Down lament late lapse as never-say-die spirit fires Monaghan into final
How Monaghan were even in touch in this McKenna Cup semi-final in Armagh to mount such a successful late rally is something that is sure to perplex Down manager James McCartan as he prepares for the toughest Division 1 campaign of modern times.
Given the quality of teams involved, Down will be many people's choice for the drop and this won't fill them with confidence.
Three spectacular late points from Conor McManus and then Darren Hughes (two) snatched victory for Monaghan, giving them small atonement for their championship defeat to the same opponents last June.
The psychological value of what they did should sustain them, regardless of what happens in next weekend's final.
For Down, it was just another way to lose a game, following on from their dreadful capitulations against Donegal and Mayo in 2012.
True, it's still pre-season that won't live long in the memory but sometimes the manner of defeat can sting hard, irrespective of the nature of the competition.
McManus was Monaghan's most influential player, hitting 1-7 in an impressive display that included the lifeline of a 28th-minute goal, courtesy of a very clever Owen Duffy pass on his blindside for a 1-3 to 0-5 lead.
At that stage Malachy O'Rourke's side were drifting badly with no impact from their experienced midfield pairing, Dick Clerkin and Owen Lennon. It was a mystery how Monaghan managed to stay in touch.
Down's Mark Poland pulled all the strings and his possession count in that first half passed the 20 mark, far in excess of the average even for a busy player.
Poland finished with four points to underline his growing importance to the Down attack. But it was his intercepted cross-field pass which led to Hughes' liberating first score late on, a rare error.
Much of Down's approach work was slow, however, as Monaghan got the numbers back and absorbed the pressure to gain parity by the break, 1-5 to 0-8.
Down had Keith Quinn sent off for a second yellow card on 45 minutes for tangling with Karl O'Connell and were lucky when one of their players didn't follow for a subsequent off-the-ball incident which went unchecked. The numbers evened up when a second yellow forced O'Connell off in the 66th minute.
By then Down still looked more likely winners and when substitute Danny Savage pushed them in front with a free, the omens looked good.
But Paul Finlay came off the bench to make an impact, as did Gavin Doogan.
The talk surrounding Monaghan has been positive since O'Rourke took charge, but while welcoming the result, he was not happy.
"We were disappointed with our performance in the first half. What we set out to do, we didn't achieve," he said. "We did better in the second half. The biggest thing that we will take out of it is that we didn't think we played well and we still came out of it."
McCartan brought in Conor Laverty and Paul McComiskey and will be happy with what Ryan Mallon and Connaire Harrison showed but human error, he suggested, was costly in the finish.
"There was a lot of human error in the last five minutes, boys carrying ball into the tackle and the decision making was poor. That was disappointing, but it has been a positive campaign."
Scorers – Monaghan: C McManus 1-7 (0-3f, 0-1 sl), D Hughes 0-2, O Duffy, P Finlay (f), D Clerkin 0-1 each. Down: M Poland 0-4, D O'Hare 0-3f, C Harrison 0-2, R Mallon, A McConville, D Savage (f), K Quinn 0-1 each.
Monaghan: M Keogh; R McNally, D Hughes, D Wylie; K Duffy, O Coyle, K O'Connell; O Lennon, D Clerkin; K Hughes, P Donaghy, N McAdam; D Malone, C McManus, O Duffy. Subs: F Kelly for Wylie (25), P Finlay for Clerkin (46), M McElroy for Coyle (51), G Doogan for Donaghy (68).
Down – M Cunningham; P Turley, D McCartan, R Boyle; D Rooney, A Carr, R Mallon; K King, K McKernan; D Turley, M Poland, K Quinn; D O'Hare, A McConville, C Harrison. Subs: D Savage for McConville (42), C Laverty for Turley (43), D McKibben for Turley (50), C Gough for King (55), P McComiskey for O'Hare (62).
Ref – Noel Mooney (Cavan).