AS the clock ticked towards 3.30pm on Sunday, September 19 2010, a nervous energy had enveloped Croke Park. Then the big screens around the Dublin venue were filled with gold and black jerseys and the stadium erupted. Down were back in the All-Ireland final.
Prior to the final, journalist Dermot Crowe described the Mourne county as “a law unto themselves, a unique creation,” and that was rather apt for the 2010 season. At the outset, nobody, not even the most partisan of Down fan, would have predicted that they would be amongst the last two standing in the race for Sam Maguire.
Cork were the other body still with blood in the veins and in the end the Rebels would sneak home 0-16 to 0-15. Down’s record in All-Ireland finals moved to 5-1 but rather than being remembered as the first side that blemished their incredible run in deciders, a decade on James McCartan’s men are applauded for the joy and colour they brought to one of the most dramatic championships of the modern era.
Look at the plotlines in 2010:
– Dublin have lost once in Leinster since 2005 and it came 10 years ago. It actually could have come earlier to as they trailed Wexford 0-10 to 0-3 with just 20 minutes remaining in the quarter-final, but they won through after extra-time. It was a stay of execution as Meath hit them for five goals in the semi-final.
– Speaking of Meath, their reward for beating Dublin was a provincial final against Louth. The Wee county played some superb football and were on the cusp of their first Leinster title since 1957 when Joe Sheridan carried the ball over the line and some Louth fans tried to attack Tyrone referee Martin Sludden at full-time.
– In Connacht Sligo beat Mayo and Galway but still came away empty-handed after a final loss to Roscommon. And they say we have it tough in Ulster. Mayo’s response to the defeat was another one at home to Longford and the end of the road for John O’Mahoney.
– In Munster Kerry’s semi-final replay win over Cork wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows, but the fall-out was massive. Paul Galvin was cited for ‘fish-hooking’ Eoin Cadogan and would miss the provincial final against Limerick and, crucially, the All-Ireland quarter-final against Down.
And then, of course, there was Down and their run to the All-Ireland final.
It would be wrong to say that McCartan’s men came from nowhere. They were unbeaten in the Division Two group stages (a draw with Tipperary in Newry preventing a perfect record) as they secured a return to Division One.
They lost out to bitter rivals Armagh in a thrilling Division Two final at Croke Park but, crucially, the team had gotten some vital experience of the Dublin venue.
The championship campaign started with a tricky clash in Ballybofey. Donegal were far from a top ranked team, but they had a super record at the venue.
Down looked in trouble early on as they conceded two early goals but they fought back to force extra time and a goal from Benny Coulter, who was tremendous throughout, secured an Ulster semi-final with Tyrone.
Down led 0-8 to 0-4 against the Red Hands but 47 minutes without a flag meant that they were out-scored 0-10 to 0-2 from there on in and the Mourne county were consigned to the Qualifiers.
The backdoor didn’t suggest too much about what was to come. They were pushed hard at home to Longford and away to Offaly with Martin Clarke’s scoring exploits getting them through.
Round four did produce a strong 3-20 to 0-10 win over a Sligo side that had been so impressive to that point – John Clarke, Ambrose Rogers and Ronan Murtagh with their goals.
The reward for that was a quarter-final against All-Ireland holders Kerry who, even with six players missing from their ’09 final win over Cork due to suspension, retirement or injury, were heavily fancied to get their first championship win over the Ulster side.
It was a case of ‘Gone in 51 Seconds’ though as Mark Poland brilliantly controlled Paul McComiskey’s floated pass and blasted the ball past Kerry ’keeper Brendan Kealy. McCartan’s men controlled the contest from there on in and if anything, the six-point winning margin was harsh on them with David Moran scoring an additional time penalty for the Kingdom.
Peter Fitzpatrick had started a few games in Division Two, including the final against Armagh, but by the time the championship had come round, Kalum King and Ambrose Rogers had developed a brilliant – and seemingly unbreakable – midfield partnership.
The Ballymartin man was happy to be involved though, and a point against Kerry when introduced ensured that it was a day he would never forget.
