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‘We want to be playing against the best teams in Ireland’ – Ryan McEvoy’s late point sends Down and Westmeath’s promotion bid to final day

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Two of the explorers, Down and Westmeath, met yesterday in Mullingar. The game swayed and lilted. Neither team played quite well enough to win or poor enough to lose, hence they failed to muster a victor between them.

Nobody had much to gripe about afterwards.

The upshot is that Down host Clare, whose relevance in all this ranks as one of spring’s more surprising developments, next Sunday. Brass tacks, a home win would elevate yesterday’s drawing parties, both still unbeaten, into Division 2.

Dessie Dolan described Westmeath’s as “a battling performance”.

​Given the context, it was apt. His team were four points down at one stage in the second half of a game where the gusty wind and heavy pitch added a level of unpredictability to even the simplest of actions.

“We knew it was going to be difficult, and it was difficult,” he noted. “It was played at a high intensity at the same time. There was plenty of mistakes, it’s still early in the season, but I think there was a lot of honest endeavour there.

“I think a draw was a fair result, we could have pushed on and got the winner, but they were attacking as well. At times I thought it was gone away from us, so a draw maybe is a fair result.”

Conor Laverty was in two contrasting minds. Down kicked just four points in a first half in which, notionally, they played with the wind. He wasn’t inclined to disclose his half-time thoughts, but he did hint that they were of the rawer end of the scale for dressing-room team speeches.

“I just felt we were very lacklustre. We didn’t have that edge we showed over the last number of weeks, but I thought we started the second half very well. We were a wee bit more clinical. Then, once we got in front, we seemed to sit off again, and that’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said.

It’s serious business this three-way scrap at the summit of Division 3. High stakes too.

The precise terms of conditions have yet to be set, but there is a better-than-average chance the division’s winners will spend their summer clinking glasses with football’s glitterati, the rest consigned to assorted bar-room brawls with the riff raff.

Westmeath trailed by just one point at half-time – 0-4 to 0-3 – with the aid of a strong wind to come in the second and logic suggested they would use it better than Down.

Odd that so few scores were created and converted in that first 35 minutes. Both teams were upwardly mobile, attacking and defending in swarming droves, switching quickly from one mode to another.

It was end to end, but a mixture of poor shooting, good defending and a swirling, undependable wind meant a majority of these mass movements went without a score or even a shot.

Down hit 0-4 from 10 shots. Westmeath were three from seven.

By contrast, there were 17 scores in the second half as both teams found more of a cut in the scoring zone. Robbie Forde was inspired for Westmeath, kicking 0-4 (two frees), while Odhrán Murdock – a late addition to the Down team – was hugely influential in their play.

Westmeath nudged ahead as the 70th minute approached when Luke Loughlin pointed from the ’45, but Ryan McEvoy, who was outstanding for Down, stole a late equaliser, kicking into a stiff breeze.

There ensued a madcap four minutes of injury-time, in which both teams forced turnovers and then fumbled, miscued or were snuffed out in the final act – James Dolan put in a brilliant block to kill a certain winner for Down.

For his part, referee James Molloy seemed disinclined to blow for anything but the most blatant transgression in a frantic final passage.

Chances are, both will still go up. But some not without a little final-day drama and angst and Laverty admitted Down’s ambitions were of a loftier nature.

​“We had our experiences last year playing in the Tailteann Cup, and that was great,” he stressed. “But we want to be playing against the best teams in Ireland, learning and challenging ourselves. Any team wants to be competing at the highest level possible and challenging yourself against the best players, and I’ve put that to the lads and challenged them numerous times over the last number of weeks. Where do they want to go?

“What does their standard line want to be? What does their story want to be in a Down jersey? Do they want to play in Division 3 or do they want to challenge for better things?”

SCORERS – Westmeath: R Forde 0-4 (2f); L Loughlin 0-3 (2f); J Dolan, R Connellan, J Lynam, R O’Toole, K Martin, M Whittaker 0-1 each. Down: P Havern 0-4 (3f); D Guinness 1-0; R McEvoy, C Doherty, D Magill, R Johnston, J Guinness, O Murdoch 0-1 each.

WESTMEATH: J Daly 7; J Dolan 8, D Scahill 7, K Maguire 7; S McCartan 6, D Lynch 7, N Harte 6; A McCormack 6, R Connellan 7; R O’Toole 7, J Lynam 6, C Dillon 6; L Loughlin 7, K Martin 6, D McCartan 7. Subs: R Forde 8 for D McCartan (5 inj), M Whittaker 7 for Lynam (h-t), E Mulvihill 6 for Dillon (50), S Smith 6 for Martin (64), S Allen 6 for Harte (69).

DOWN: J O’Hare 7; M Rooney 6, P Laverty 7, R McEvoy 8; D Magill 6, P Fegan 7, D Guinness 7; P Havern 6, O Murdock 8; N McParland 7, J Guinness 7, C Doherty 7; L Kerr 6, R Johnston 7, C Mooney 6. Subs: A Gilmore 6 for Mooney (43), S Annett 6 for Guinness (46), C Francis 6 for Magill (58), R Mason 6 for Johnson (69).

REF: J Molloy (Galway).

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