Cloak of invincibility slips from Donegal shoulders
If Donegal do not win this year's All-Ireland Championship they can mark down Sunday, June 23, as the day the dream started to unravel.
In a dramatic game in Breffni Park, the All-Ireland champions showed some signs of wear and tear, but their experience and tactical expertise in playing their own specific style of football enabled them to hang on.
The most significant aspect of the overall Donegal story was that they do not seem to have five reserve players who are as good as the first 15, but then it was an unusual situation, in that, having already lost two first-team players through injury, two more, Ryan Bradley and David Walsh, had departed the field with knocks before half-time.
And, when Frank McGlynn and Patrick McBrearty were both substituted, it meant that more than a third of the normal Donegal line-up was no longer on the field of play.
In that context, Jim McGuinness will be happy to have survived this very severe test, but he will still have concerns when he returns to Croke Park, providing they beat Cavan or Monaghan in the Ulster final.
Down will be fairly upbeat after their performance and they got full value from their players who ran the champions so close throughout this game.
They failed to win simply because their team is not good enough, but their gigantic effort and work rate almost compensated for that.
Almost, but not quite, mainly because they lacked leadership in the forward line and wasted a bucketful of easy scoring chances, including at least three goal opportunities.
They simply lacked a top-class finisher capable of upsetting the Donegal defence sufficiently, despite the wonderful display of corner-forward Donal O'Hare.
The other factor which undermined Down was their poor start, which gifted Donegal a four-point lead and that was the cushion that allowed the winners not to panic when their crown was in danger. Donegal were never behind in the game and, indeed, they never led by less than two points.
Sometimes this fact led Down forwards to make rash decisions, such as foregoing easy point opportunities for one more pass to a colleague, who was often in a worse position than the passer himself.
These are the little things that allow champions to stay cool under pressure, knowing that opponents are nervous and don't possess that winning mentality gained from closing out successive games over the course of a successful season.
This was a ferocious battle for the greater part of the game once Down woke up in the second quarter and began to fight fire with fire.
Maybe it was some refereeing decisions that ran Donegal's way in the first half that incensed and lit a fire under the Down players. They certainly took their opponents head-on from there on and it nearly brought the downfall of the champions.
Donegal conceded 17 frees in the first half as they consistently halted Down attacks from developing by stopping the play.
Down mentors, of course, knew this was going to happen and perhaps if they had moved the ball much faster they might have undermined that particular Donegal tactic.
In general, Down took a long time to cope with the Donegal style of play, despite the fact that it is known to everybody by now.
The Mournemen played too many cross-field passes and seemed to play into Donegal's hands in the first half by delaying the movement of the ball. When you play Donegal that is suicidal.
But fair play to James McCartan and his team as they did read the play a lot better as the game wore on and in the second half, when they drove at the Donegal defence, many gaps appeared.
The pity was for Down that Benny Coulter was struggling and because of that, the attack lacked a sense of direction.
One man who stood out head and shoulders in this game was Down centre half-back Peter Turley from Downpatrick, who gave a masterly performance and held his defence brilliantly.
Donegal rarely looked like getting a goal and, with Michael Murphy very much subdued, the Tir Chonail men were fortunate to even amass 12 points.
Of course, the champions have some brilliant players and, on this occasion, it was Colm McFadden who lit the lights with three brilliant points in the final quarter, two from play, at a time when Down were just two points behind.
Down were never short of fight, though, and they came back to cut the margin to two before Murphy kicked a monster free from about 60 metres to secure the final three-point victory margin.
There is no doubt that the reigning champions deserved their victory as they overcame problems they were not used to – such as losing so many players.
Their close-range tackling, in various forms, paid rich dividends and was probably the main source of supply to their team as time and again Down players in possession ignored one of the basics of the game – that when you have the ball you never give it away easily.
After the game, we can now state that none of the leading All-Ireland contenders are much ahead of the other. Donegal showed they are not invincible and as the season progresses we will learn more about their appetite and the effects, if any, of two and half years of extremely intensive training.
POSTSCRIPT: The Ulster Council must be given great credit for their half-time initiative at Breffni Park, where they staged two mini-games involving players of various ages with special needs from Cavan, Donegal and Down.
It was stimulating for the crowd to see the spontaneity and enthusiasm of these eager athletes.