The Downs 2-12 Ratoath 0-17
By Paul Keane & Ben O’Keeffe at Croke Park
The Downs held on in dramatic circumstances at Croke Park to bridge a 50-year AIB Leinster club SFC gap and secure their first final place since 1972.
Leading by six points with seven minutes to go, following goals from Ciaran Nolan and Niall Mitchell, it looked as if the Westmeath champions would coast to victory against the former Leinster junior and intermediate winners.
But five Ratoath points in a row, allied to the 57th minute red card dismissal of The Downs attacker Andrew Kilmartin, meant this game went right to the wire.
David Brady’s Ratoath had an opportunity to level the tie with the very last kick of the game but Jack Flynn’s 67th minute pot shot at glory from a free way out on the left wing tailed agonisingly right and wide.
It cleared The Downs to advance to the December 4 final, back at Croke Park, where they will face either Kilmacud Crokes or Portarlington.
Man of the Match Luke Loughlin, a Tailteann Cup winner with Westmeath earlier this year, will be a marked man on that occasion next month after shooting 0-5 against the Meath champions.
Ratoath came into the contest as slight underdogs though buoyed by their quarter-final win over an ultra experienced Rhode team, the club’s first in the provincial senior championship.
They carried that momentum into the opening stages with Eamonn Wallace, best known as a club and county attacker, bursting forward from his new half-back role to stroke over the opening score.
Mitchell tied it up in the fifth minute with a point from a free, setting the tone for a tit-for-tat encounter that was level on six occasions up to 0-6 apiece before The Downs surged clear.
Nolan’s 26th minute goal, a scrappy score that Ratoath will feel they should have cleared, left the Westmeath representatives 1-6 to 0-6 clear and they retained that three point advantage with a minute of normal time remaining in the half.
Ratoath’s response was impressive as they closed out the half with three points in a row from Daithi McGowan to level it up yet again at the interval, 0-10 to 1-7.
McGowan, a starter for Meath in June’s All-Ireland qualifier defeat to Clare, showed exceptional leadership with two of those scores from long range points that he had the confidence to take on.
McGowan’s Meath colleague Joey Wallace was absent due to a cruciate knee ligament injury, robbing him of the opportunity to punish The Downs manager Lar Wall again. Wall was in charge of Gaeil Colmcille when Wallace starred for Ratoath against them in the 2020 Meath final, scoring 1-3 that day.
Ratoath’s Jack Flynn was involved in two first-half goal chances, wincing as his 16th minute shot was deflected away by goalkeeper Trevor Martin and then, six minutes later, clearing off his own line when he foiled Loughlin.
The Downs pushed hard for a second goal during a strong third quarter and duly delivered in the 42nd minute when Mitchell pounced. They put together a clever hand-passing move down the right which ended with Kevin O’Sullivan picking out Mitchell from the right endline and the dual star poked home from close range.
That score put them four clear for the first time and when Andrew Kilmartin curled over a 45th minute point, arguably the score of the game, they were five to the good with a 2-10 to 0-11 advantage.
The Downs were six points clear with 53 minutes on the clock and apparently on course for a comfortable win.
But the dismissal rocked them and Ratoath took full advantage in the closing stages, reeling off scores from Wallace, Flynn, Daithi McGowan and Bryan McMahon to take it right to the wire.
Scorers for The Downs: Luke Loughlin 0-5 (0-2f), Niall Mitchell 1-1 (0-1f), Ciaran Nolan 1-0, Andrew Kilmartin 0-2, Ian Martin 0-1, Jonathan Lynam 0-1, Eanna Burke 0-1, Conor Coughlan 0-1.
Scorers for Ratoath: Daithi McGowan 0-6 (0-3f), Cian Rogers 0-2, Jack Flynn 0-2 (0-1 45), Eamonn Wallace 0-2, Bryan McMahon 0-2, Bobby O’Brien 0-1, Keith McCabe 0-1, Conor Rooney 0-1.
The Downs: Trevor Martin; Peter Murray, Eanna Burke, Darragh Egerton; Joseph Moran; Conor Coughlan, Mark Kelly, Jonathan Lynam; Charlie Drumm, Ciaran Nolan; Andrew Kilmartin, Kevin O’Sullivan, Ian Martin; Niall Mitchell, Luke Loughlin.
Subs: Dean Clarke for Drumm 30+2 – h/t blood, Tom Tuite for Martin 53, Liam Moran for O’Sullivan 60, Dean Clarke for Drumm 61, Dean Egerton for Kelly 64.
Ratoath: Darragh McPartlin; Ben Wyer, Conor McGill, Ciaran O Fearraigh; Eamonn Wallace, Gavin McGowan, Brian Daly; Ben McGowan, Cian O’Brien; Keith McCabe, Daithi McGowan, Jack Flynn; Bryan McMahon, Cian Rogers, Bobby O’Brien.
Subs: Liam Kelly for O Fearraigh 24-30 blood, Conor Rooney for McCabe 42, Padraic Byrne for Rogers 53, Andrew Gerrard for Gavin McGowan 55, Brian O’Connor for Cian O’Brien 58.
Ref: Barry Tiernan (Dublin).