card for the offence.
Ambrose Rodgers and Coney traded points before the half-time whistle in front of 13,266 spectators .
Down needed a spark and they got that just four minutes after the resumption when Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan was black-carded for a trip.
Aidan Carr stepped up and similar to Harte in the first half, dispatched the spot-kick with style. Substitute keeper Michael O’Neill first action on his championship debut was to pick the ball out of the net.
The consequence was to re-awaken Tyrone and Coney led the way with two sparkling points in reply to the early set-back.
As the rain continued to pour, the standard seemed to improve and Michael Madine finished his marauding run with a fine point to reduce the gap to three points.
Cavanagh and Conor Garvey, marking his first championship start in two years, swapped points and with less than 20 minutes the loudest cheer of the day was saved for Stephen O’Neill when he was called into the action.
The former All-Star was soon involved in helping to set up the razor-sharp McCurry who placed the ball into the net and it appeared that this would ensure a comfortable finale for Tyrone.
However the response was swift, effective for most observers, unforeseen.
Within a minute O’Hare raised a green flag for James McCartan’s side and revive their Ulster aspirations.
Incredibly Conor Magin scored the third goal in little over as many minutes and points from Laverty and Poland saw visitors move ahead for the first time in the contest. The momentum shifted dramatically and it was now Tyrone that struggled to create chances at the other end.
Coulter, who had been introduced as a second-half substitute, planted a point Down supporters have become so accustomed to and extend the lead to two points with the Mourne faithful in dreamland, before Cavanagh reduced the gap to the minimum with a free.
There was to be one final twist in the tale when Cavanagh, in the fourth minute of injury time, was the model of composure, to ensure a replay.
A pulsating finish which will give both sides with plenty to work on ahead of the replay.