“It was a great performance, it had really set us up well moving forward,” he said.
That 1-16 to 1-10 win came on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend and watching in shock were the Cork players who were due to play Roscommon the following afternoon.
They more than most would have been rubbing their eyes at Kerry’s exit. They could hold their own against the Kingdom in Munster, but when it came to the All-Ireland series, they were Cork’s torturers-in-chief.
From 2005 to ’09, Kerry had crushed their Sam Maguire ambitions – three times in semi-finals (including a replay in 2008) and then in the All-Ireland finals of 2007 and ’09.
Half-back Paudie Kissane said that while surprised, the result didn’t spark any change in the mindset of Conor Counihan’s squad.
“Well obviously it was a surprise to see Kerry defeated in the quarter-final,” he said.
“There is a big rivalry between Cork and Kerry and Kerry had it over us in the games, particularly in Croke Park.
“In the short term it was a boost but then at the end of the day there were a lot of matches still to be played.
“People always ask me who was the hardest player you marked or the hardest team you played and I always say that at inter-county level it doesn’t matter, you always had to perform because it was the elite of your sport.
“We moved on quickly from Kerry being beaten because we had three games to win. So that short term boost soon went away.”
A good second half saw Cork take care of Roscommon in the last eight and then they followed it up with a thrilling 1-15 to 1-14 semi-final win over Dublin. The Rebels were the first side into the All-Ireland final.
The other semi-final had a more novel feel too it. Down were undoubted surprise packets while Kildare, showing super progress under Kieran McGeeney, were attempting to reach the showpiece event for the first time since their 1998 loss to Galway.
Fever pitch had been reached in both counties, but that was tempered in the Mourne county following the loss of team captain Rogers to injury.
A quiet hush came over St Patrick’s Park in Newcastle as Rogers hit the deck late in Longstone’s Down Championship match with Liatroim. Fitzpatrick was amongst those watching on. The player had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and Fitzpatrick would be the man who would be catapulted into the starting line-up as a result, but there was no joy about that at the time.
“Big Kalum and Ambrose were flying all year, and I mean flying,” he said. “They weren’t missing a beat so there was no opening for me until Ambrose unfortunately got hurt.
“I was still really enjoying it. I was still playing a half here or 20 minutes there and I was able to take it all in too on that run, sitting watching the boys performing then getting some game-time.
“When you’re asked to play, regardless of the circumstances, you just have to be ready to do that. That’s what I trained for all year and I got my run out, just not under the circumstances I would have liked.
“The couple of years before I was starting to play half-decent football so I knew it was there, I had a decent campaign for the u-21s the year before (the side also lost to Cork in the All-Ireland final by a point) and I managed to carry it through.
“Kalum and Ambrose were just outstanding so I wasn’t starting, they played so well. But you’re there to come on or in case there are injuries. That’s what it takes for a panel.”
King may have been missing his regular partner, but he still had a massive say on the All-Ireland semi-final. Benny Coulter had scored a goal that appeared to be a square ball early on and in the dying seconds as Kildare looked for a goal that would have put them through, King’s fingertips deflected Robert Kelly’s rocket onto the crossbar and away to safety.
The Irish Independent included Fitzpatrick amongst their potential Man of the Match nominees, the Belfast Telegraph rated him 9 out of 10 while Trevor Giles, in his Irish Examiner column, praised him for winning five kick-outs.
In short, he played very well and he puts a lot of that down to some advice from current Down boss, and 2010 coach, Paddy Tally.
“I would have been a serious enough man before a game, I would have been sitting with my earphones in and just thinking constantly about the game,” he said.
“Before the semi-final, Paddy Tally took me aside and he said ‘when you go out in the parade, take a look around and take it all in. Once the whistle goes, then start.’ I would have probably have been walking around not looking at anyone trying to be too focussed.
“That memory stuck with me and I’ve always meant to thank Paddy. I did look up and the way Croke Park was red, white, red, white – you’d nearly think they designed it that way. I did take it in.”
