Down tactical analysis – when Dan Gordon caused mayhem on the square

QUIZ question. Name the Down player who has started full-back in an All-Ireland final and full-forward in Ulster final. The answer? Dan Gordon.

The Loughinisland man was very unlucky to miss out on an All-Star in the full-back line in 2010 following the Mourne county’s stunning run that came so close to earning a sixth Sam Maguire for the county.

Gordon took a break from football during that year’s National League, fuelling rumours that he may be done with intercounty football, but he reappeared for the championship and although he was full-forward for their Ulster quarter-final and semi-final, he was soon stationed at full-back as Down went on the famous run that ended with a one-point loss to Cork in the final.

That move to full-forward was not as surprising then, because seven years earlier manager Paddy O’Rourke had pulled a rabbit out of his hat that very nearly ended with the county securing their first Ulster title in nine years.

Many fans may think that the surprise call came in that famous drawn final with Tyrone, but the noted midfielder had actually worn the no. 14 shirt in the quarter-final win against Monaghan – although it was against the Red Hands that the move really caught the headlines.

Teammate Benny Coulter, the hottest full-forward in Ulster at the time, felt that O’Rourke had spotted a potential weakness in the Tyrone full-back line.

“We knew they were small, I think it was Chris Lawn at full-back,” Coulter said. “We knew he was maybe there to be exposed height wise so we decided to go with Dan in full-forward.

“Obviously it worked to a certain extent, but we probably should have pumped the ball in more.”

The odds on the gamble improved minutes before throw-in too when the teams were revealed. Collie Holmes didn’t make it due to a heel injury, so in came the very inexperienced Dermot Carlin, who had captained Omagh CBS in the MacRory final the year before.

That meant that Lawn switched from the corner to the centre with Carlin picking up Mickey Walsh early on, and it also robbed them of the physical presence of Holmes.

Gordon made a good start, drawing a foul off Lawn in the fifth minute which allowed Liam Doyle to open Down’s account.

In the 11th minute he received another long pass from Aidan O’Prey, stepped around Lawn and fired over his first-ever championship point.

Lawn started to show his teeth, winning an impressive 50-50 ball in the 23rd minute and breaking down a ball down to Ryan McMenamin a minute later, but overall the move had worked very well in the first half.

Things were going well for the team too as the interval approached. Tyrone had been the better side and only for Mickey McVeigh’s saves from Owen Mulligan and Cormac McAnallen, they would have been well ahead.

Those stops kept Down in it, and when Coulter slalomed in for a brilliant individual goal just before the interval, things were looking good for the Down as they now led by a point.

Seconds later, however, that outlook changed completely. After a couple of scrambles in midfield, Greg McCartan won a free.

As he prepared to take it quickly, Brian McGuigan had a nibble at him and the Down man reacted by throwing the ball at his face. McGuigan hit the deck, McCartan was sent to the line.

The task was ominous for Down, but then Gordon really came to the fore to leave Down fans dreaming of Anglo Celt success.

Despite being a man down, Coulter again produced some magic to set Liam Doyle up for a second goal at the start of the second half and, incredibly, the next score was another goal for the men in red and black to leave them eight points clear – and it was Gordon who got it.

A shot for a point from Martin Cole dropped short, and the Loughinisland man got up above Lawn and fisted the ball past John Devine. Coulter followed up with a point to leave them nine ahead with 27 minutes left.

However, from there Tyrone hit 1-6 without reply to draw level late on. With an extra man and all the momentum, there looked to be only one winner. Then Gordon stepped up to the plate again.

Doyle’s free from distance dropped short and again it was Gordon’s fist that benefitted, the ball looping over Kevin Hughes and into the goal.

“I’ll tell you one thing about Dan, he couldn’t shoot, he had no feet,” Coulter continued. “What he could do was use his fists in terms of a long ball in, flick the ball in. He was a dangerous man in there.”

That danger nearly led to a brilliant Ulster triumph for Down, but three late scores would secure a replay for the Red Hands.

The second outing would see McAnallen moved back to deal with Gordon’s influence, and the late Eglish player did a super job.

Tyrone eased to the win, 0-23 to 1-5, and Gordon was sent off late on. But for 70 minutes in that drawn encounter the move had worked wonders, and it took Down so close to a coveted provincial crown. The wait for an Ulster title since 1994 has yet to be ended.

The Loughinisland man would shift between full-forward, midfield and full-back in the years that followed – but of all of his performances it is that showing against Tyrone at a sunny St Tiernach’s Park in July 2003 that he is most remembered for.

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