Disputed goal helps Down lift late siege
All-Ireland SFC semi-final
THE last time Down won a game in Croke Park by this scoreline they left with the Sam Maguire Cup.
That was back in 1991 when they beat Meath in the All-Ireland final; this time it earned them a place in the final after a tense struggle which ended in high drama, as Kildare drove on in desperate pursuit of salvation.
They nearly attained it too, as substitute Robert Kelly sent a last-minute free crashing off the underside of the Down crossbar.
Had it been an inch lower, it would almost certainly have cannoned over the goal line but, unfortunately for Kildare, their luck was out. The ball rebounded to safety and Kildare's dream of reaching the final for the first time since 1998 was shattered.
Instead, it was jubilant Down who booked the big date for September 19 after constructing a convincing performance between the 10th and 60th minutes. They outscored Kildare by 1-14 to 1-7 in that period, a return which compensated for their slow start and their edgy finish.
However, when Down were at their productive best they were an impressive sight, moving forward in powerful waves which threatened to drown their bewildered opponents.
Still, Kildare are nothing if not resilient and, just as they had done in so many games since losing the Leinster quarter-final to Louth in early June, they showed an admirable streak of stubbornness just when it looked as if they were going to be well beaten.
They trailed by 1-14 to 0-10 after 57 minutes and, having missed some good chances, they seemed headed for a big defeat. Down were playing with a stylish swagger which comes when a team's confidence tanks are overflowing but, to Kildare's credit, they refused to yield.
Eamon Callaghan's goal in the 58th minute restored their equilibrium and while Benny Coulter extended Down's lead to five points in the 59th minute, Kildare were the dominant force on the home stretch.
They pared the deficit back to two points and, as they laid siege to the Down goal, had claims for a penalty turned down as bodies piled into the square.
Referee Pat McEnaney adjudged neither side had a clear case for a free and opted to throw in the ball. Down continued to live dangerously but luck was with them as Kelly's drive deflected off a Down hand and thundered off the crossbar from the late free.
It wasn't the only lucky break Down enjoyed. Benny Coulter's goal in the 12th minute should not have been allowed as he was clearly in the square before the ball arrived.
Still, credit to Coulter who kept his eye on the target and flicked the ball past Shane McCormack for a goal that settled Down into a rhythm which left Kildare with a problem they hadn't encountered early on.
They dominated the early stages, out-scoring their rivals 0-3 to 0-1 in the first ten minutes while also kicking four wides. Those stats reflected the possession ratio and the fact that it was achieved against a stiff wind made it all the more satisfactory for Kildare.
Kildare acquired a reputation as slow starters this year, so they would have felt really good about themselves after getting into the game so quickly and efficiently. Down needed a settling agent and it came in the form of Coulter's goal.
Suddenly, they were a side transformed. Kevin McKernan darted forward to kick his second point; midfielders Peter Fitzpatrick and Kalum King asserted themselves; wing-forward Daniel Hughes ran at the Kildare defence while, closer to goal, Coulter and Martin Clarke were asking awkward questions of their markers.
Kildare were adding to their problems with sloppy use of the ball, often needlessly losing possession when they needed to be far more controlled. Nevertheless, their high work rate kept them
afloat and they would have been quite happy to find themselves only a point adrift coming up to the half-hour mark.
Significantly, though, the balance of power had switched at midfield and, as the Down pair rook over, Kieran McGeeney began repair work by replacing Daryl Flynn with Ronan Sweeney. Unfortunately for Kildare, Dermot Earley could play no part, a loss which severely impacted on them.
By half-time, much had changed. Down kicked four unanswered points in the last five minutes to go in ahead 1-9 to 0-7 at the break, setting Kildare a target which was always going to be difficult to reach.
Kildare needed to make a good start to the second half but it was Down who retained the initiative with Martin Clarke steering a free over the bar.
Kildare badly needed a break and came mighty close to getting it in the 43rd minute when Eamon Callaghan's drive for goal rebounded off the upright.
A goal would have launched their recovery effort in a major way but instead they had to wait a further 15 minutes before Callaghan beat Brendan McVeigh.
That cut the margin to four points and suddenly Kildare's ambitions were back on track. Down became edgy and uncertain as their opponents coursed them all the way to the finish line but they just did enough to hold on, on a day when most of the lucky breaks went their way. In fairness, they exploited their good fortune and frequently decorated it with some excellent combination play.
They were better than Kildare at retaining possession while their passing to their inside forwards was more measured and more accurate than their opponents.
So then, Down are back in the All-Ireland final for the first time since 1994, having improved immeasurably since losing to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.
There's scope for further development too, especially in an attack which looks very potent in full flow. And with midfielders Fitzpatrick and King continuing to expand their horizons, the attack can look forward to a decent possession supply in the final.
Defensively, Down will need to improve as Cork have a superior strike force to Kildare. Indeed, Kildare's starting six forwards managed just 1-3 between them from open play, a disappointing return which Cork won't replicate.
It was a disappointing end to the season for Kildare who had enjoyed a great adventure which promised so much. In the end, they came up just short although it must be emphasised that the gods certainly weren't on their side this time.
Had Coulter's goal been disallowed the balance of the first half would have been completely different.
As it was, that goal pumped new energy into Down's effort and they pressed on to build up a lead which ultimately proved enough to win the day.
Scorers -- Down: B Coulter 1-2, M Poland (0-3f), M Clarke (0-2f) 0-3 each, K McKernan, D Hughes 0-2 each, P McComiskey, C Maginn, P Fitzpatrick, R Murtagh 0-1 each. Kildare: J Doyle 0-6 (5f), E Callaghan 1-1, H Lynch 0-2, J Kavanagh, M O'Flaherty, E Bolton, K Ennis (0-1f), D Lyons 0-1 each.
Down -- B McVeigh 7; D Rafferty 6, D McCartan 7, C Garvey 6; D Rooney 6, D Gordon 7, K McKernan 7; P Fitzpatrick 8, K King 7; D Hughes 8, M Poland 6, B Coulter 8; M Clarke 8, J Clarke 5, P McComiskey 7. Subs: A Brannigan 6 for Garvey (45), C Maginn 7 for J Clarke (47), R Murtagh 7 for McComiskey (61), J Colgan for Poland (70).
Kildare -- S McCormack 7; P Kelly 7, H McGrillen 6, B Flanagan 6; M O'Flaherty 6, A MacLochlainn 6, E Bolton 7; H Lynch 7, D Flynn 5; E Callaghan 7, A Smith 5, P O'Neill 6; J Doyle 7, J Kavanagh 6, E O'Flaherty 5. Subs: R Sweeney 6 for Flynn (30), K Ennis 7 for E O'Flaherty (45), D Lyons 7 for M O'Flaherty (47), R Kelly 6 for Smith (55), T O'Connor for Lynch (73).
Ref -- P McEnaney (Monaghan).