McCartan relieved after Down deny brave Offaly
FAMOUSLY fleet-footed as a player, James McCartan proved to have an equally deft turn of phrase after his Down side narrowly held out in this third-round clash on Saturday.
What was he thinking when Offaly had four clear goal chances in the opening 12 minutes at Tullamore? "I was looking for a fast car to be honest!" he quipped.
A speedy getaway would certainly have been needed if Offaly's four gilt-edged early chances had yielded more than just Ken Casey's second-minute goal.
Casey dropped a chance short to the 'keeper in the opening minute, Brendan McVeigh saved a John Reynolds shot after 11 minutes and Graham Guilfoyle was just plain unlucky when his decent effort came back off the woodwork.
"There was that many holes in the dyke, I didn't know where to put my hand," McCartan said. "Offaly were scary at that stage -- the forwards and the pace they had coming at us. What they're doing in Division 3 I don't know."
Offaly produced their best performance under manager Tom Cribbin in a blistering opening 15 minutes when Richie Dalton lorded it in midfield, but they were left to rue their failure to make the most of those great chances.
With teenager Anton Sullivan playing a brilliant wandering role and Ciaran McManus and Ross Brady sharing the free-taking duties, they were leading by five after 14 minutes and still up, by three (1-6 to 0-6), at half-time.
But the warning signs were already there.
Teenage corner-back Sean Pender needed to make a miraculous intervention to stop Benny Coulter scoring a goal in the 29th minute and 'keeper Alan Mulhall was equally heroic a minute later, when he found himself one on one with Ambrose Rogers.
Offaly also went scoreless for a 17-minute spell before points by Sullivan and Brady (a free) maintained their goal margin.
Down appeared to be lucky not to lose Coulter for a rash challenge after 33 minutes but received only four frees in the first half, which changed radically soon after.
Within six minutes of the restart, they'd doubled their free count and made that pay.
Three minutes after the break, a well-taken goal by Aidan Carr gave them their first lead and frees from Mark Poland and Martin Clarke helped put them two clear.
Clarke's brother John also kicked an early open goal chance wide and then had a 'Joe Sheridan' moment on the goal-line which yielded another wide.
With Kalum King taking over in midfield and Down suddenly coming at Offaly in waves, locals started having flashbacks to 2008, when the Mourne men smashed five goals past them in the qualifiers.
Yet this time their burgeoning young team did not lie down and Cribbin's decision to introduce John Coughlan to midfield was a factor.
After going scoreless for 12 minutes, points from Reynolds and a great long-range free from Ciaran McManus quickly levelled it and Brian Connor also contributed two great points in a brave fightback.
But it was then that Down's superior bench and the experience of players like Martin Clarke kicked in to bring them home safely.
Paul McComiskey had started for the pivotal Daniel Hughes -- who has a stress fracture in his foot -- but dosed up with pain killers, the Saval star then arrived to play a key role in shutting the match out.
In the final quarter Offaly fought back bravely and, with such a young side, probably could have done with the experience of injured captain Karol Slattery at that stage.
McManus (34), in his 45th championship appearance, still gave them great leadership before he was, surprisingly, withdrawn in the late stages.
Up front, their two-man forward strategy and some good defending from Dan Gordon contributed to keeping Niall McNamee to just a single score, but at the other end Scott Brady did an equally good job in making Coulter largely peripheral.
Offaly hadn't won a championship game since 2003, so their three-game qualifier run should really stand to them. Cribbin bemoaned his side's missed chances but was equally proud of them.
"There's a serious future for them; they showed great character and are very young so it's all about keeping them together," he said, with his own future undecided.
McCartan wasn't wrong in observing that his side's stop-start performance "won't be good enough to get us into any quarter-final, no matter who we draw".
But he took heart that, unlike their Ulster semi-final, Down's players took responsibility and rode out a mid-game crisis, showing the sort of leadership they lacked when capitulating to Tyrone.
Scorers -- Down: A Carr 1-0, M Clarke 0-5 (0-4f, 0-1 '45'), M Poland 0-3 (0-2f), J Clarke 0-2, B Coulter, D Hughes 0-1 each. Offaly: K Casey 1-1, B Connor, C McManus (0-1f, 0-1 '45'), R Brady (0-2f) 0-2 each, N McNamee, A Sullivan, J Reynolds 0-1 each.
Down -- B McVeigh 7; D Rooney 6, D Gordon 7, D Rafferty 5; D O'Hagan 7, J Colgan 6, C Garvey 7; A Rogers (Capt) 6, K King 7; A Carr 8, M Poland 8, P McComiskey 6; M Clarke 8, B Coulter 6, J Clarke 7. Subs: D Hughes 8 for Carr (47), K McKernan 6 for Colgan (50), R Sexton 6 for McComiskey (66), R Murtagh 7 for J Clarke (63), A Brannigan for Garvey (70).
Offaly -- A Mulhall 8; B Darby 6, S Brady (Capt) 8, S Pender 9; N Darby 7, R Brady 7, P McConway 5; R Dalton 7, B Connor 7; G Guilfoyle 7, C McManus 8, J Reynolds 6; K Casey 7, N McNamee 6, A Sullivan 8. Subs: S Ryan 6 for McConway (31), J Coughlan 7 for Dalton (42), A McNamee 6 for McManus (67), D Egan for Casey (70).
Ref -- Michael Duffy (Sligo).