When compiling the stats the other day on our previous thirteen meetings with Down, the fact that we’d never drawn a game with them was, I thought, noteworthy (and so I noted it as such). When The Mournemen broke through for their third goal this evening to send them five clear with 20 minutes remaining, the chances of a first-ever draw coming from tonight’s match with them looked rather slim. Little did we know then that it’d take a last minute miss from Peadar Gardiner for us to keep it all square at the end.
It sure was an interesting evening’s football as anyone who was there in the large enough crowd will readily concur. That crowd included a fair few who had made the trek from Down for the occasion and at half-time they would have been happy enough with their decision to do so.
In that opening period, they looked every inch like a side that had had a good championship last year – all busy movement, slick passing and clever running with their main man Marty Clarke conducting the orchestra – while we looked very much like a team that was trying but not succeeding to start anew.
We weren’t helped by the freak goal that put a pep in their step within minutes of the throw-in. Marty Clarke’s 45 didn’t have the height or the distance but it had plenty of power and when the in-swinging ball cannoned off Ronan McGarrity, Kenneth O’Malley in goals hadn’t a chance to react and Down were a goal to the good, with John Clarke soon after adding to that tally with a pointed free.
A point from play by Andy Moran opened our evening account, with Alan Dillon adding a second soon after. Danny Hughes – another star performer last year for the Mournemen – got their first from play before Mark Ronaldson pointed after a fine upfield surge from Tom Cunniffe.
We were starting to settle but already it was obvious that our passing in the middle third was giving us serious problems. Time and again we won ball either at the back or round the middle but every time we had the ball and the opportunity to do something with it, we ended up giving it to them via a succession of ill-judged foot passes. I lost count at the number of times that we, in effect, kicked the ball to them but I wouldn’t be surprised if the that number was somewhere between twenty and thirty.
To do this against a team like Down who were very comfortable on the ball and good at moving it forward to good effect was, well, problematic. Just how much so soon became obvious.
Marty Clarke skinned Ger Cafferkey and landed a sweet point with the outside of his boot but worse was to follow when Down broke again leaving our final line badly exposed and enabling Benny Coulter to feed John Clarke for an easy second goal. Soon after that, Clarke almost got his second when he reacted quickest to a Coulter shot that came back off the upright but this time he was content with the point.
We needed to get some scores on the board at that stage or otherwise we could have been facing a hammering. Alan Freeman – who was excellent tonight – was the man who hauled us back into it with a superb run through the heart of the Down defence which simply parted and let him through. His shot took a deflection off one of their backs but he’ll definitely claim the goal that brought us back into contention.
A Clarke free, cancelled out by one for us from Mark Ronaldson left us four adrift at the break and with plenty to ponder on. How many changes would we make before the restart? Who’d be hauled off first? That kind of pondering.
The team was out again smartly enough but a quick head-count confirmed that there weren’t going to be any immediate changes and when Danny Hughes got the opening point of the second half for them, it looked like the game wasn’t going to change direction either.
We then pegged them back a bit, with frees from Ronaldson and Andy Moran, before we made a curious double substitution. Ronaldson gave way for Neil Douglas while Richie Feeney, who had been in the thick of it all evening till then, was replaced by Peadar Gardiner.
Soon it all began to look a bit academic when they bagged their third goal of the night, shortly after Andy Moran had pointed another free for us. The gap was now five points and the fightback we’d been threatening to mount appeared to have been killed off before it had ever got the chance to get going properly.
But that wasn’t to be the evening’s script because from then till the end, we completely dominated proceedings. We won every ball at midfield, every breaking ball, every ball we’d no real right to win and, as an added bonus, we stopped kicking the ball back to them as well.
Another Andy free (he was really getting into the swing of the free-taking now) got us going and then the hard-working Alan Dillon landed a sweet one from play. Kevin McLoughlin, raiding up the wing, drew a large roar from the home crowd when his effort sailed over to cut the gap back to two.
With fifteen minutes to go, Tom Parsons came on for Jason Gibbons and almost immediately hacked an awful wide at the end of a move he’d initiated with a fine fetch round the middle. Then Andy showed how much he was enjoying the evening by smashing a delicious long-range effort over the bar to cut the gap to the minimum.
