A whirlwind start from Down at Pairc Esler in Newry last night laid the foundations for their opening round win over Donegal in the National Football League Division One.
Conor Garvey’s point proved the winner for the 2010 All-Ireland finalists although Donegal missed a stoppage time ‘45’ and then a free, through Paul Durcan and Dermot Molloy respectively, to draw level. It was a disappointing result for the side managed by Jim McGuinness on their return to the top flight and it raises the importance of the visit of Laois to Letterkenny this day week.
James McCartan’s side opened like a house on fire to bring warmth to their support huddled at Pairc Esler. And perhaps anticipating Donegal to smother their early approaches with their trademarked duvet, James McCartan’s team came from deep with their half-backs scoring all but a point of their 1-3 total inside as little as six minutes.
Right-wing-back Aidan Brannigan scored the first point of the day on 26 seconds before Brendan Coulter and Liam Doyle added scores. With Donegal still finding their shape, scoring just the once from the routine free from Stephen Griffin, the home side had posted a fine goal from Doyle.
The centre-back broke through the Donegal defence following a raking ball from Peter Turley and swept the ball high into Paul Durcan’s top corner, almost ripping the net from the goalframe as he did.
Donegal were static but as the half wore on, gradually started to gnaw into their arrears. Mark McHugh, who had been a doubt earlier in the week with an abductor muscle injury, was pivotal to the rise in fortunes, scored twice before Patrick McBrearty scored his first from a left-footed free.
Martin McElhinney, who was named to start but failed to do so, was introduced in place of Conor Classon at centre-field and Donegal seemed to have their most profitable escapades when the bombed long balls into the full-forward line. How Michael Murphy would’ve loved to be plonked on the edge of Brendan McVeigh’s square.
Doyle again showed his auxiliary threat with a peach of a point as the half wound to a close but when Karl Lacey and McBrearty scored at the other end, the interval deficit was two, 1-5 to 0-6. Rather perversely, as patchy as Donegal were, that margin could’ve been greater.
Whatever about the stereotypes, though, Down’s offensive play certainly wasn’t what it was expected to be with five first half efforts dropping short and three more falling wide, while Donegal’s defence was far from watertight and culpable of being loose in possession on occasion.
McGuinness was forced to plan without last year’s two most prolific forwards. Michael Murphy is still approximately a month off fitness having undergone a minor groin operation almost three weeks ago and Colm McFadden’s troublesome back means he has yet to line out in the county colours this year. Eamon McGee and Eoin Waide also missed out, with a groin and a broken thumb respectively, while Leo McLoone wore the No 7 shirt adorned by Kevin Cassidy last season before his well-documented removal from the panel over the winter.
Down, though, had problems of their own with a spate of withdrawals. Paul McCummiskey was out with a sore back, while defender Damien Rafferty had a groin injury, Brendan McArdle a knee problem and corner-back Gerard McCartan, wing-backs Conor Garvey and Declan Rooney were all suffering with ankle bother.
Influential International Rules player Kevin McKernan has yet to return to the panel following a holiday Down Under. He influential Daniel Hughes was named to start but wasn’t even able to take his place among the substitutes.
Those who were there, though, provided enough entertainment for the time of year it was. McGuinness and McCartan, of course, will maintain it’s not an entertainment-driven business. But with so many absentees on either side the management can be reasonably content with the strength in depth.
Assessing Donegal’s half-empty or half-full first half, the more optimistic in the camp might’ve suggested Down only scored two points in 28 minutes and when Griffin knocked over a free at the start of the second half to leave the margins at one.
Points flowed at both ends with Dan Gordon finishing off a flowing move for the hosts before Anthony Thompson scored a fine point from the wing for the guests. McElhinney’s goal on 51 minutes put Donegal in front for the first time. It was well manufactured with McBrearty, substitute Martin O’Reilly and Neil Gallagher all involved before McElhinney placed the ball past McVeigh in the Down goals.
Despite Donegal’s apparently good stance it was Down who finished the strongest and McGuinness might be a little concerned at his side’s fifth successive defeat, albeit with three Dr McKenna Cup losses. Late points from Doyle, blood sub Brannigan and Garvey proved decisive in the narrow win.
Down: Brendan McVeigh; Owen Costello, Daniel McCartan, Keith Quinn; Aidan Brannigan (0-2), Liam Doyle (1-3, 2f), Damian Turley; Peter Turley, Dan Gordon; Gerard McCartan, Aidan Carr (0-1, 1f), Mark Poland; Marcus Miskelly, Conor Laverty. Brendan Coulter (0-1). Subs: Ryan Brady for Miskelly (33), Conor Garvey for Owen Costello (51), Niall McParland and Ambrose Rodgers for Brannigan and Quinn (54), Eoin McCartan for Poland (68).
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Frank McGlynn, Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath; Anthony Thompson (0-1), Karl Lacey (0-1), Leo McLoone; Conor Classon, Neil Gallagher; Mark McHugh (0-2), Rory Kavanagh, Ryan Bradley; Patrick McBrearty (0-2, 2f), Stephen Griffin (0-2), David Walsh. Subs: Martin McElhinney for Classon (25), Martin O’Reilly for Walsh (half-time), Dermot Molloy (0-1) for Griffin (51), Adrian Hanlon for McLoone (66)
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).
Man of the match
Mark McHugh was Donegal’s best player in the first half, while Karl Lacey did well as usual. However, Down’s Liam Doyle was the best on show, scoring a goal and four points in his side’s narrow win.
Cavan official Joe McQuillan could have produced a lot more yellow cards than the two he did but in fairness the official should not be criticised for that and had a decent game.
Last year in Division Two, Donegal’s fitness took them over the line in a lot of games and when Martin McElhinney put them in front 19 minutes from time they looked in a good position. However, Down responded well to that to turn things around.