Classy Coulter delivers full package
During the week Benny Coulter articulated a dislike he has of certain aspects of life as a forward in the Ulster football championship.
The verbals, or "crap" as he put it so succinctly himself, he has had to listen to for over a decade have left him as cynical as some of the football itself.
There are exceptions however and he singled one in particular, the Armagh corner-back Andy Mallon, as an opponent he can easily get along with.
The chances are after Ballybofey yesterday that Coulter will add Donegal to the list of those he is happy to tolerate.
Rarely if ever has he had a better day in the provincial championship that gives him such mixed emotions.
There have been days and nights in the league and indeed the qualifiers when his exceptional qualities have manifested so lucidly. But never so tellingly as this Ulster quarter-final when he made all the big plays for the winners, from the two points he engineered in a tense last quarter to his goal, has the full package been on offer like it.
Late on, with Down protecting a two- point lead courtesy of that goal and Donegal ditching their infuriating obsession with lateral handpassing moves taking them nowhere to finally deliver one long, it was Coulter who got back for sentry duty to cut it out with the same calm assurance with which he claimed two of the previous three kick-outs.
His bottom line, he pointed out afterwards, was simple. He just wasn't going to countenance another exit from a first match in Ulster.
Coulter's 11-season championship career has been decorated just once with an Ulster final appearance (2003) and the desire clearly burns deep within him to grace that stage again.
James McCartan has been busy constructing a new Down team in the first few months of this year that relies heavily on a disciplined and heavily populated defence. It's not pretty, it's not ambitious but with a player like Coulter, ambition and attacking flair is never going to suffocate completely, regardless of the plan.
He's instinctive, he's off the cuff and, on his day, devastating. He hit 1-4 here and only the goal, you could say, was not his own exclusive creation. Martin and John Clarke picked up much of the slack during the league as they hauled themselves to the Division 2 final and the younger Clarke was again instrumental with his capacity to do the right thing with the ball almost every time.
There are still plenty of flaws in this emerging Down team. The concession of two goals in the opening 18 minutes exposed further chinks in a defence that lost its clinical allure against Armagh in Croke Park. But they defend to a structure and once Donegal committed to playing Barry Monaghan as an extra defender beside Kevin Cassidy, it made Down's ploy of sitting James Colgan back in front of their full-back line a lot more simple.
With red shirts consistently getting back to fill the spaces, it frustrated Donegal and had them abandoning their search for Michael Murphy after some early productivity that effectively yielded both goals.
His catch from Neil Gallagher's delivery on 12 minutes and quick transfer to Dermot Molloy for the first goal looked like a portent of things to come and when he teed up Molloy for a point attempt that came off an upright and fell to unmarked Conal Dunne for the second goal minutes later for a 2-1 to 0-3 lead, Donegal looked to have it cracked.
But the havoc that Murphy threatened to cause quickly dissipated and for the rest of the match he was disappointing.
How much of that was down to Donegal reverting to type and swinging the ball through the hands back and forth across the field is a matter of opinion.
John Joe Doherty suggested it was a case of having to because of the way Down were set up but it was static, pedestrian and far too easy to read.
They were authors of their own downfall in that regard with critical Down scores, including Coulter's goal, coming off the back of possession lost or handpasses that just didn't connect. Gallagher, Monaghan and Rory Kavanagh were all culpable in that respect.
Amazingly, they were only pulled for errant handpasses twice by referee Joe McQuillan who took a much more lenient line on foot of the reaction to last weekend. Down's response to both goals was telling with Clarke and the superb Danny Hughes pointing before Coulter extracted a save from Paul Durcan in a six-minute spell after Dunne's goal.
By the break, Donegal's 2-3 to 0-7 lead was tentative but it still took Down 59 minutes level it through Coulter.
David Walsh did edge Donegal ahead one more time but the momentum was with Down as Coulter delivered from over 45 metres and Durcan was again forced to save from Dan Gordon at close range. The resultant '45 was converted by Clarke on 69 minutes and they led for the first time but Kavanagh forced extra-time, 0-13 to 2-7.
Still Donegal continued to invite trouble with their handpassing and still they accumulated wides. For the home support, it was death by a thousand cuts. McHugh, son of local hero Martin, made an impact when introduced and scored one of two Donegal points that brought them back in touch after Coulter and Hughes had nudged Down two clear in the opening half of extra-time.
But then Gallagher spilled coming out of defence offering a three to one situation that Hughes, Clarke and finally Coulter weren't going to spurn with just four minutes remaining and Down hung on from there.
It was Donegal's third successive Ulster championship defeat in Ballybofey, a result the efforts of Durcan, Michael Maguire and Cassidy didn't deserve. But for Coulter these days in a Down shirt have been all too rare. At last the full package has been delivered on the stage he loves to hate.
SCORERS -- Down: B Coulter 1-4, D Hughes 0-4, M Clarke ( 1 '45), M Poland (2f) 0-3 each, J Clarke 0-1. Donegal: D Molloy 1-3 (2f), C Dunne 1-0, M Murphy (f), D Walsh, A Hanlon, C McFadden (f), M McHugh, R Kavanagh, E Wade all 0-1 each.
Down -- B McVeigh 7; D Rafferty 7, B McArdle 7, D Rooney 6; K McKernan 6, J Colgan 6, C Garvey 6; D Gordon 5, K King 7; D Hughes 8, M Poland 7, P McComiskey 5; M Clarke 7, B Coulter 9, J Clarke 5. Subs: C Maginn 6 for J Clarke (47), P Fitzpatrick 5 for McComiskey (55), D O'Hagan 5 for McKernan (62), C Laverty 6 for Poland (78), R Murtagh for Garvey (85).
Donegal -- P Durcan 7; B Dunnion 7, N Magee 7, K Lacey 5; M Maguire 7, K Cassidy 8, B Monaghan 5; F McGlynn 6, N Gallagher 6; R Kavanagh 7, D Walsh 7, C Toye 4; C Dunne 6, D Molloy 6, M Murphy 6. Subs: A Hanlon 6 for Toye (43), A Thompson 6 for Monaghan (52), M McHugh 7 for Gallagher, C McFadden 6 for Molloy (66), Gallagher for Dunne (70), P McGrath for McGlynn (78), E Wade for Maguire (80).
Ref -- J McQuillan (Cavan).