Down upset is 'massive boost' for Burns' men
Down 1-14 Monaghan 0-15
Mystic Meg at her best could not have foreseen this huge championship upset inflicted by Down on outright Ulster favourites Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh, on Saturday night.
I doubt if, even within the Down camp, players and management felt this would be their night to avenge that 19-point defeat to Monaghan last year.
Eamonn Burns and his men knew how well they had prepared and hoped to produce a highly competitive performance, but, hand on heart, could they say 'we're going to win this one' and know it for certain?
Outside of the squad, forget it.
Down followers and the rest of Gaeldom expected a tough, possibly dour war of attrition, but Monaghan's power and experience would surely see them through to play Tyrone in the Ulster final on July 16 no matter what the Mourne men threw at them.
Welcome to the weird, wonderful, and unpredictable world of sport.
A crowd of 13,396 at the ground, and thousands more watching on television, were treated to an absolute classic in terms of ferocious commitment and high-octane passion - which boiled over at times - all of it culminating in a frenzied, frantic finish that sent heart rates soaring.
Referee Paddy Neilan of Roscommon, who came on as sub for the second-half due to an injury incurred by David Coldrick, signalled for six minutes of added time.
Those last 10 minutes - four of normal time, and the six tacked on for injuries and stoppages - contained a plethora of incidents and talking points.
On 66 minutes, with Monaghan invading Down territory and the Mourne men defending every inch as if their lives depended on it, the margin between the sides was reduced to just a point thanks to a fantastic score by midfielder Kieran Hughes.
Hughes, from almost 30 metres out on the left side of the pitch at a tight angle, eased his upper body to the right and, head down, perfectly balanced, curved the ball over the bar.
That left it Down 1-13 to Monaghan 0-15. A minute later came a collision of bodies and 'afters' involving players from both sides, but the ref took no action when he might have flashed a couple of cards.
Out it came a free for Down and midfielder Kevin McKernan flighted in a high ball to the Monaghan goalmouth. The Farney keeper Rory Beggan caught the ball, dropped it under pressure, scrambled on the ground to regain possession, fouled the ball, but got a kick in the face and his side were awarded a free out.
Key moments arrived in the 71st and 75th minutes when Drew Wylie from play and Jack McCarron from a free missed chances to equalise.
Then came a breakaway Down attack which substitute Donal O'Hare finished off by scoring the insurance point.
The unbridled joy of a return to the Ulster final after a five-year gap was wonderful to behold as Down fans swarmed on to the pitch to acclaim their heroes.
Manager Burns revelled in the moment and praised his team for their performance.
"I think it's testament to the players in that dressing room," he said.
"At half-time we were in the game, we were in front. We were giving ourselves a platform to win the game, and we went out in the second-half, particularly in the first 10 minutes or so, and we really cemented that belief.
"We knew Monaghan were going to come back at us. They did, and we weathered the storm.
"It's a massive boost to these players, it's a massive boost to this county," he added.
Right from the start, Down played at a high tempo, tackling in packs and going in hard to the tackle. Niall McParland was rightly booked for a hard hit on Monaghan talisman Conor McManus after just two minutes.
After 20 minutes the sides were level at 0-4 each. Down full-forward Connaire Harrison was proving a handful for Drew Wylie. Kevin McKernan had hauled back some momentum in midfield from Monaghan's Kieran Duffy and Darragh O'Hanlon kept the scoreboard ticking over with scores from frees.
At half-time, Down led by 0-10 to 0-8. Within six minutes of the restart they had tacked on a goal from a penalty by O'Hanlon, and two points by McKernan and goalkeeper Michael Cunningham, who scored from a 45.
Monaghan had a flurry of scores from the 47th to the 55th minute, with three points from frees by Conor McManus and another by Darren Hughes to take them to 0-12.
Down's 13th point came from an O'Hanlon free in the 52nd minute. That they had to wait until O'Hare's 75th-minute point for their next score illustrated the pressure Monaghan exerted on Down, but ultimately to no avail.
Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke was hugely disappointed at the result.
"Down really came with a great hunger about them. They chased us down, they chased everything down. We never got total control of the game. I thought in the second-half we got ourselves back in the game, but Down were able to chip on a point at the end and seal the victory," he said.
Scorers - Down: D O'Hanlon 1-5 (1 pen, 5f); C Harrison 0-3; K McKernan 0-2; C Maginn, M Cunningham (45), S Millar, D O'Hare 0-1 each. Monaghan: C McManus 0-6 (3f), J McCarron 0-3 (2f), D Hughes 0-2; R Wylie, O Duffy, C McCarthy, K Hughes 0-1 each.
Down: M Cunningham 7; N McParland 7, G McGovern 7, D O'Hagan 7; D O'Hanlon 8, C McGovern, C Mooney 7; K McKernan 7, N Donnelly 7; P Turley 6, C Maginn 6, S Millar 6; J Johnston 6, C Harrison 7, R Johnston 7. Subs: D O'Hare 6 for C Harrison (53); J Murphy 6 for C McGovern (59); D McKibbin for C Mooney (66); A Carr for P Turley (68); M Poland for R Johnston (68)
Monaghan: R Beggan 6; F Kelly 6, D Wylie 6, R Wylie 6; C Walsh 6, V Corey 7, N McAdam; K Hughes 7, K O'Connell 6; D Hughes 6, K Duffy 6, O Duffy 6; C McCarthy 6, J McCarron, C McManus 7. Subs: R McAnespie 6for N McAdam (41); D Mone 6 for K Duffy (47); D Ward 6 for O Duffy (47); D Malone for C McCarthy (57); C Forde for R Beggan blood sub; (70); R Beggan for C Forde (73)
Ref - D Coldrick (Meath)