BY CHRIS MCNULTY IN NEWRY
DONEGAL fell to their first League defeat of the year yesterday as Down teed up at least a three-way joust for the two promotion spots from Division 2.
Niall Madine’s first-half goal paved the way for a 1-9 to 0-10 win that means Donegal are now joined on seven points by Down and Monaghan, who scored a ten-point win at Armagh on Saturday evening.
With Armagh and Meath hovering just two points further adrift, there is barely the width of a cigarette paper betwee the promotion hopefuls heading into the final two series of games.
“It’ll go down to the wire with the three teams who are on seven points at least,” Jim McGuinness said after witnessing his Donegal side lose their way in Newry.
Madine’s goal gave Down a lead they never gave up on a day when Donegal’s usually clinical attack uncharacteristically misfired, kicking twelve wides.
As had been the case last week in the drawn game with Meath, Donegal played second fiddle around the middle third with Down winning most of the breaks and kick-outs.
McGuinness was not in the mood to offer excuses after seeing his side go 24 second half minutes without scoring.
He said: “You can’t take away from the fact that we had so many chances, from free kicks and from open play. We only needed for two of them to go over for us to get a draw so that’s disappointing.
“We have a lot to ponder today than we had other days, but that’s a good thing. It’ll make us think more about it.
We’re happy in that we got a tough battle and that we were really tested, but we’re disappointed with a number of things in our own performance that we didn’t get right.
“There are things that we’d normally have done in the previous four games.”
Down got their tactics on the button yesterday, James McCartan’s side funnelling men back to keep the shackles on Donegal’s front division. Where economy let them down in last year’s Ulster semi-final, it proved their saviour here.
Donegal sent in some heavy artilary with Neil Gallagher, Partrick McBrearty and David Walsh thrown on in the one swoop, but it wasn’t to be. McGuinness summoned Darach O’Connor – who has the MacLarnon Cup final today and a game with Donegal’s Under-21s on Wednesday night – ‘to try and sneak a goal’, but the Mournes held on.
Captain Michael Murphy gazed out at Páirc Esler, mused that the sun was inching higher in the sky and the ground was beginning to firm up, and wondered of Derry, Donegal’s Championship opponents at the end of May.
Managed by Brian McIver, the former Donegal boss, Derry defeated reigning League and All-Ireland holders Dublin yesterday, on the same Celtic Park sod they’ll face Donegal.
Murphy said: “Derry will be a huge game and they’ve beaten Dublin and have been mighty impressive so far. They’re taking the bull by the horns and will have confidence taking on anyone in Celtic Park.
“But that was always going to be the case. All we can do is hold up our end of the bargain and keep pushing forward over the next couple of weeks.”