'There's bigger things than football here' - Down edge Monaghan in emotional Ulster U20 final

A cloud of sadness hung over the Athletic Grounds as late Monaghan captain Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh was remembered throughout.

Down manager Conor Laverty consoles Jason Irwin of Monaghan after the game.
Down manager Conor Laverty consoles Jason Irwin of Monaghan after the game.
Image: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Down 3-15

Monaghan 1-14

(after extra-time)

DOWN WERE CROWNED Ulster U20 football champions after a remarkable extra-time battle with Monaghan — though this was about much more than football on a truly emotional evening.

A cloud of sadness hung over the Athletic Grounds after the tragic death of Monaghan captain Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh two weeks ago. The 19-year-old, affectionately known as Ogie, died in a car crash hours after captaining his side to their semi-final win over Donegal.

As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp once said, “Football is the most important of the least important things”. In the grand scheme of things, it’s unimportant, but also vital.

Player of the Match, Ruairi O’Hare of Down, summed it up in his post-match interview with TG4 — “There’s bigger things than football here” — paying tribute to Ó Dufaigh, and to his late friend, Niall Laverty.

“My condolences goes to the Monaghan boys,” O’Hare, scorer of 1-2, said. “I personally know exactly how they’re feeling. A year-and-a-half ago, a person in my own club passed away. My best friend, who I was living with.

“We had to go and play a relegation play-off a week-and-a-half after. I know that feeling in the stomach that they’re having now. It’s not nice. I was able to get over the line that day but it’s not nice for them boys.

There’s bigger things than football here and I would just like to dedicate this to my mate, Niall Laverty. I love him so much, I miss him every day and I wish he was here now.

Down — managed by former Down forward Conor Laverty of Kilcoo, who has a star-studded backroom team in place with former AFL star Marty Clarke and Meath legend Sean Boylan among those involved — now face Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final next weekend, 7-8 August.

A truly poignant occasion from the get go at the Athletic Grounds, Andy Callan’s Monaghan team wore black armbands as a minute’s silence was observed for their late team-mate before throw-in.

The Monaghan number six position was left blank in the programme, where Ó Dufaigh would have played. His parents, Brendan and Esther, attended the game, wearing tops with ‘Ogie’ and pictures of their son on them. The Monaghan players also warmed up in them, while Brendan spoke brilliantly on TG4 at half time.

Ronan Grimes was captain on the evening — Ogie would be delighted with that, his father noted — with Michael Hamill lining out at centre-half back.

the-parents-of-teenager-brendan-og-o-dufaigh-captain-of-monaghans-under-20s-team-who-died-in-a-car-crash-father-brendan-and-mother-esther-attend-the-game The parents of the late Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh, Brendan and Esther, attend the game. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Two points in the two opening minutes from Darragh McElerney and Ronan Boyle got Monaghan off to the perfect start, before captain Shealan Johnston got Down off the mark.

In the sixth minute, those in the Athletic Grounds applauded in memory of Ó Dufaigh, while Sean Jones — scorer of 0-8 in a scintillating individual display — sent over a free. But Down’s next attack resulted in a goal; a wonderful team move, palmed into the net by O’Hare.

The influential Jones well and truly sparked to life from there, splitting the posts with two stunning points from play to lift his side’s spirits.

Down goalkeeper Charlie Smyth was similarly influential, helping his side out the field as Anthony Morgan, Tom Smyth, and Johnston (free) edged Down into a one-point lead — 1-4 to 0-5 — by the first water break.

While Down mustered up the better of the attacks on the restart, it stayed fairly tit-for-tat on the scoreboard. O’Hare and Jones (free) traded scores, then Jason Irwin and O’Hare again.

In the 26th minute, Monaghan struck back with a brilliant, and similar, team goal of their own; McElerney the man to palm home, before Jones followed up with a point to make it 1-8 to 1-6 in the Farney’s favour.

ryan-magill-and-tom-smyth-with-ronan-grimes-and-jason-irwin Down’s Ryan Magill and Tom Smyth with Ronan Grimes and Jason Irwin of Monaghan. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

The top-scoring Inniskeen forward nearly bagged another goal for Monaghan just before the break as his punched effort off the back of a long ball in sailed over the bar. It cancelled out Peter McMullan’s earlier point at the other end, leaving the half time score at 1-9 to 1-7.

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Tom Smyth opened the second-half scoring as Down came out all guns blazing. That said, the Mourne missed a couple of chances, though Andrew Gilmore made up with pointed frees.

Jones and Donnach Swinburne scored at the other end, and there was a point between the sides at the second water break of the open contest — 1-11 to 1-10.

Monaghan landed the first point on the return through Irwin, but Gilmore soon had the ball in the back of the net at the other end; his powerful finish sending Down into a one-point lead.

Danny Magill gave them a cushion as the rain hammered down down the home straight, and the Farney chased the game. Substitute Kyle Connolly pulled one back in the 59th minute, before Jones stepped up with a high-pressure free to level matters in the first of four injury-time minutes.

It was a dramatic finale to normal time with both reduced to 14 after a pair of black cards for separate incidents, though there wasn’t to be a winner after the 60-plus minutes.

1-14 to 2-11 at full-time, Down pushed on in the first half of extra time with Gilmore and Shea Croskey pointing to restore their two-point lead at the mid-point.

Goalkeeper Smyth’s brilliantly-struck free in the second half of the additional period edged the Mourne into a further lead before Justin Clarke’s goal put the game to bed.

‘Keeper Smyth added another just before the final whistle and it ended 3-15 to 1-14, as Monaghan players fell to the ground, a phycially exhausting 80 minutes rounding off a horrendous two weeks.

Scorers for Monaghan: Sean Jones 0-8, 3f, Darragh McElerney 1-1, Jason Irwin 0-2, Ronan Boyle, Donnach Swinburne, Kyle Connolly, all 0-1

Scorers for Down: Andrew Gilmore 1-3, Ruairi O’Hare 1-2, Justin Clarke 1-0, Shaealan Johnston 0-2, 1f, Anthony Morgan, Tom Smyth, Peter McMullan, Tom Smyth, Danny Magill, Shea Croskey, Charlie Smyth, all 0-1.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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