Bradley class helps to propel Derry to safety
Derry 0-12 Down 0-11: Ulster SFC quarter-final
Absence may make the heart grow fonder but with Eoin Bradley it was his presence in Celtic Park that will have endeared him to Brian McIver and Derry.
Bradley missed the 2014 inter-county season, choosing to play soccer in the Irish League with Coleraine when he was issued an ultimatum to choose one sport or the other.
Derry ploughed on without him and reached a league final but it was only when you see him back in full flight in an Ulster Championship contest that you realise how much they actually missed him.
McIver has had to relax the position on his dual status as Bradley continues to play with Coleraine but it's an easy sacrifice on this evidence.
Without tearing Down apart as he did in the first half of his last Ulster Championship match at the same venue two years ago, or as he did to Armagh in an Ulster semi-final in 2011 before rupturing his cruciate ligament, he was still the difference here as Derry grappled their way to a first win in the province since that win over Armagh in 2011.
For the crucial winning score which Bradley himself kicked in injury-time, courtesy of a free won by Kevin Johnston for a foul close to goals by Darren O'Hagan that merited the game's only black card, he did the heavy lifting, fielding a superbly placed Thomas Mallon kick-out and setting off on a 40-metre run before offloading to his half-back colleague.
His point on 41 minutes to put Derry 0-10 to 0-6 clear was arguably the game's most sublime moment as he left defenders trailing in his wake with clever use of strength and acceleration. The moniker 'Skinner' never seemed more appropriate in that cameo.
He made mistakes and took bad options too but that could be said about any amount of Derry players in a second half when their game came close to falling apart in the face of a very strong Down onslaught.
With no win in the province in their last three campaigns, the weight on their shoulders was heavy and it was telling down the home straight.
Down had lost half-back Conall McGovern to a straight red card just after the break, Eddie Kinsella's consultation with his umpires determining he should go for an off-the-ball incident that left Enda Lynn on the deck.
By that stage Conor Laverty, who grew in influence as the second half progressed, had reduced an interval deficit to two points, 0-8 to 0-6, with a point off the throw-in.
Bradley's fine individual point took Derry four clear and really should have set them up to win this game comfortably. But Down threw a little bit more caution to the wind after that and ran more purposefully at a defence content to sit back.
Laverty joined everything together while Donal O'Hare and Kevin McKernan also got more involved. From the back Luke Howard pushed further up as they abandoned the rotating sweeper they had deployed ,while Damien Turley and Brendan McArdle also grew in influence across the half-back line.
Gradually they chipped away at Derry's lead, Paul Devlin landing three frees between the 47th and 53rd minutes after Mark Poland, O'Hare and Devlin himself had drawn frees from Derry defenders showing less discipline than they had done in the first half.
Derry manager Brian McIver tended to take a different view afterwards, hoping Kinsella would see some of his decisions in a "different light."
Laverty equalised and such was the momentum they had Down quite possibly should have defied the numbers and pressed on to repeat their 2013 success here.
But their shot selection after that was quite poor as they added seven second-half wides to the five accumulated before the break.
Derry lost their Division 1 status this spring but this was the game they always had in mind and they put in a really strong first half.
Danny Heavron dropped back as sweeper, leaving Bradley and Benny Heron inside in a two man full-forward line, while Fergal Doherty prowled like a shark in a bay for kick-outs, his telepathy with his own goalkeeper Thomas Mallon, who was clinical in his distribution from restarts, one of the features of the game.
Captain Mark Lynch took time to get going but when he did he oozed class too, his three points from play helping them to a 0-8 to 0-5 lead.
Down struggled for cohesion in that opening period. Mark Poland, invariably their playmaker, struggled to exploit Derry's debutant Brendan Rogers who was outstanding for three-quarters of the game until mistakes crept into his game while O'Hare was well tracked by Dermot McBride.
Poland was also denied by one crucial Ciaran McFaul tackle in the 28th minute when they trailed by 0-5 to 0-4.
A ray of light, however, was McKernan's 42nd-minute point - a clever interchange between himself and Conor Maginn before he sliced over a point in that trademark style of his.
Derry got decent yield from their half-forward line, Lynch, Enda Lynn and Sean Leo McGoldrick, in that first half but as they retreated their influence waned. Substitute Caolan O'Boyle landed Derry's first point in 22 minutes when he got a touch to a Johnston punched effort that was falling short.
Down will regret not working the ball into better positions down the closing stretch, the shot choices of Paul Devlin and substitute Jerome Johnston falling under the microscope in particular. It was the kick-out from that Johnston wide that Mallon was able to launch that winning play.
McIver afterwards conceded his team became hesitant in the second half. "We went into our shell. We had the extra man and seemed to over-elaborate," he said.
"We took too long on the ball, took too long to get the kick-outs moving, came across the field whereas we were moving the ball at pace in the first half. I said to one of the selectors just after the sending-off, 'This will do us no favours'. So often in the past I have seen it happening. I would love to get an explanation as to why teams do that."
McIver lauded the contribution of Bradley too and what he has given since he backed down over his stance on Bradley's soccer career.
"He has really looked forward to getting back playing football for us. You know what you're going to get with Skinner.
"He'll give you everything on the pitch and that's what he did today. He was a real handful and a threat for them every time we attacked."
Jim McCorry didn't dwell much on McGovern's dismissal but pointed out that they have had red cards in the games they have lost this year.
"Some are of the view that it was very much orchestrated, that there was very little in it and that pressure was brought to bear on the umpires. I don't know if that was the case or not but we can do very little about it now."
Scorers - Derry: E Bradley, (3fs), M Lynch (2fs) 0-5 each, E Lynn, C O'Boyle 0-1 each. Down: P Devlin 0-6 (6fs), K McKernan, C Laverty 0-2 each, D O'Hare (f) 0-1.
Derry - T Mallon 8; D McBride 7, O Duffy 6, B Rogers 8; K Johnston 7, C McKaigue 7, D Heavron 6, C McFaul 7; N Holly 7, F Doherty 7; SL McGoldrick 7, M Lynch 8, E Lynn 7; B Heron 5, E Bradley 8. Subs: C O'Boyle 6 for Heron (52), T O'Brien for Lynn (61).
Down - S Kane 7; L Howard 8, D O'Hagan 7, C McGovern 5; D Turley 7, B McArdle 7, R Boyle 6; P Fitzpatrick 6, C Mooney 6; P Devlin 7, K McKernan 7, C Maginn 6; M Poland 6, C Laverty 8, D O'Hare 7. Subs: P Downey 7 for Maginn (47), J Johnston 6 for Fitzpatrick (58), A McConville for Mooney (66), N Madine for Devlin (69) D O'Hanlon for O'Hagan (BC, 71).
Ref - E Kinsella (Laois)