Red was the colour on All-Ireland final day in the stands, but not on the pitch. Down wore gold and Cork wore white, just like they had in the 1994 All-Ireland semi-final. In the previous year’s run to the All-Ireland U-21 final, Down had opted to wear the gold jersey throughout the championship so Fitzpatrick was used to it.
The Munster men’s appearance was not a surprise, Down’s was, but Kissane still had massive respect for their opponents.
“In memory we had only played in challenge games at different stages,” he said.
“Growing up watching Down before the advent of blanket defences, they played attractive football. You enjoyed watching people like James McCartan, Greg Blaney, Ross Carr and all these guys.
“You admired how Down played football and similarly the team we came up against had a lot of good footballers. Straight away that’s a threat, especially when you’re a defender. There was no fear of us being complacent.”
Kissane’s caution came to pass and it was a game Down undoubtedly could have won. They led 0-7 to 0-2 as Cork’s first-half struggles continued, although they did cut the gap to three points by the interval.
In the second half Donnacha O’Connor and Daniel Goulding started to turn the screw and although Fitzpatrick landed a score to keep Down in it with six minutes remaining, the Rebels held out for a 0-16 to 0-15 success.
“Ten years on, the hurt is not as bad as it was,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’ve never sat down and watched the full match though.
“Looking back though, it took me about five or six years to realise that we showed Cork too much respect. I wouldn’t begrudge them the title, I don’t mean it like that, but just on the field we were the better team for most of the game but when they got their run for 10 or 15 minutes we let them.
“Maybe we were thinking that they deserved it more than us because they had been pushing about for the last couple of years whereas we hadn’t been. Subconsciously we gave them too much respect and we needed to find a way to stop it.
“In hindsight the belief was there but maybe it wasn’t there enough. Whenever our backs were against the wall at the very end we should have found a way to stop it. There’s a lot happening in those moments, a lot going through the head. It’s not easy.”
For Kissane, that victory was crucial to that team’s standing in the game. Lose it and they would have been one of the biggest ‘nearly men’ in recent times with no guarantee that they would have been back again.
“You see that final mentioned a lot because it’s 10 years on and people are bringing it up,” said the 40-year-old who is still lining out for Clyda Rovers.
“In one sense you appreciate the achievement more as time goes on. People would say that the Cork team could have won more, but at the end of the day we didn’t like.
“That was not for the want for effort. You look at Dublin have achieved, the five in-a-row, but All-Irelands are still very hard to win. So I’ll appreciate it, even if it’s just the one.
“Cork would be perceived as one of the bigger football counties, and they are in many ways, but they have still only won seven All-Ireland titles. That shows how big the achievement was.”
The player was man-marking Danny Hughes that day and was replaced after 41 minutes, so there is the odd bad memory mixed in with the good.
“I got taken off in the second half, naturally on any given day it’s disappointing to be replaced,” he said. “I was following Danny Hughes and he was an excellent player.
“At the end it was more relief that we got over the line. You’d meet people who’d mention it, particularly when Cork aren’t doing well, and you can look back on it with real pride.”
So, Cork moved onto their seventh title with the one-point win while Down had missed the chance to draw level with them on six All-Ireland titles half a century after capturing their first.
A tough ending to a season to remember for Down and their supporters. But plenty of good memories were created and for Fitzpatrick, those days when they were making the country sit up and take notice will never be forgotten. Those bus and car journeys, the nights when they went out as a team knowing that they were making their mark.
“You have friends for life for starters,” he said. “You’re training together four or five nights a week so you almost have to get on well because you see so much of each other!
“When you’re doing well the craic doubles. That year we would be going out after games and we were all together. There was great camaraderie.
“We usually went about Newry but the closer it got to the final, we would have gone somewhere quieter for a while first to wind down and enjoy each other’s company. Once you go to the Canal Court or somewhere you always get split up.
“I remember the car journeys that year to training and back. There would be myself, Mark Poland, Ambrose and Brendan McVeigh and we’d just be slabbering the whole way there and back.
“You couldn’t have a bad word about anyone on that squad and I think that helped us a lot on our run.”