DOWN sealed their place in an Ulster semi-final with Armagh, to be played this Sunday, after a five-point win over Donegal in Pairc Esler on Sunday past. For much of the game Down were the better side, though it took a two minute scoring burst of 1-2 in the second half for them to finally put some daylight between them and their opponents. Donegal started this contest in the best possibly way with a Jason McGee goal on two minutes. Following a defensive mix up that saw the ball squirm between Niall McParland and Anthony Doherty, McGee bore down on goal and calmly slotted home to give his side the perfect start. After Pat Havern had notched a free, Daire O Baoill caressed the ball over the bar at the other end and, generally, Donegal had settled well. Though some of the early sting had been taken out of both the Down players and supporters, Ryan Johnston reinjected life with the execution of a splendid point. Donegal took charge again but Niall Kane did well under a testing high ball but, before Caolan Ward opened the three-point gap again, Donegal lost Michael Langan to injury. Around this time the power went out in Pairc Esler with the scoreboard cutting out but, one man whose power wasn’t reduced was Liam Kerr. After a chip lift to pick up a loose ball his pace was as rapid as ever and he broke away from the shackles of the Donegal defence, cut in off the right side and buried the ball to the net to level the game. Down edged ahead for the first time thanks to a second free from Havern but Daire O Baoill levelled. The north westerners could have received a timely boost but as Conor O’Donnell pulled the trigger, Niall Kane got down smartly to do enough to deflect the ball away and Jason McGee’s follow up was smothered by Niall McParland to keep Down on terms. As it would prove, these contributions were vital to Down staying level by the interval as the teams traded just a further point each in the intervening minutes before the break. Ryan Johnston scored from a Down free kick while Shaun Patton sent a 45 over at the other end. The early moments of the second half were dominated by impressive blocks at each end. Caolan Ward was first to deny Daniel Guinness before Danny Magill made an excellent diving interception to block Caolan McGonagle. The first score of the second half came from a Ciaran Thompson free kick but it was Guinness, who impressed in his first appearance of the season, who equalised with a true stroke of the leather from 40 metres. It was between the 42nd and 45th minute that Down stepped it up a gear and found a level that they will need to find again, and for longer periods, this week. Points from Ryan Johnston and Eugene Branagan had started to lift the crowd and the excitement reached fever pitch when a Brendan McCole foul on Johnston saw a penalty awarded to the Mourne men. With Odhrán Murdock, who has been the penalty taker, absent, the responsibility fell to Pat Havern and he slipped it to the bottom right corner with a minimum of fuss. To their credit, Donegal reacted well and rhymed off the next three scores thanks to Conor O’Donnell, Ciaran Thompson and Daire O’Baoill. Pat Havern made it a three-point game again before Danny Magill, who was so impressive on debut, made a powerful run and finished it emphatically with a point. The respite was temporary as Donegal again scored three on the bounce. This time it was Conor O’Donnell, Jason McGee and Oisin Gallen who brought the difference between the teams to the minimum. Andrew Gilmore tapped a simple free over and Shaun Patton was unfortunate not to get a point back when his long distance free hit the post and came back out. From there Down broke and Daniel Guinness’ point settled things a little. Donegal went in search of a stoppage time goal. The closest they came was a high ball in which ricocheted at pace towards the net but hit Niall Kane who had got his positioning spot on. Thereafter, Down were comfortable and a fisted effort from Conor Poland and an Andrew Gilmore point at the end of a fine Shealan Johnston run topped off a fine Down display. After the game there was obvious delight from the players and the huge crowd on the field. Danny Magill said post-match: “Donegal have a serious, serious threat but we know where we are at, it’s not a shock for us today. Disappointed not to get out of Division Three but Championship football is where we want to be. Look at the crowd here in Pairc Esler, it’s a brilliant day for us.” One of that crowd was Aaron Murdock, a clubmate of Magill’s, who said of the victory: “It means a lot. It’s great to see the County getting back up there, all the young children out on the pitch, there’s a great buzz here today.” That buzz will most certainly be in evidence again on Sunday in Clones as Down take on an Armagh side who haven’t made a Provincial final since 2008. The Mourne faithful would love to be able to make that wait go on.
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