Relief for McCartan after the goal rush
DOWN 3-13, ANTRIM 0-10
All-Ireland SFC Qualifier
BIFF, bang, wallop. Three goals in nine minutes, goodbye Antrim, now bring on Cork.
That was Down's Saturday night at Casement Park in a nutshell, but manager James McCartan has much to ponder before their fourth-round qualifier against the Rebels next weekend.
Questions about personnel and performance, despite the impressive-looking scoreline, will occupy Wee James during the coming days as he seeks to find a combination to overcome Conor Counihan's All-Ireland champions.
McCartan was honest enough to admit that his team have "stuttered" their way through the championship so far, although the spark of inspiration seems to have been lit judging by the result of a tricky fixture against Antrim.
On the positive side, his second-half substitutions, particularly of Danny Hughes, Caolan Mooney and Paul McComiskey worked very well, and if Down had made the most of their first-half chances, they could have been further ahead than the 0-7 to 0-6 lead they held at half-time.
"We're sort of stuttering a wee bit. We're not firing on all cylinders," said McCartan. "We've been improving a wee bit every game, and certainly in front of goals it was a bit better -- not in the first half, but goals always put a gloss on it and might hide over faults that were there.
"Not everything was perfect but we're just delighted to be still in the hat."
Down could not be faulted for work rate, and neither could Antrim. Marty Clarke, Benny Coulter, Mark Poland, Conor Laverty, Kevin McKernan and Aidan Branagan led the way, and their team-mates responded.
For Antrim, Justin Crozier did well for long periods in shackling Clarke, but it was too much to expect that Down's playmaker could be kept subdued, and in the second half, he got more freedom to do his ritual damage and his side cut loose.
Aodhan Gallagher and Brendan Herron did sterling work at midfield, shading the issue with Declan Rooney and Kalum King, and corner-forwards Gerard O'Boyle and Kevin Niblock caused the Down defence some scary moments.
Niblock, and Antrim, will wonder what the outcome might have been had he taken a goal chance in the 32nd minute. The score was 0-5 to 0-4 in Down's favour when an Antrim breakout involving Tony Scullion and O'Boyle carved open the defence, leaving Niblock through on goal.
He got the shot away under pressure from a defender, and was falling as he kicked it, but goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh made a good block.
Niblock and the Antrim fans howled for a penalty, but referee Padraig Hughes waved play on.
Antrim boss Liam Bradley had no doubts. "It was a good save by the keeper, but it was a penalty," he said. "Sometimes those decisions go for you, sometimes they go against you, and that certainly went against us today."
Neither side made any half-time changes, and Antrim stormed into the second half, equalising at 0-6 each with a 38th-minute point by Herron.
O'Boyle put the home team ahead for the first time with a point after 43 minutes, as the Saffrons raised their game to a new level.
At that stage Down began making moves from the bench, and the introduction of Hughes, Mooney and McGinn turned out to be significant.
It didn't help Antrim's cause that they missed a couple of chances to add to their lead, but despite a Clarke equaliser from a '45' in the 47th minute, Antrim were surging forward and looking a shade more positive than Down.
At that point the game was in the balance, and the question was: who wanted this more?
And then we got the answer: Down, Down, Down, as the goals rained down on Antrim and totally spoiled their parade.
First a McKernan-Clarke-Laverty move resulted in Laverty waltzing through the Antrim defence to plunder a goal in the 49th minute.
The impressive Branagan added a point almost immediately, and then Coulter was involved as Clarke powered the ball to the net for goal number two in the 51st minute.
Rampant Down then smashed in goal number three 10 minutes later.
At 3-9 to 0-9, the game as a contest was over, even though there were eight minutes left for play.
Bradley sighed in exasperation as he said: "In the 18th minute of that second half we were winning the game and five minutes later we were six points down, but that's Down, they can do that.
"The second goal was the killer. There was no way back for us then."
Scorers -- Down: M Clarke 1-4 (3f, 1 '45'), M Poland 0-4 (4f), C Laverty 1-0, C Mooney 1-0, B Coulter 0-2, A Branagan, P McComiskey, K McKernan 0-1 each. Antrim: P Cunningham (2f), K Niblock, B Herron 0-2 each, J Crozier, G O'Boyle, T McCann, D O'Hagan 0-1 each.
Down -- B McVeigh 7; A Branagan 7, D Gordon 7, A McArdle 7; C Garvey 7, K McKernan 7, G McCartan 7; D Rooney 7, K King 7; C Maginn 7, M Poland 8, L Doyle 7, C Laverty 7, B Coulter 7, M Clarke 7. Subs: D Hughes 7 for L Doyle (40), C Mooney 7 for C Maginn (44), P McComiskey 7 for D Rooney (48), P Fitzpatrick 6 for K King (62), A Carr for B Coulter (64).
Antrim -- W McSorley 6; C Brady 6, R Johnson 6, T O'Neill 6; T Scullion 6, J Crozier 7, A Healy 6; P Cunningham 6, A Gallagher 6; C Murray 6, T McCann 6, J Loughrey 6; G O'Boyle 6, B Herron 7, K Niblock 6. Subs: M Dougan 6 for G O'Boyle (48), A Douglas 6 for P Cunningham (51), M McCann 6 for B Herron (54), D O'Hagan 6 for A Healy (56), K Brady for T McCann (64).
Ref -- P Hughes (Armagh).