Poland inspires Down comeback in rollercoaster clash
DOWN 2-17 DERRY 1-15
Down's ability to frustrate and delight in equal measure was at the heart of this fabulous shoot-out with Derry in Celtic Park.
Mark Poland, one of the stars of their stirring second-half comeback from five points down, is well used to the Mourne enigma at this stage of his career. But even by his standards, this was quite a rollercoaster. "We'll all be grey by the end of our careers," he smiled afterwards, and no wonder.
After a decent start, when they led by two points on a few occasions, Down's defensive shortcomings were again to the forefront. They shipped 1-9 in the first half, with Eoin Bradley threatening to run them out of town on his own. He kicked 0-4 from play and roasted Benny McArdle.
Not even the presence of Peter Turley as a sweeper could stop Bradley, who regularly got away from both men in the opening period. In the 31st minute he did so again, unselfishly passing to Mark Lynch, who steamed forward and drilled the ball into the net. Everything was going Derry's way.
Enda Lynn started brightly, while James Kielt made light of Down's ploy to get bodies behind the ball by scoring three fabulous long-range points with his trusty left boot.
The Oak Leafers outscored the visitors by 1-5 to 0-2 in the second quarter, reeling off those six scores between the 24th and 31st minutes.
Crucially, Bradley was denied a goal in first-half stoppage-time. Not for the first time, McArdle was caught on the wrong side and Bradley easily got past him, but his bullet of a shot was saved at point-blank range by the feet of Brendan McVeigh.
It was only when Down rallied in the second half that Bradley's miss began to look so expensive. Still, Down had it all to do. Trailing by 1-10 to 0-9 at half-time, with the gap stretched to five soon after the interval, they looked hopelessly short of ideas.
Championship rookie Niall Madine was leading the fight up front on his own and his third point of the game in the 41st minute was the start of a spirited comeback. After being turned over twice at the start of the second half, Poland's influence grew as he held his position in the half-forward line.
Down pushed up, started to press the Derry defenders high up the field and suddenly they were getting the rewards. Poland cut through the middle and laid the ball off to Donal O'Hare, another of the Down rookies, and he fisted the ball to the net to level the scores at 1-11 apiece.
It may not have been a remake of the 1994 classic between these counties when Down dethroned Derry as All-Ireland champions, but the second half was a high scoring shoot-out.
Ryan Scott was forced into a mistake which led to Poland's goal in the 45th minute. This time, O'Hare turned provider, sending the ball across, and Poland slid in to finish to the net.
Down had their tails up and chalked up 2-5 in 14 breathtaking minutes. Derry only scored one point during that time, from a Kielt free. That was one of only four points converted from dead balls all afternoon, with 3-28 rattled up from play.
Bradley cut a hugely frustrated figure in the second half as he was completely starved of possession.
Derry were wiped out in the middle third after the break, and Bradley eventually had to come deep to try and get his hands on the ball.
The Down defenders must have been buoyed by the sight of Bradley positioned behind his midfielders – a far cry from the havoc he was wreaking inside throughout the first half.
Kalum King tagged on a point to put the finishing touches to Down's transformation. From 1-11 to 0-9 down, they were now 2-14 to 1-12 ahead with 15 minutes to go.
Kielt continued to provide some resistance but Derry had a let-off when O'Hare's shot smacked off the bottom of the post with nine minutes to go.
Down had real leaders now. Kevin McKernan drove them on in the second half and kicked two superb scores from distance in the last five minutes to steer his team over the line.
All-Ireland champions Donegal will not be so generous next time out, but Down deserve to enjoy this one for now.
Scorers – Down: D O'Hare 1-4 (2f), M Poland 1-2, K McKernan 0-4, N Madine 0-3, D Rooney, K King, A Rodgers, J Johnston 0-1 each. Derry: J Kielt 0-5 (1f), M Lynch 1-1, E Bradley 0-4, B Heron 0-2 (1 '45'), C Kielt, B McCallion, E Lynn 0-1 each.
DOWN – B McVeigh 7; D McCartan 7, B McArdle 6, R Boyle 6; D Rooney 5, P Turley 5, K Quinn 5; K King 8, K McKernan 9; A Rodgers 6, M Poland 9, N Madine 8; D O'Hare 9, B Coulter 5, C Laverty 5. Subs: D Savage 5 for Rodgers (57), R Mallon 5 for Costello (58), J Johnston 5 for Coulter (64), O Costello 5 for Poland (70).
DERRY – E McNicholl 5; G O'Kane 5, C McKaigue 5, R Scott 5; C Kielt 6, M Lynch 6, B McCallion 6; P Bradley 5, R Bell 5; A McAlynn 5, J Kielt 8, E Lynn 7; B Heron 7, E Bradley 8, C Devlin 4.
Subs: D Mullan 5 for Bell (52), E McGuckin 5 for Devlin (58), D Brown 5 for McCallion (63), B Gormley 5 for P Bradley (67), L Kennedy 5 for Heron (70).
REF – D Coldrick (Meath)