Derry will meet Kerry in the Christy Ring Cup final next Saturday in Croke Park after a superb semi-final display against Down secured a 0-23 to 2-12 victory at Owenbeg.
With Kerry having already secured passage to the decider courtesy of an emphatic 6-27 to 0-09 victory over Kildare in Newbridge earlier in the day, this all-Ulster clash was a much closer affair with the lead constantly changing hands.
For Tom McLean’s men, Paul Cleary was outstanding with six points from play but he was ably supported by almost everyone in a red and white shirt, Conor McSorley and Ruairi Convery another two stand-out performers for the Oak Leafers
The home side started the brighter of the two teams in a half during which the teams would be level on six separate occasions. A Convery free got the home side off the mark inside one minute but the impressive Steven Dineen was on target for Down two minutes later.
McSorley continued his fine Christy Ring Cup form for Derry in front of the Oak Leaf full back line, sweeping up any loose ball sent into toward the Down forwards.
Alan Grant set up Paul Cleary for Derry’s second point but again the visitors found a response, this time through Michael Ennis.
Down looked to have put daylight between themselves and the hosts on eight minutes with the game’s opening goal. Dineen won possession in midfield and sent a long hopeful ball in toward the Derry square. The Oak Leafers looked to have sufficient numbers back to deal with it but Down corner-forward Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnson did superbly to hook the ball to the net amid a crowd of players.
Derry replied with points from Alan Grant and Convery before Fintan Conway edged his team back to 1-3 to 0-4 in a high scoring opening 11 minutes. Another Convery free brought it back to the minimum before Cleary grabbed his second excellent score from play tie proceedings once more.
The tit-for-tat nature of the half continued as Declan McManus and Dineen restored the visitor’s two point advantage but back came Derry with Cleary helping himself to two more brilliant points from play either side of a Paddy Henry free for a 0-9 to 1-5 lead on 28 minutes. Johnson took centre stage with three superb long range frees, one from at least 85m to put Down in front going into half-time, Paddy Henry grabbing Derry final point of the half to leave it 1-08 to 0-10 at the break.
Derry started the second half in explosive fashion hitting three points in succession through Convery, Cleary and Paddy McCloskey to move to 0-14 to 2-08 and looked in control for the first time in the game.
All that good work was undone however when, seconds later, Johnson’s long ball was won by James Coyle who despatched a good finish into the net to bring things levels yet again at 0-14 to 2-08.
Johnson and Henry swapped points as did Cleary and Down substitute Scott Nicholson before Alan Grant eventually edged Derry ahead at 0-17 to 2-10. Further points from Paddy Henry (free) and an exceptional effort from half-back Anton Rafferty put Derry three up and McLean’s men managed the game superbly from there.
The advantage could have been even better had Down keeper Stephen Keith not produced excellent saves from both Paddy McCloskey and substitute Jonathan O’Dwyer who found himself clean through in his first involvement.
Grant grabbed another great free before Convery went one better with a searing effort that splits the Down posts from his own ‘45 line. That had Derry five up and even when McSorley pulled one back , there was a growing feeling Down needed a goal to salvage their cup hopes. It never came as Convery with one audacious free from 85m and a second from play secured an historic victory for the Oak Leafers.
Derry: Daryl McDermot; Michael Warnock, Conor Quinn, Sean McCullagh; Anton Rafferty (0-1), Conor McSorley, Kevin Hinphey; Sean McGuigan, Breandan Quigley; Paddy McCloskey (0-1), Paul Cleary (0-6), Paddy Henry (0-5, 4f); Aaron Kelly, Ruairi Convery (0-7, 4f), Alan Grant (0-3). (Subs) Jonathan O’Dwyer for A Kelly, 53mins; Liam Hinphey for B Quigley, 57mins; Dean Flanagan for A Grant, 64mins; NIall Ferris for P McCloskey, 64mins; Ruairi McCloskey for M Warnock, 71mins;
Down: Stephen Keith; Matthew Conlan, Padraig Flynn, Michael Hughes; Declan McManus (0-1), Conor Woods, Michael McCullough; Donal Hughes, Fintan Conway (0-1); Michael Ennis (0-1), Danny Toner, Steven Dineen (0-2); Chris Egan, Gareth Johnson (1-5, 3f), James Coyle (1-1). (Subs) Brett Nicholson for M McCullagh (blood sub), 5mins (reversed 7minutes); John McManus for C Egan, 18mins; Scott Nicholson (0-1) for D Hughes, H/T;Brett Nicholson for C Woods, 53mins; Paul Sheehan for D Toner, 59mins; Eoghan Sands for J Coyle, 64mins.
Referee: Owen Elliott (Antrim)