Laois secured their Division 2 survival thanks to a 1-16 to 2-10 win over Down at O’Moore Park, a victory that was largely built on their utter dominance during the first half.
The home side shot 13 wides while playing with the wind and led 1-10 to 1-1 at the break, but the game turned in the second half when full-back Denis Booth was red-carded for a foul on Donal O’Hare and Aidan Carr buried the resultant penalty.
Laois eventually held on thanks to some fine points on the break and a crucial Padraig McMahon block in injury-time.
Regardless of results elsewhere in the division, Laois knew that they needed to take care of their own business first and foremost in this tie and there was no doubting which team had the greater motivation in the early stages.
The home side contested loose possession with far more intensity and moved up and down the field at a much higher tempo.
David Conway opened the scoring after just 30 seconds and within three minutes his side were four points to the good thanks to scores from Donal Kingston, John O’Loughlin and Ross Munnelly.
Down were overwhelmed at midfield in the early exchanges and enjoyed little or no primary possession, but they did use a turnover to great effect in the eighth minute when Niall Madine took control of the ball after a sloppy Laois pass out of defence.
With options on all sides, he played in Conor Maginn, who neatly placed the ball in the bottom corner of the net.
Inaccuracy was a huge issue for Laois while playing with the wind.
Even though they continued to dominate the kickout battles, they wasted a lot of ball in the next 12 minutes and kicked five wides in total before Donie Kingston broke that run with a left-footed effort to make it 0-5 to 1-0.
That was the catalyst for another Laois burst and they completely took over for the rest of the half.
O’Loughlin added a goal from close range following great approach play from Darren Strong and Conor Meredith, and Laois went on to kick five more points before half-time.
Down persisted with their approach of carrying the ball right into the heart of the Laois goalmouth, and as a consequence they only had three meaningful attempts for points in the first half – a Benny Coulter effort that struck the post, a Conor Garvey shot that fell short and an O’Hare point.
Kevin McKernan, on as a replacement for Coulter after the Mayobridge attacker was shown a black card, did get a slight opening to shoot for goal, but he was denied by a wonderful Padraig McMahon block, not the only time the corner back produced a critical intervention.
The two sides shared four points in the first ten minutes of the second half and there was no evidence to suggest that Down would come back into the game.
One of those points, an excellent Munnelly effort from 35 metres out, really called into question Down’s refusal to shoot from anywhere other than point-blank range while playing into the wind.
An O’Hare free made it 1-12 to 1-4 after 45 minutes and very soon Down were right back in the tie, thanks to two more points and a Carr penalty.
Conor Lane awarded the penalty for an abrasive frontal challenge by Booth on O’Hare. The referee also gave a red card for a tackle that put O’Hare out of the game.
Suddenly Laois had just a four-point lead, a numerical disadvantage and their position looked very precarious.
Conor Meredith made a wonderful tackle to rob Niall Madine when the big Saval man was bearing down on goal, and O’Loughlin settled their nerves further with a huge score in the 56th minute, but Down kept pressing and they reduced the deficit to four on two more occasions while continually searching for that all-important third goal.
Peter O’Leary made a critical interception when it looked as if Mark Poland had played in Conor Laverty with just the keeper to beat, and then McMahon produced another brilliant block in the closing stages of injury time to deny Madine.
By then points from Poland and Jerome Johnston had left Down needing a goal to salvage something from the game, but the Laois defence held firm and so ensured that there will be plenty more high profile ties at O’Moore Park next year.
Laois: G Brody; P McMahon, D Booth, P O’Leary; D Strong (0-01, ’45), P Begley, C Begley; J O’Loughlin (1-02), K Meaney; J Finn, D Kingston (0-03, 0-01 free), B Sheehan; R Munnelly (0-06, 0-01 free), C Meredith (0-01), D Conway (0-03).
Substitutes: D O’Connor for Sheehan (47), R Kehoe for Meredith (62 – B/C), E O’Carroll for Finn (69), MJ Tierney for Conway (70+2).
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Rooney, O Costello; A Carr (1-00 pen), B McArdle, C Garvey (0-01); P Turley, A Rogers; C Maginn (1-00), M Poland (0-01 free), P Devlin; D O’Hare (0-04, 0-03 frees), N Madine (0-01), B Coulter.
Substitutes: K McKernan for Coulter (23 – B/C), C Laverty (0-01) for Turley (HT), R Boyle for Rooney (44), C Toner for Devlin (45), N Donnelly for McArdle (48 – B/C), J Johnston (0-02, 0-01 free) for O’Hare (52).
Referee: Conor Lane (Cork).