Down on rise after Oak Leaf victory
Tuesday, 17 January 2017
THE Pairc Esler roar at the final whistle said it all.
Sunday's win was a long time coming and while a McKenna Cup round victory doesn't necessarily suggest a rosy September, it does give Down a chance to look forward and put behind a dark era.
Sunday's win over Derry was Down's first competitive win against inter-county opposition since April 2015. With five minutes remaining Down were defending a two-point lead and the groans from the stand magnified the tension built up from previous disappointments.
A lot was riding on victory and they almost let it slip but the youthful Mourne men held firm in defence, while substitute Caolan Mooney and Man of the Match Alan Davidson forced Down over the line.
And that Man of the Match, Davidson, who scored nine points on Sunday, says he is still learning.
“It is early days but that is six on the bounce for us, including the games in pre-season, so it is positivity in the camp and we will go into the game against Armagh on Wednesday with confidence," said Davidson.
“That is obviously a big plus but we are not really thinking about that, we are thinking about the next game and try to get the wins and see where it goes from there."
A Down Intermediate Champion with Bredagh last year and former Irish League player with Glenavon and Ballymena, Davidson was sharp in front of the posts, including a massive 50-metre converted free against the breeze and he is confident with how he has performed in his opening two games for the Mourne men.
“If the wind stays constant you can maybe use the same technique and, luckily enough, most of them went over today," he said.
“Luckily enough I have kicked off well. I got 1-4 against Queen's and I got nine today so it is an ideal start for me but I need to keep consistant."
Of course, there is little time to reflect because of the small matter of playing rivals Armagh tomorrow (Wednesday) in the final game of Group A. Should Down win they will reach the semi-finals but if Armagh are victorious then the Orchard County could progress.
Down boss Eamonn Burns made a number of changes from the team that beat Queen's. Michael Cunningham replaced Gary McMahon between the sticks, while Conor Maginn came in for last week's Man of the Match Cathal Magee. Benny McArdle made his first start in over a year, coming in for Caolan Mooney, while big Peter Turley started in midfield with Aidan Carr making way.
Despite being camped in Derry's half for much of the opening 35 minutes Down only held a one-point lead at the break.
Played in Pairc Esler on Sunday it was an entertaining opening game with Down's front two of Barry O'Hagan and Alan Davidson notching several exceptional scores.
Like last week's win against Queen's, Down's attack had fluidity with intelligent link up play, along with purposeful direct long passes.
However, with the Mourne men pressing high and despite leaving Benny McArdle or Conaill McGovern as an extra-man, they were vulnerable under the counter attack and Derry capitalised with Emmett McGuckin sending over a beautiful first half point from just inside the side-line.
Down raced into an early lead with two points in the opening minute from Clonduff's Barry O'Hagan.
An Alan Davidson converted free, on the fifth minute, extended the margin before Derry's Benny Heron replied with their first point on six minutes.
Down then seized the initiative with captain Darren O'Hagan and Benny McArdle pushing forward, while Turley held his own around the middle and kept Derry's Ryan Bell relatively quiet.
Joe Murphy and Shay Millar worked their preverbal socks off and were constantly available for a pass. Up front Saval's Pat Havern showed safe hands and a steady nerve but it was Davidson and Barry O'Hagan that caught the eye.
The lively Barry O'Hagan struck over Down's fourth point then came two sensational strikes from Davidson and the Mourne men were five points in front with only nine minutes played.
As expected Derry fought back with Bell (2), Niall Loughlin and Benny Herron all scoring to reduce their arrears to a single point.
However, Davidson's converted free on 21 minutes gave Down a moment to breath, especially after Derry replied, but two super converted frees from Davidson, the first 44-metres, the second 40-metres - beautifully struck against the wind, gave Eamonn Burns' men a three-point cushion.
But Derry rallied and two further scores from the Oak Leafers, including a magnificent long-range drive from Emmett McGuckin, left Down only one point to the advantage at the break.
Half-time: Down 0-09 Derry 0-08
The wheels could have come off after Derry rallied with two quick points, including an Enda Lynn fisted point, to take the lead for the first time.
But Down didn't wobble, they remained calm and showed resilience and it was Ballyholland's Mr Dependable Joe Murphy that pointed to drag the Mourne men back into the game.
Like last week, Down seemed to slow the tempo down in the second period but they still showed quality and young David McKibbon and Ryan McAleenan impressed.
Davidson's free and a fine strike from midfielder Johnny Flynn gave the Mourne men the lead but two strikes from Derry's established stars Mark Lynch and Ryan Bell left the sides level with 54 minutes played.
Substitute Aidan Carr kicked Down's tenth wide of the afternoon but Rostrevor's Caolan Mooney made a 'mark', and played a quick beautiful pass to Davidson who sold his marker a dummy before coolly slotting his shot between the sticks.
Mooney then drilled an excellent long-range shot over the bar to give Down a two-point lead but with still eight minutes of normal time remaining.
The Mourne men tried to shut up shop but by doing so they invited Derry to attack and a converted free from James Kielt left a nervous finish.
Davidson calmed matters with his ninth point but Lynch replied. However, Down held out for a memorable victory.
While the Dr McKenna Cup sometimes isn't held in the highest of esteems, Sunday's win against Derry was significant and Burns' young team is moving in the right direction.
Wednesday night will be another test and Armagh won't lie Down on their home turf. Both teams have something to play for and it should provide a fitting contest, ahead of the real battle on June 4.
Regardless of Wednesday's result, Club Down are hosting a launch on Friday (January 20) at 7pm in the Canal Court.
DOWN: Michael Cunningham, Ryan McAleenan, Gerard McGovern, Darren O'Hagan, David McKibbon, Conaill McGovern, Benny McArdle, Peter Turley, Jonathan Flynn, Shay Millar, Conor Maginn, Joe Murphy, Alan Davidson, Barry O'Hagan, Pat Havern.
Subs: Aidan Carr for Turley (43'), Caolan Mooney for McKibbon (47'), Danny Savage for Havern (57'), Ryan Mellon for Millar (60'), Gerald Collins for D O'Hagan (65'),
DERRY: Thomas Mallon, Ronan Murphy, Oisin Duffin, Conor McGrogan, Neil Forester, Conor Nevin, Peter Hagan, Patrick Kearney, Aidan McLaughlin, Gavin O'Neill, Ryan Bell, Carlus McWilliams, Niall Loughlin, Emmett McGuckin, Benny Heron.
Subs: James Kielt for O'Neill (ht), Michael Warnock for Loughlin (ht), Mark Lynch for A McLaughlin (51').
Referee: Sean Laverty (Antrim).
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