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Slick Down one win away from title

21 July 2021

Down Under-20s manager Conor Laverty knows that his side will have to be more ruthless if they are to realise their ambition of lifting the Ulster title on Friday July 30.

Laverty was speaking after Down eased to a six-point win over Fermanagh at the Athletic Grounds on Friday night in baking hot conditions. They will now face Monaghan at the same venue on the rescheduled date of Friday, July 30. 

The Down boss was also talking before the tragic accident that saw Monaghan U20 captain Brendan Og Duffy lose his life on the way home from his side’s semi-final victory against Donegal. 

In terms of the match in Armagh, Down’s margin of victory wasn’t a true reflection on their superiority all over the pitch against a Fermanagh side who simply had no answer to Down’s incredible pace and work rate from beginning to end. 

The fact that the Mourne youngsters followed up their last eight win away to Cavan with another strong display, but yet the general consensus is that there is more to come from them certainly bodes well for the future. 

“We know that semi-finals are for winning, no matter what way you go about it. There’s no point in putting in a brilliant performance together and coming put on the wrong end of a result. We came here to get the win and we’re satisfied to do that,” said Laverty.  

“It’s good to put two back-to-back wins in the Championship together. That’s something we had targeted, and it’s been a while since Down teams have done that. It was one area we had looked at. 

“Monaghan were probably the pre-competition favourites and were the minor champions with this age group. They were very unlucky to lose to Kerry in the All-Ireland series and they have some fantastic players. There’s a lot of young talent and Banty has started blooding some of them into the senior set up this year, so they’ll be a big task to come up against,” Laverty added.  

Down took the lead with just 45 seconds on the clock when Danny Magill struck from wide on the left following excellent work by his Burren club-mate Odhran Murdock.

However, Fermanagh levelled almost instantly through their main man, full forward Darragh McBrien, who angled his effort over from 35 metres out. But it didn’t take Laverty’s men long to get their first half as Ruairi O’Hare struck. 

This time it was from a precision long ball into the edge of the square from Ballyholland’s full-back Sean Campbell that saw O’Hare use his stature to pluck it out of the sky before spinning away from his man and lashing home a fine finish to the roof of the net past Fermanagh keeper Sean McNally. 

Captain Shealan Johnston added another score with a superbly executed free from the right, to put Down 1-2 to 0-1 in front with only six minutes on the clock. While that might only have been a four-point lead, even at that early juncture, it was clear that Fermanagh were struggling to cope with Down’s superiority in every department. 

The Mourne youngsters showed more pace, more desire and more tactical nous before you even got to the fact that they were simply better technical footballers than their opponents. 

Indeed, Down would go on to spurn four gilt-edge goal chances before the first half had even ended and it’s something that Laverty has already said needs to be brushed up on before they face Monaghan this weekend. 

The first of those opportunities arrived after just eight minutes, when Danny Magill, who was immense all evening in terms of winning ‘dirty’ ball and starting Down attacks, made an interception before setting Johnston scampering clear. He teed up Murdock, but the big midfielder fired his shot straight at McNally. 

Ronan McCaffrey got Fermanagh’s second score on nine minutes before Anthony Morgan scooped the ball over the bar after good work from Tom Close and John McGovern in the build-up. 

After Darragh McBrien had made it 1-4 to 0-3 with a forward mark, Johnston saw his fierce effort for goal pushed over the bar by McNally to give Down a five-point lead at the much-needed first water break in the baking conditions. 

On the resumption, McBrien converted a Fermanagh free before McGovern took over with a hot streak that saw him score three points in eight minutes and he could have added a goal to that tally as well. 

He got his first on 20 minutes off the inside of the right-hand post before McNally denied Down another goal three minutes later with a good stop from Gilmore after a fine mark from O’Hare. 

However, McGovern then pointed off his left boot after cutting in from the right to make it 1-7 to 0-4, and although Conor Love and McBrien reduced the deficit to four, McGovern got his third following a neat interchange with Patrick McCarthy and then from the resultant kick-out, the Newry City forward saw himself through on goal. However, despite holding off his man, McGovern was again denied by McNally. There was still time for Down to register another, with Eamon Brown getting in on the action, fisting over after O’Hare had again won another huge mark. 

With a double scores lead, 1-9 to 0-6 at the interval, and Down in even more control than the scoreline would suggest, they very much kept Fermanagh at arms’ length in the second period. While the half would be shared with four points apiece, it was never really an even contest, as Down were able to take their foot off the gas somewhat in terms of scoring, whilst still doing more than enough to keep control of the game throughout. 

Carryduff’s Lorcan Toal replaced Burren defender McCarthy at the break, and while Gilmore and Love (free) traded scores in the first five minutes of the half, Down registered three more without reply in the next five to put any outside hope of a Fermanagh comeback firmly out of reach. 

Gilmore helped himself to a second, this time from the right flank, before the marauding Tom Close did likewise from a similar position on 39 minutes. They got what proved to be their final score of the match two minutes later when goalkeeper Charlie Smyth, who converted four out of five place balls the previous time out against Cavan, nonchalantly flicked over a 50-metre free to make it 1-13 to 0-7. 

They were still over 20 minutes to go, but all Fermanagh could muster in that period were three points as Down opted to make a number of substitutions, safe in the knowledge that the game was won, but crucially, that the players entering the fray weren’t weakening the side any way.

Joe McDade pulled won back for the Ernemen before three of Down’s most potent attackers, Brown, Gilmore and McGovern all departed the scene having made significant contributions. 

McCaffrey pulled another one back before Smyth tried an audacious effort from just over 60 metres out that looked to be heading over, only for Cavan Referee Pat Clarke to call for a square ball. 

It was left to Darragh McBrien to have the final say of a more relaxed second periof as he knocked over a 13-metre Fermanagh free deep into stoppage time. 

But this was Down’s evening from start to finish. 

It could well be Down’s Championship too. 

Monaghan await.  

While winning a title would clearly be beneficial for this exciting group of players, Laverty hasn’t been entertaining any talk of securing a provincial trophy. It’s simply about winning game on game. 

“We haven’t really spoken too much about that. We’re just taking one game at a time and looking forward to the next challenge. Today was about nothing else – our sole focus was on beating Fermanagh. That’s what we’ve done and our sole focus now will be about working out how best to get a performance against Monaghan,” said the Kilcoo man, who admitted that the goal chances that came and went in the first half will need to be taken the next time out. 

“It’s something we need to work on, our decision making in the final third and just being that wee bit more clinical. It’s an area we need to improve on for the next day,” he said.  

“We encourage the lads to play on the front foot and to enjoy their football. That’s one thing, from a management team perspective, that we would encourage.” 

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