Down hold off Farney fightback to pull off the shock of the year
Down 1-14 Monaghan 0-15
Down pulled off the biggest shock of the 2017 football championship so far when they dumped Monaghan out the Ulster series last night. Even though Down had ended a 22-month win-less drought when they edged out Armagh in the quarter-final, few expected them to topple Division 1 side Monaghan.
So Down can celebrate reaching their first Ulster final since 2012 - they beat Monaghan in the semi-final five years ago - and they can certainly dream about winning their first title since 1994. They will meet Tyrone in the July 16 decider in Clones.
Monaghan will now have to regroup for the qualifiers but it will take them a long time to recover from this shock defeat. A penalty from Darragh O'Hanlon early in the second half gave Down a seven-point lead and though Monaghan dominated the rest of the half their comeback just fell short after an epic encounter.
Even though they had the advantage of the breeze, Down set up in an ultra-defensive fashion deploying two sweepers, Kevin McKernan and Peter Turley, and leaving just two forwards, Jerome Johnston and Connaire Harrison inside the Monaghan half.
The contest followed its predicted script in the first half with Kieran Hughes controlling the game from midfield where he earned three marks and won Down's first three kick-outs. But wayward shooting from the Monaghan forwards - they hit four wides in the first seven minutes - meant that their dominance was not reflected on the scoreboard.
Down were largely dependent on free-taker Darragh O'Hanlon to keep them in touch and the 4-2 advantage which Monaghan had built up at the end of the first quarter didn't reflect their territorial superiority.
By then Down goalkeeper Michael Cunningham had sorted out his re-start strategy, mostly going short and gradually the underdogs gained control of the game.
Down's first defensive line strung across their own 45-metre line frustrated Monaghan so much that they repeatedly carried the ball into the tackle where they were dispossessed and then used the breaking speed of Caolan Mooney to set up attacks.
In terms of pace the Johnston brothers had the edge on their marks, and to compound Monaghan's woes the usually reliable Rory Beggan miscued three kick-outs in a row. Down repeatedly attacked Monaghan down the right-hand side and were rewarded when they kicked five points in a row between the 22nd and 28th minutes to deservedly lead 0-9 to 0-5.
Harrison excelled with three points from play, though a booming point from the experienced McKernan was the pick of the lot.
Monaghan used all their experience to hang in and outscored Down 3-1 in the closing eight minutes of the half. Conor McManus played a key role winning a vital free which Jack McCarron converted and then hitting a brilliant individual point to leave his side trailing by 0-10 to 0-8 at the break.
Paddy Neilan replaced David Coldrick as referee at the start of the second half - the Meath official was unable to officiate last weekend due to a hamstring injury. But Down nearly had one foot in the Ulster final when Harrison got clear of his marker but his goal-bound shot was blocked by Darren Hughes at the expense of a 45. Goalkeeper Cunningham nailed the kick while Beggan missed one at the other end.
A monster point from McKernan extended Down's advantage. Beggan miscued his short kick-out straight to Ryan Johnston, who put midfielder Niall Donnelly through on the right. He took a generous number of steps before been bundled over in the square and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. O'Hanlon confidently drove the kick to the net and suddenly they were seven points clear.
McManus converted two frees to pull back the deficit to five points with 20 minutes left.
But all the momentum was with Down as Conor Maginn dictated the pace of the exchanges, though they did lose full-forward Harrison with a leg injury.
While O'Hanlon converted his fifth free another Monaghan brace from McManus (free) and Darren Hughes had the margin down to four after 55 minutes. The margin was down to three in the 61st minute after McCarron pointed a close-in free.
As the tension mounted, Monaghan's experience told with points from the magnificent McManus and Kieran Hughes to leave a point between the sides with five minutes of normal time remaining. It was their fourth point on the spin and overall they had seven scores in the second half compared to four for Down.
Down thought they had won the game in the final minute of normal time when under intense pressure Beggan dropped the ball and Maginn poked it to the empty net, but the referee correctly ruled that the goalkeeper had been fouled.
McCarron missed a free from the right flank to level the game in the fourth minute of the allocated six minutes of injury-time and Donal O'Hare secured a famous win for Down with a point after a breakaway attack in the dying seconds.
The official attendance was 13,396.
Scorers - Down: D O'Hagan 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-5f), K McKernan 0-2, C Harrison 0-3, M Cunningham (45), C Maginn, S Millar, C O'Hare 0-1 each. Monaghan: C McManus 0-6 (3f), J McCarron 0-3 (2f), D Hughes and R Wylie 0-2 each, O Duffy, C McCarthy 0-1 each
Down: M Cunningham; N McPartland, G McGovern, D O'Hagan; D O'Hanlon, C McGovern, C Mooney; K McKernan, N Donnelly; P Turley, C Maginn, S Millar; J Johnston, C Harrison, R Johnston. Subs: D O'Hare for Harrison 53m; J Murphy for McGovern 58m; A Carr for Turley 68m; M Poland for R Johnston 67m
Monaghan: R Beggan; F Kelly, D Wylie, R Wylie; C Walshe, V Corey, N McAdam; K Hughes K O'Connell; D Hughes, K Duffy, O Duffy; C McCarthy, J McCarron, C McManus. Subs: R McAnespie for McAdam 42m; D Mone for O Duffy 46m; D Ward for K Duffy 46m, D Malone for McCarthy 56m; C Forde for Beggan 71m.
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath) replaced by Paddy Neilan (Roscommon) at half time
Sunday Indo Sport