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Derry win but something stirs in Down football

Monday 16th January 2023

Cahair O'Kane at Páirc Esler
Irish News -

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Down 3-9 Derry 1-15 (Derry win 3-2 on penalties)

SOMETHING is definitely stirring in Down football.

They lost to Derry yesterday. Could have won. It didn’t really matter in the end. They were beaten on a penalty shootout, lap of the Gods stuff.

Derry have got plenty out of a McKenna Cup that will give them one more outing, a potentially spicy final with Tyrone in Armagh on Saturday evening.

But over the three games they’ve had, Down have been the competition’s big winners.


They will go to the home of hurling in 13 days’ time infused with a belief and energy that they’ve been spiritually devoid of for a decade.

Before a ball was thrown in yesterday, there were wrestling matches breaking out. Barry O’Hagan lined out at wing-back on Shane McGuigan and instantly engaged the Slaughtneil man. They got drawn into a scrum of bodies. Gareth McKinless’ jersey ended up off over his head.

Down are setting a tone. They’ve been far too nice for far too long. No longer.

Their public is feeding off it already. The stand in Páirc Esler was packed, just shy of 4,000 in. They were given oxygen before a ball was kicked and they maintained it for the next 70 minutes.

And all that is grand and it’s helpful but it’s not the why of Down’s competitiveness. You’re looking a bit deeper for that.

Exhibit A: Seven goals in three games. They got three yesterday and left more behind in the first half. Any time there’s a half sniff of it, it’s head down and run at the black spot. At one stage, Barry O’Hagan went short to Pat Havern from a 20-metre tap-over free, trying to manufacture something from nothing.

Exhibit B: Kickouts. Down fans have been pulling their hair out for years at their inability to win their own ball. One manager after the next failed to find any solution. In just a few months, Conor Laverty has gone a long way to fixing it. John O’Hare is comfortable off the tee, short or long. It’s by no means perfect but it’s getting there.

Exhibit C: Their team is already taking a bit of shape. Ryan McEvoy at full-back. Pierce Laverty marking men. Niall McParland sweeping. Niall Donnelly getting back to his best. Donagh McAleenan, the jinking image of his boss. Pat Havern a kind of Cathal McShane-esque presence at full-forward, right down to the bad-ass crop look.

Havern got three more from play yesterday. He and Barry O’Hagan had great duels with Eoin McEvoy and Chrissy McKaigue respectively. They were left oceans to dance in and in the first 35 minutes, it was great stuff.

Part of you sensed Derry were almost throwing the game in order to give McEvoy the exposure. It was rare to see them as exposed and sweeperless.

He was left to his own devices for a lot of the game and the young Magherafelt full-back did well.

“We wanted him stuck in the middle of it and if he had’ve been old enough we would have played him last year,” said Rory Gallagher afterwards.

He will also have been delighted by Niall Toner’s January. The Lavey forward was the best player on the pitch yesterday. He kicked five points from play, including one off the left.

Shane McGuigan edged a good battle with Pierce Laverty while Padraig Cassidy, having effectively missed last year with injury, showed signs of inching towards full flight again.

He brilliantly took Derry’s goal, rattling the top corner after Gareth McKinless’ genius and brave flick inside for him. But Cassidy then gave the ball away to Pat Havern under no pressure and handed Down the first of their three goals on the half hour.

Niall Donnelly finished it after a sharp layoff from Liam Kerr opened the door. That kept Down in touch, 1-6 to 1-8 behind at the break.

Donnelly had a second major within 30 seconds of the restart. Barry O’Hagan this time made the incision, utilising Donagh McAleenan for a one-two that allowed Donnelly space in behind. He rattled it past Odhran Lynch.

Nobody scored for the next nine minutes and then Down added a third goal. Andrew Gilmore cut along the endline and squared back into the path of Ceilum Doherty, who fired into the roof of the net.

Four down, Derry hauled themselves level within five minutes. That was the spell that they’ll take most from. When it was asked of them, with bare numbers to come in and swing the momentum, they kicked four consecutive scores from play.

Niall Toner got two of them and Oisin McWilliams, who again impressed off the bench, and Ben McCarron got the others.

Chrissy McKaigue’s straight red card for a hand-off into the face of Ceilum Doherty made no difference to the game’s direction. In fact, Derry scored the only two points in the time they were a man down.

Then Ryan McEvoy got a second booking for Down with six minutes left and they kicked the next two to draw level again. There was a softness to both frees at the death, particularly Derry’s. Barry O’Hagan and Shane McGuigan pointed to send it straight to penalties after a sensible pre-match call to spare the players extra-time.

Odhrán Lynch, whose goalkeeping technique has come under scrutiny in the past year, made a brilliant one-handed save from Andrew Gilmore and then a second block from Ryan Mason. Barry O’Hagan made it three misses from three for Down, but they survived right until the final penalty, stroked home confidently by Conor Doherty.

So Derry won. But it doesn’t feel one bit like Down lost.


Down: J O’Hare; C Francis, R McEvoy, P McCarthy; N McParland; C Doherty (1-0), P Laverty (0-1), R Magill; N Donnelly (2-0), O Murdock; L Kerr (0-1), D McAleenan (0-1), S Millar; P Havern (0-3), B O’Hagan (0-3 frees)

Subs: A Gilmore for Millar (39), M Rooney for McAleenan (51), P Branagan for Francis (51), M Walsh for Havern (57), P Quinn for Magill (67), R Mason for Kerr (71)

Penalties scored: C Doherty, O Murdock

Penalties missed: A Gilmore, R Mason, B O’Hagan

Yellow cards: B O’Hagan (4), R McEvoy (45, 64)

Red card: R McEvoy (64, second yellow)

Derry: O Lynch; C McKaigue, E McEvoy; C Doherty; C McCluskey, P McGrogan, Padraig Cassidy (1-0); G McKinless, B Rogers (0-1); N Toner (0-5), S McGuigan (0-6, 0-4 frees), Paul Cassidy; B McCarron (0-1), A Tohill, L Murray (0-1 mark)

Subs: O McWilliams (0-1) for Tohill (44), P McNeill for L Murray (75)

Temporary sub: P McNeill for McKinless (60-66)

Penalties scored: S McGuigan, Paul Cassidy, C Doherty

Penalties missed: P McGrogan, N Toner

Yellow cards: C McKaigue (4), A Tohill (14), C Doherty (34), S McGuigan (66)

Red card: C McKaigue (53, straight red)

Referee: N McKenna (Monaghan)