Championship glory for Down

Championship glory for Down

14 July 2021

DOWN extended their run of Ulster senior titles to 19 after defeating Antrim for what was the third time in seven months, with the venue for this dramatic finish set at Pearse Óg Park, Armagh on Saturday.

Down dominated the middle part of the game but held just a four-points lead with only three minutes left on the clock. In fact there was a little more time to be added following a couple of short stoppages during the second half. 

Most people, however, thought that referee Eamon Cassidy had allowed for too much when Antrim free-taker Nicole O’Neill fired over the equaliser in the 66th minute.

Extra time looked inevitable, but Cassidy allowed one last play.

Catherine McGourty took a long poc-out which Sara Louise Graffin gratefully grabbed. As the Down captain turned to break clear, the referee indicated a foul on her but was allowing her the advantage. 

Sara Louise drove clear and fired over from just inside the 65 metre line, resulting in the final whistle at last being blown.

It was a deserved win for Down because they dominated the game, but they still didn’t put Antrim away and, just like the recent Division Two National League decider between these two counties, the skilful Saffrons were able to hit back.

However, equally significant is the fact that Down still had something in reserve and were able to produce it when it was really needed.

“You know we just can’t shake them [Antrim] off. We had it won at three or four points during the game, but they kept coming back at us. We made a few mistakes and paid for them,” said Down manager Derek Dunne.

“Antrim are a good team and they didn’t have Róisín McCormick today. You can’t switch off with them, they have players who can punish you.”

And punish them they did as Antrim got off to a great start with Maeve Kelly pointing confidently before 30 seconds had passed.

After a further 30 seconds she picked up a pass from Caitrín Dobbin and lifted the Down net. 

The cup holders may have been shocked, but captain Graffin drove forward and landed a point – again after another 30 seconds.

The Mourne county picked up the pace, but a couple of bad wides allowed Antrim to keep in touch. O’Neill and Paula O’Hagan exchanged pointed frees before Graffin cut in from the corner to hit the net. 

However, the goal was disallowed for too many steps and Antrim took advantage of the let off with their captain Lucia McNaughton getting on the end of a good team move to shoot the last score before the water-break to leave it 1-4 to 0-2.

Unfortunately for the Saffrons that was their last score until the 42nd minute. They had a couple of poor wides in the second quarter and Down were now getting into their stride and controlling the game. 

Down hit six points in a row, all from open play to edge ahead 0-8 to 1-4 at the interval. Cassie Fitzpatrick scored two of those, Graffin drove forward for a fine solo effort and finally Niamh Mallon broke free to open her account.

After the half-time break Sorcha McCartan hit a long range free, while Lauren Clarke and Mallon scored a point each before Graffin finished a good team passing movement by crashing home a 40th minute goal.

At 1-11 to 1-4 Antrim were on the rack, but Down couldn’t put them away.

Caitrín Dobbin finally broke the barren spell from Antrim with a point that Anna Rogan quickly cancelled. 

However, Dobbin quickly added a goal and Christine Laverty pulled clear to fire over a point. The gap was suddenly down to just three as Mallon pointed before the second water-break. 

They re-started with Mallon and Graffin on target again, but a 55th minute goal from Antrim’s Kelly left just two points between the sides.

Significantly though each time Antrim struck, Down were able to respond with the brilliant Mallon usually the scorer. 

The Portaferry ace hit five points from play during the course of the second half, each of them an excellent finish.

Her last score left a margin of four between the teams at 1-17 to 3-7, with what many thought was the insurance point.

Antrim refused to lie down and threw everything at Down in the time that remained with Graffin even falling back to take a fine catch on the edge of her own area and McGourty having to be sharp to clear her lines.

Two frees from O’Neill were followed by a great score from Caitrín Dobbin and then the late, late free from O’Neill to level things.

But those scores still were not enough to force Down’s hand.

Down boss Dunne sounded a little nonplussed after the final whistle eventually sounded.

“There was that lack of concentration in the first few minutes. Then we played very well for the next half hour, 40 minutes and got in control. After that we lost the concentration again and allowed them back into the game.”

Turning to the programme ahead of Down, the Laois native was critical of the scheduling of the provincial competition.

“You would wonder what advantage that game is with us heading into three All-Ireland senior group games over the next three weekends. We certainly could have done without this final – or at least a gap before we start into the All-Ireland,” he said.

“And how is this going to promote Ulster camogie? You have two great teams at the moment in Ulster and where are they brought – to a club ground to play an Ulster final,” he continued.

“Games like these should be played at a top stadium. If they want it in Armagh, then play it in the Athletic Grounds. If that isn’t available, then go to Corrigan Park or Páirc Esler. If you have a product, showcase it.”

Surely his team’s hesitancy in delivering the killer punch in the recent games against Antrim is a worry for the manager as they move into the top tier championship for the first time in two decades.

“Ah, I don’t know about that. We have beaten Antrim in the last few games we have played them. Maybe we are a little complacent,” he said. 

“We seem to play better against other teams, like the Wexford game (league semi-final) was really good. So hopefully that happens over the next few weeks. But no, I am not worried,” he continued.

“The one good thing about this game was that it gave us an opportunity to bring in another few players and get them a tough game. We are a work in progress and the stronger we get this panel the better it will be for us in the games ahead.”

Player of the match and Down captain Sara Louise Graffin was relieved to get her hands on more silverware.

“You can’t take Antrim for granted. You like to get a bit of daylight between us and them during a game because, with the type of skilful player they have, there is always a chance they will get in for goals and you don’t want those goals leaving us chasing the game,” she said.

“Even when we went seven or eight up early in the second half, you know you can’t take your attention off the game.”

Turning to her breath-taking late point, the Clonduff forward was aware that advantage was being played.

“Yes, I felt that I was being fouled and through the corner of my eye I could see the referee raising his hand to indicate an advantage,” she remarked. 

“At that point you know you have nothing to lose, so I went for it and luckily it went all the way.

I had missed a few scores on the last couple of days we played Antrim, so it was good to see it going over,” she continued.

“I actually thought there was going to be extra-time when Antrim scored the equaliser. But then when he allowed the poc out, I knew that it had to be caught, because if it went to ground it would give him an opportunity to blow the final whistle.”

Down: C McGourty, B Savage, D Magee, C Caldwell, D Savage, K McMullan, C Rocks, P O’Hagan (0-2, 1f), C Fitzpatrick (0-2), A McAleenan (0-1), S L Graffin (captain, 1-4), S McCartan (0-1f), N Mallon (0-6), A Rogan (0-1), L Clarke (0-1).

Subs: A Keown for A McAleenan (44), B Fitzpatrick for C Fitzpatrick (54), S Sands for A Rogan (54), R Smyth for C Rocks (57), I O’Hare for S McCartan (57).

Antrim: C Graham, K McKillop, N Donnelly, M Lynn, C Patterson, C Conlon, S Devlin, E Laverty, A Boyle, M Kelly (2-2), A Connolly, L McNaughton (captain, 0-1), N O’Neill (0-5f), C Laverty (0-1), C Dobbin (1-2).

Subs: C McKillop for S Devlin (21), Á Magill for E Laverty (HT), C Laverty for A Boyle (53), N A Donnelly for M Lynn (57).