Indeed, despite the concession of two goals inside seven minutes, the Oakleafers stuck to their task and were well placed at half-time, just four points adrift - 2-07 to 1-06 - with a very strong wind at their backs for the second half.
However, the Derry fans among the 1,000 or so that travelled to the West Belfast venue then had to endure an absolutely listless display after half time, Down controlling the game for the entire 36 minutes.
Paul Braniff reeled off points at will from placed balls to end with a personal return of 1-10 (0-09) from frees; James Coyle grabbing the third goal 20 minutes into the half to open up a 3-15 to 1-09 lead, Derry failing to register a score in the final quarter.
By any measuring stick, this was a very poor display from a Derry team that had shown no shortage of determination throughout the League and Christy Ring Cup campaigns, especially in adversity.
When it was put to Derry manager, Ger Rogan, minutes after the final whistle, just after he’d spoken at length to a very disappointed, and it must be said, a very quiet and sombre dressing room following the 16 points drubbing, that it was a disappointing ending to a promising season, he replied with candour and complete frankness.
“I’m bitterly disappointed. Not just in the manner of the defeat, but in the manner of our performance in the second half. It was very poor to say the least and I’m very disappointed at the way the season ended,” he declared.
He accepted the fact that his side had conceded quite a few free.
“They did but when we turned around for the second half just four points adrift with the wind at our backs, the players may have felt that the wind was going to win the game us,” he added.
“They seemed to switch off all over the park with the exception of two or three players. And when you do that you tend to give away silly frees and you’re opened up much more easily. That’s exactly what happened.”
Derry coughed up two well finished, but softish goals inside seven minutes, the first in the fourth minute when Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnson got a flick in ahead of the advancing keeper, Darrell McDermott, and knocked the ball to the net.
The second goal arrived three minutes later when Johnson sent Paul Braniff racing in on the left and he blasted a powerful shot across McDermott into the far corner of the net.
No strength in depth
Rogan went on: “They were soft goals, but we don’t’ have the strength in depth in the squad that is needed at this level. There’s no doubt they were both soft, very soft, but we still came back and at the end of the first half to turn around just four points down.
“You have to live with these things and you have to learn from them. We did tighten up an awful lot as the game progressed in the first half. But the thing is we hit 10 wides in the first half. We had an opportunity to get a goal when we got a point and, playing against the breeze, we could have gone in five or six points up ourselves. You cannot do that, certainly not at this level.”
When it was put to him that Derry’s level of determination seemed to dip alarmingly in the second half, especially in comparison to their performance against Down in Ballycran he answered: “Absolutely. Nobody can tell me that Down are 16 points a better side than this Derry team. They just seemed to switch off all over the park for whatever reason.
“If that’s down to me, then I’ll have to analyse and look at it and figure out what went wrong. I’m not in the business of being overly critical of players, but I will speak to them. Obviously I am very disappointed with their performance in the second half. They were very flat. We did not win any clean ball, with the exception of one or two balls. The Down players were much quicker to break ball that we were. They seemed to want it more all round the park.”
Derry’s only goal came in the 33rd minute after Oisin McCloskey and Ruairi Convery (0-03 from frees), had taken Derry into a 2-06 to 0-06 lead, when Paddy Henry tested keeper, Graham Clarke, with a blistering shot from the left wing and Alan Grant followed up to poke the ball to the net.
Yet they seemed to lack sharpness in front of goal against a strong defence. While Cathal McKeever worked hard three of the attack failed to score, Alan Grant posed little threat on the edge of the square apart from his opportunistic goal.
Four of Ruairi Convery’s five points came from frees, while Oisin Doherty was the only forward to raise a flag in the second period, midfielder Kevin Hinphey getting 0-02 from midfield.
“I think on a number of occasions we took the wrong option. Cathal McKeever ran through and maybe took the shot too early. Certainly he could have drawn the defender and popped it out. Young Oisin Doherty had one in the first half when the keeper saved it and it was probably harder to put it over the bar than under the bar.
“But that’s the difference at this level. It probably shows where they were and in what division they have been playing. Down seemed that wee bit sharper. It’s difficult, it really is difficult to train a county team just two nights a week. With so many players playing football and hurling, it can be a very difficult juggling act.
“But overall I’m pleased with the way we played in certain games throughout the season but very disappointed at the way we finished off the season, particularly the way we played in the second half in this game.“
When asked for his assessment of the season from a developmental perspective, Rogan said: “I think it’s been very, very good. I came in two weeks before the National Hurling League started and it was always going to be a very difficult scenario. Derry had lost so many players from the season before, but we have found so many good hurlers, young hurlers, and in those terms it’s a plus.
“I think the programme that we’re looking to put in place over the winter will benefit the players. Even in this performances, there were things that I would be happy with and it’s worthy remembering that we’re working with a very, very young side. The youngsters who have come into the squad have done very well.”
Would he be back to manage the side next season?
“Maybe I’m being a bit presumptuous. Maybe I should wait and see what the county chairman says after the Down performance. Maybe the County Committee will not want me back?
“That’s my only concern. There is a great bunch of lads to work with in Derry. Hopefully it works out and the County Board rubber-stamps it again. I have plans to work on certain things over the winter so there’s something to look forward to. You cannot have it all your own way all the time. You have to work that wee bit harder. Certainly in terms of performance over the year, and from where we were at the start of the year, I’m happy.“
The Down scorers were Paul Braniff 1-10 (0-09 frees), Gareth Johnson 1-02, James Coyle 1-01, Brendan Ennis 0-02, Scott Nicholson 0-02, Daniel Toner and Andy Savage 0-01 each
The Derry scorers were were Alan Grant 1-00, Ruairi Convery 0-05 (0-04 frees), Kevin Hinphey 0-02, Oisin Doherty and Oisin McCloskey 0-01 each.
DERRY - Darrell McDermott; Leigh Hawkins, Mark Craig, Conor Quinn; Cormac McKenna, Liam Hinphey, Ruairi McCloskey; Kevin Hinphey, Oisin McCloskey; Alan Grant, Cathal McKeever, Paddy Henry; Paddy Kelly, Ruairi Convery, Oisin Doherty. Subs., Michael Kirkpatrick for Oisin Doherty (47 mins.), Darragh McCloskey for Conor Quinn (52 mins.) and Shane Farren for Paddy Kelly (56 mins.)
DOWN - Graham Clarke; Michael Hughes, Daniel Toner, Sean Ennis; Ciaran Coulter, Connor Woods, Michael Ennis; Andy Savage, Eoin Clarke; Scott Nicholson, Paul Braniff, Stephen Clarke; Brendan Ennis Gareth Johnson, Stephen Clarke. Subs., Conor Mageean for Paul Braniff (blood substitution 53 mins.), Paul Braniff for Conor Mageean (blood substitution reversal, 55 mins.), Conor Mageean for Stephen Clarke, 61 mins.), Daniel Toner for James Coyle (66 mins.), Gabriel Clarke for Daniel Toner (68 mins.)
REFEREE - Mr. Owen Elliott (Antrim).