Down are just 70 minutes away from a first Ulster title since 1994 after their shock 1-14 to 0-15 win over 2015 champions Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds.
The Mourne men now face defending champions Tyrone in the final on 16 July, in what will be their first provincial final appearance since 2012.
“I’m so proud of the players – they did everything we asked them to do. We started brightly but at the end we dug in. We were patient and fought hard,” said Down manager Eamonn Burns, whose side were hammered 2-22 to 0-9 by Monaghan at last year’s quarter-final stage.
However, building on their one-point win over Armagh in the quarter-finals and their improved league performances, Down put their supporters through another nail biter in a game which had just about everything, including a change of referee at half-time with Paddy Neilan replacing the injured David Coldrick.
Monaghan, hot favourites to reach a fourth provincial final in five years, led 0-4 to 0-2 after 16 minutes, but Down exploded into life mid-way through the first half and within seven minutes of the restart had tagged on a further 1-2 to stretch their lead to 1-12 to 0-8.
Their goal came courtesy of a Darragh O’Hanlon penalty, after Niall Donnelly was fouled in the square by Colin Walshe. O’Hanlon stepped up and drilled it past Beggan and a famous Down win seemed a real possibility.
By the time the game entered the fourth quarter, Down’s lead was 1-13 to 0-10 and they seemed to be cruising into the final, only for Monaghan to launch a spirited fightback with five straight points in a row during a 13-minute spell to set up a nervy finish.
Monaghan had responded like the champions they are, having reached three of the last four Ulster finals, winning in 2013 and 2015, and losing in 2014.
But Donal O’Hare knocked over an insurance point for Burns’ side in the sixth minute of stoppage time, and it proved just about enough to end Down’s five-year wait for a provincial final appearance.
“Not many expected us to win,” said Down’s Kevin McKernan and he’d be right. And not many will expect them to beat Tyrone, but just maybe this is Down’s year.
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke told RTE Sport: “We knew it was going to be a seriously tough game. Down are a very proud footballing county. The fact we’d beaten them so comprehensively last year they’d a lot of things to prove.
“Right from the start of the game you could see that. Even at that we were disappointed with our own display in many ways.
“The boys showed great character in the second half, we battled back, we just weren’t able to get the score to equalise. We’re bitterly disappointed.”
Scorers for Down: Darragh O’Hanlon 1-5 (1-0 pen, 5fs), Connaire Harrison 0-3, Kevin McKernan 0-2, Conor Maginn 0-1, Shay Millar 0-1, Michael Cunningham 0-1 (45).
Scorers for Monaghan: Conor McManus 0-6 (3fs), Jack McCarron 0-3 (2fs), Conor McCarthy 0-1, Darren Hughes 0-2, Owen Duffy 0-1, Ryan Wylie 0-1, Kieran Hughes 0-1
DOWN: Michael Cunningham; Niall McParland, Gerard McGovern, Darren O’Hagan; Darragh O’Hanlon, Conaill McGovern, Caolan Mooney; Kevin McKernan, Niall Donnelly; Peter Turley, Conor Maginn, Shay Millar; Jerome Johnston, Connaire Harrison, Ryan Johnston
Subs: Donal O’Hare for Harrison (53), Joe Murphy for C McGovern (58), David McKibbin for Mooney (6), Aidan Carr for Turley (68), Mark Poland for R Johnston (68).
MONAGHAN: Rory Beggan; Fintan Kelly, Drew Wylie, Ryan Wylie; Colin Walshe, Vinny Corey, Neil McAdam; Kieran Hughes, Karl O’Connell; Darren Hughes, Kieran Duffy, Owen Duffy; Conor McCarthy, Jack McCarron, Conor McManus.
Subs: Ryan McAnespie for McAdam (41), Dessie Mone for K Duffy (47), Dessie Ward for O Duffy (47), Dermot Malone for McCarthy (57), Conor Forde for Beggan (70).
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Tyrone moved ominously into the Ulster final with an impressive nine-point victory over Donegal at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones.