Lead changes hands ten times before Daithi Sands’ strike proves decisive
By Damian Dolan
At McGovern Park, Ruislip
It’ll be calculators at the ready on June 2 when the Christy Ring semi-final line up is decided, with London’s hopes of reaching the last four now precariously balanced following Sunday’s narrow loss to Down at McGovern Park.
A victory for Down over Derry in Ballinascreen in two weeks, coupled with a win for the Exiles over Armagh at the Athletic Grounds, would be enough to take London through.
A Derry win on the other hand and things get a lot more complicated with scoring difference then coming into the equation. Provided, of course, that London take care of business against Armagh.
London will hope to encounter an Armagh side disinterested in mood and brittle in confidence, having been hammered by Down by 28 points and Derry by 19 points. They’ll hope Armagh are equally obliging on June 2.
But while McMahon’s side will be confident that they can inflict a third defeat on Armagh, they will also be wary having been held to a draw at the Athletic Grounds as recent as the sides’ 2017 National Hurling League meeting.
This would all have been negated, of course, had the Exiles managed to get over the line against Down last Sunday in a compelling game which saw the lead change hands an extraordinary ten times.
Daithi Sands’ goal six minutes from the end of normal time proved decisive, edging the visitors into a one-point lead. It was a lead they managed to hold on to despite London throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at Down in the time that remained.
London nearly snatched it, but Kevin O’Loughlin’s late free was blocked on the line and Down scrambled the danger away.
The Exiles had earlier stormed into a four-point lead after 11 minutes. O’Loughlin popped over two quick scores before Shane Lawless added two of his own. London were looking sharp and finding their forward line at leisure.
But Down hit back through Pearse Og McCrickard, Caolan Bailie and Paul Sheehan. The visitors had the breeze in their favour and were slowly beginning to gain a measure of control, and starting to win the 50:50s.
When Paul Sheehan knocked over a 21st minute free, London led by just a point with the score at 0-6 to 0-5.
Killian Burke responded with a fine individual score for the Exiles and was then redeployed to nullify the growing influence of Paul Sheehan.
An Aaron Sheehan free stretched the London lead to three points, but Paul Sheehan replied and then a fine Down move, started by Bailie’s run, ended with Danny Toner creating the space to find the bottom far corner of James Barrett’s goal.
The visitors led for the first time in the game, 1-6 to 0-8.
McCrickard tagged on a score, but the home side recovered well. Sheehan (2) and Nelson put London back in front. Down and Paul Sheehan had to settle for a ’65 after Barrett denied Declan McManus, who followed up after the ball came back off the post.
Down looked set to take a one-point lead into the break, until Aaron Sheehan struck in the last minute of injury-time. Burke and captain Brian Regan combined to release Conor Hickey into space and the corner back’s ball in went loose before being swept home by Aaron Sheehan.
It proved to be Hickey’s last contribution, however, as he was immediately forced off with an injury.
The home side led 1-12 to 1-10 at half-time. Nelson opened the second half scoring, only for Down to hit back with five unanswered scores.
But neither side could shake the other off, and inevitably back came London. Burke scoring another fabulous point just when the home side needed to stem the tide.
A brace from Nelson and the Exiles had their noses back in front. But this was nip-and-tuck stuff. This was going to come down to which side held its nerve.
Paul Sheehan’s free levelled things up and 15 minutes into the second half the scores were locked at 1-16 a piece.
Paul Sheehan uncharacteristically missed from a seemingly straight-forward free opportunity and London seized the moment to go back in front through Lawless, after he was brilliantly picked out by Henry Vaughan.
The tension was mounting with both sides desperate to get some breathing space from the other, but simply unable to do so.
Paul Sheehan’s 57th minute free edged Down into a 1-19 to 1-18 lead, with the Exiles then indebted to a fine save from Barrett after Daithi Sands picked out the run of McManus, only for the London keeper to make himself big and come to his side’s rescue.
London seized upon the reprieve to rattle off three points in the space of two minutes through Aaron Sheehan (2) and Nelson, and the home side had a bit of momentum.
But then came the game’s decisive moment. Barrett batted out a long ball in, but only as far as a red shirt. Like pin-ball, twice more in quick succession the London ‘keeper defended his goal, batting the ball away, before Daithi Sands finally found a way past him.
Down led 2-19 to 1-21. The lead had changed hands for the tenth and final time.
Try as they might London just couldn’t get back on parity. Stephen Keith denied O’Loughlin and Aaron Sheehan landed the resulting ’65, but Down were able to keep the scoreboard ticking over just enough to keep London at arm’s length.
The Exiles had one last chance when O’Loughlin stood over a free faced with a line of red shirts on the Down goal-line. He could find no way through, and the ball was scrambled wide on the follow up.
Down knocked London out in the Christy Ring quarter-finals in 2015 and 2017, and again proved the Exiles’ nemesis.
Sunday was another bitter pill to swallow, and they’ll be grateful for the weekend off to lick their wounds before they go again. They still have everything to play for.
Down: Stephen Keith; Brook Byers, Peter McManus, Michael Hughes; Mark Fisher, Ruairi McCrickard, Liam Savage; Declan McManus (0-1), Rian Branagan; Pearse Og McCrickard (0-4), Caolan Bailie (0-2), Paul Sheehan (0-7, 5f, 1×65); Daithi Sands (1-2), Danny Toner (1-6), Eoghan Sands. Subs: Malachy Magee for Sheehan (61min).
London: James Barrett; Conor Hickey, Brian Regan, Dennis O’Regan; Chris McAlinden, Kevin Reid, Killian Burke; Fergal Collins, Richie Murphy (0-1f); Kevin O’Loughlin (0-3), Mark Dwyer, Henry Vaughan; Aaron Sheehan (1-7, 2f, 1×65), Colin Nelson (0-6), Shane Lawless (0-4). Subs: Alan O’Leary for Hickey (35+5min), Joseph Troy for Richie Murphy (49min), Martin Duggan for Vaughan (55min), Lee Murphy for McAlinden (57min), Stephen Lohan for O’Regan (65min).
Referee: Patrick Murphy (Carlow).