Sean Cavanagh steps up to rescue Red Hand men at last minute
Tyrone 2-11 Down 3-8
Six games into the 2014 championship and there's already a contender for comeback of the season that will take some beating.
It was Tyrone who snatched a late equaliser in Omagh when Sean Cavanagh angled over a free in the fourth minute of stoppage-time but the real revival was orchestrated by Down, who not only rescued what looked the ultimate in lost causes but came so tantalisingly close to delivering the first shock of the championship.
Cavanagh's opportunity arose from a careless foul by Down wing-back Declan Rooney, who checked the Tyrone captain off the ball as they waited for a line ball to be taken. Referee David Coldrick awarded a free from around 38 metres which Cavanagh pointed with impressive calmness.
It was the last significant action of a fascinating encounter which Tyrone appeared to have neatly secured when they led by 2-9 to 1-5 after 55 minutes but which they seemed very likely to lose when trailing by 3-8 to 2-9 as the game ticked into stoppage time.
Tyrone were held scoreless for 16 minutes, a period in which Down posted 2-3 as they ramped up the power throughout all sectors. Indeed, they should have been three points clear late on but Donal O'Hare, who had earlier scored 1-2, drove a close-in free wide.
Even Mickey Harte admitted afterwards that facing a three-point deficit at that stage might have proved too much for Tyrone. However, with just two points between the sides, Tyrone plugged on and when Cavanagh pointed a free in the 71st minute it set them up for a big finish which finally yielded the equaliser.
They were a very relieved group at the end but once that sensation wore off they will have had to deal with the reality that they blew a glorious opportunity to book a quarter-final clash with Monaghan at the first attempt.
Down's ultra-defensive set-up played right into Tyrone's eager hands in the first half, a period in which they controlled much of the possession.
They found it difficult to work their way through Down's defensive traffic but still looked very comfortable at half-time when they led by 1-5 to 0-3.
With more accurate finishing, Tyrone would have been much further ahead but they kicked eight wides in the first half, some from relatively easy shooting positions.
Still, with Down finding it so difficult to create chances with an under-manned attack, there was no obvious reason for Tyrone supporters to worry about the second half.
However, things were happening in the Down dressing-room which were to prove hugely significant. James McCartan made three substitutions for the second half, replacing both midfielders, Peter Turley and Ambrose Rodgers and corner-back, Ryan Boyle.
They started the second half with Kevin McKernan switching to midfield where he was joined by Benny Coulter. It was to prove an inspired decision by McCartan as Down were a totally transformed side in the second half.
The first wave of recovery was launched in the 39th minute when Aidan Carr fired a penalty to the net after Jerome Johnston was upended by Tyrone goalkeeper, Niall Morgan, who was sent off on a black card.
It was the correct decision but it also raised the question as to why Down's Conor Maginn wasn't black-carded when conceding a penalty for a foul on Mark Donnelly in the 25th minute. Donnelly found the net anyway but the referee didn't allow the advantage, instead pointing to the penalty spot.
Peter Harte stroked the ball to the net, which kept Tyrone happy at the time but their mood darkened when they saw Morgan dismissed in broadly similar circumstances early in the second half.
Down trailed by three points after 50 minutes but found themselves seven points adrift five minutes later after Darren McCurry had scored 1-1. The goal was beautifully constructed, involving several players, including sub, Stephen O'Neill, and when the final feed came McCurry's way, the finish was clinical.
Down were facing the ultimate character test and their response was quite magnificent. O'Hare and Maginn
whipped in two goals in two minutes before Conor Laverty brought the sides level in the 59th minute.
Down dominated most of the next 10 minutes and points from Mark Poland and Coulter put them in a match-winning position before Cavanagh's double-strike late on saved Tyrone.
"We made a few substitutions at half-time which worked well. We had to change our style of play and once we did, we put Tyrone on the back foot for the first time really. Still, when Tyrone got their second goal, you'd have to fear the worst but there's great character in this team and they really showed it at that stage," said McCartan.
Harte acknowledged that the Down changes had a significant impact on the second half but even that wouldn't have been enough to rescue the situation if Tyrone had shown more composure when they opened up a seven-point lead.
"We switched off for some reason after we got the second goal. I can't understand why but it happened and Down took advantage. Down got a spring in their step from there on and made things very hard for us," said Harte.
Tyrone head for Newry for the replay next Saturday with the memory of 2008 embedded in their minds. They drew with Down in Omagh back then too but lost the replay in Newry before reviving their All-Ireland ambitions via the qualifiers and going on to take the title.
Asked if he thought that getting another game so quickly might be a blessing in disguise for Tyrone, Harte remarked. "It's only a blessing in disguise if you win the game," he said.
One suspects that he will unload some harsh words in training this week as this really was a game Tyrone should have seen through quite comfortably once they pulled so far ahead in the second half.
As for Down, McCartan is likely to use a far more attack-minded strategy on Saturday. There were times in the first half when Down had only three players in the Tyrone half – hence their poor scoring return.
On home territory, Down are certain to be much more progressive, especially in light of the success they enjoyed with a more adventurous approach in the second half yesterday.
McCartan teed it up nicely, promising that "Newry will be rocking next Saturday".
Scorers – Tyrone: D McCurry 1-2 (0-2fs), S Cavanagh 0-5 (3fs), P Harte 1-0 (pen), K Coney 0-3, N Morgan 0-1 (f). Down: D O'Hara 1-2 (0-2fs), C Maginn, A Carr (pen) 1-0 each, A Rogers, N Madine, C Garvey, C Laverty, M Poland, B Coulter 0-1 each.
Tyrone – N Morgan; A McCrory, D McBride, B Tierney; T McCann, Mattie Donnelly, P Harte; C Cavanagh, C Clarke; Mark Donnelly, S Cavanagh, C McGinley; D McCurry, N McKenna, K Coney. Subs: R McKenna for McCann (27), M O'Neill for Morgan (39, BC), S O'Neill for McKenna (53), Justin McMahon for McBride (61), C Gormley for Tierney (61), M Penrose for McGinley (67).
Down – B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, R Boyle; D Rooney, A Carr, C Garvey; P Turley, A Rogers; C Maginn, M Poland, K McKernan; C Laverty, N Madine, D O'Hare. Subs: R Johnston for Boyle (h-t), B Coulter for Turley (h-t), J Johnston for Rogers (h-t), L Doyle for J Johnston (51), D Turley for Garvey (58), P Devlin for Maginn (70, BC).
Ref – D Coldrick (Meath).
Game at a glance
Man of the Match: Kevin McKernan (Down)
Benny Coulter's introduction for the second half proved hugely influential as he formed a dynamic midfield partnership with McKernan, who was one of the few Down men to do himself justice in the first half too.
Donal O'Hare's goal in the 56th minute cut Tyrone's lead to four points and gave Down a powerful momentum.
Why didn't referee Dave Coldrick dismiss Down's Conor Maginn on a black card for the foul which conceded a penalty in the 25th minute? It was a deliberate foul but Maginn escaped censure.
Tyrone's second goal, scored by Darren McCurry in the 55th minute, came from the best move of the game as they swept forward with pace, power and precision.
Mickey Harte questioned Dave Coldrick's consistency and, frankly, he was well within his rights to do so. The reasoning behind several decisions was impossible to figure out.
What they said:
Mickey Harte (Tyrone manager):
"We wasted a lot of chances in the first half. We should have been further ahead at half-time but even then it didn't look as if Down had the capacity to get the number of scores they did in the second half. We switched off after getting the second goal and allowed Down to build momentum."
James McCartan (Down manager):
"We were poor in the first half. We were playing on the back foot but it was different in the second half. We got our mojo back and then took the game to Tyrone."
Down 9 (3 first half)
Tyrone 11 (8)
Down 22 (14)
Tyrone 26 (14)
Down 1 (C Maginn 70)
Tyrone 1 (N Morgan 39)
Down 1 (C Laverty 46)
They replay in Newry next Saturday evening (7.0).