We could now sense that a stirring comeback win might even be in the offing and when Enda Varley arrowed over a monstrous point with his left from well out on the wing on the stand side the chances that we’d do so increased a significant notch as well.
Down had hardly been in our half for the previous fifteen minutes but when they did finally manage to break forward, they inched in front once more through Maginn and they had two wides soon after as well, the second from a long-range Clarke effort. Then, with the match entering stoppage time who else but MOTM Andy Moran smacked over another super point to claim a deserved share of the spoils for us and to seal a result that I think both sides will be happy with.
There was plenty about our performance tonight that James Horan and his colleagues won’t be happy about, in particular our loose and wasteful approach in the first half. But there’ll equally be plenty they’ll look back on with satisfaction, as we never let up after the hammer blows those goals must have represented and our hard work eventually saw us completely swamp Down in the final twenty minutes.
In terms of performances, there were a number of positives. Kenneth O’Malley can’t be faulted for any of the goals and he made a hugely brave save at the feet of one of the Down forwards in the first half, at a stage when another goal could have killed the game. This is a lad, remember, who suffered a truly horrific injury making a similar save in a colleges game a few years ago yet he flung himself at the ball without hesitation. And won it too.
The full-back line did well. Tom Cunniffe put in a strong performance on his hometown pitch, Cathal Hallinan enjoyed a good debut and Keith Higgins also did well in the other corner.
Ger Cafferkey was given the runaround for much of the evening by Marty Clarke but the Down maestro’s influence waned sharply once we got a grip on things around the middle. Richie Feeney was subbed but I thought he was unlucky to be taken off while on the other wing Kevin McLoughlin battled hard and scored a vital point in the second half.
Midfield was a mixed bag. Ronan didn’t do a whole lot in the first half but when he got going in the second this coincided (no coincidence surely?) with our taking over at the middle. Jason Gibbons struggled visibly in the first half and more than once was gulity of ceding possession with poorly judged passes but he worked hard and will have learned plenty from tonight’s experience. Tom Parsons, who replaced Jason midway through the second half, also had a hand in our late comeback.
Andy Moran – who contributed six points to our total – was our star performer on the night (didn’t I say the other day he’s a mighty man in the league?) but Alan Dillon wasn’t far behind him. Dillon’s man was swinging out of him all evening but he finally managed to slip clear in the second half and his intelligent promptings were at the heart of our attacks as we made our comeback.
Aidan O’Shea, though, had another mare of a performance. To be frank, he didn’t even look fit and his attempts at handling were truly woeful. The only surprise was that he ended the match on the pitch and it’ll be an even bigger one if he starts the next day. Aidan has plenty to offer but there are others in better form at the minute who deserve a shot too and, on tonight’s showing, we need to be looking at other options.
Enda Varley and Mark Ronaldson did okay and both chipped in with important scores and Varley’s second half point was an absolute monster of a score. I don’t know why Ronnie was taken off but Neil Douglas did do okay when he came on.
Alan Freeman ended up going off too (Cillian O’Connor coming on for him) but the Aghamore man put in a great evening’s shift before what looked like a hand injury forced him off near the end. Freeman is, I believe, the real deal – he’s big, he’s brave, he doesn’t panic on the ball, he knows where the posts are and he’s got a truly fabulous pair of hands. Hopefully whatever injury he suffered isn’t too serious.
So, a draw it was to start the year and the new era for the team and their manager. It was far from flawless but that’s only to be expected at this time of year. I suspect we’ll see plenty more flaws as the spring campaign progresses but if we see the same kind of attitude and work-rate as we did in the second half of this evening’s match then we can have every reason to be optimistic for the year that lies ahead.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley; Tom Cunniffe, Cathal Hallinan, Keith Higgins; Richie Feeney, Ger Cafferkey, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1); Ronan McGarrity, Jason Gibbons; Andy Moran (0-6, four frees), Aidan O’Shea, Alan Dillon (0-1); Enda Varley (0-1), Alan Freeman (1-1), Mark Ronaldson (0-3, 2 frees). Subs: Peadar Gardiner for Feeney, Neil Douglas for Ronaldson, Tom Parsons for Gibbons, Cillian O’Connor for Freeman (inj.).