Down produced a battling second-half performance to secure a spot in the Division 2A final following a two-point win over Kerry in Ballycran.
Ronan Sheehan's side only earned promotion to the division in 2020, and they can now sit back and watch as the Kingdom must navigate a semi-final against opposition to be decided after Sunday’s fixtures.
Aided by a strong breeze at McKenna Park, Stephen Molumphy’s Kerry started the brighter with their direct running causing problems for the home defence. The powerful Fionán Mackessy in particular made some great runs from deep.
Even with that strong start, the first four points were shared with Shane Conway on target for Kerry and Paul Sheehan, from a free, and Tom Murray landing scores for the home side.
Conway and Sheehan continued to trade scores and by the 21st minute Kerry were four points clear, 0-09 to 0-05.
Sheehan replied with a brace of frees but after a couple of disappointing wides, the visitors finished the half with a flurry of points, Micheal Leane, Padraig Boyle and Paudie O’Connor raising white flags as they turned around six points in front – 0-14 to 0-08.
That six-point margin looked about par given the conditions, but not so good after Down immediately halved it on the resumption.
The Mourne County’s direct approach had provided little return in the first half, but Eoghan Sands took a great catch and was pulled down as he tried to barrel through on goal. Conor O’Keefe was black-carded for his part in the incident.
Kerry goalkeeper Martin Stackpoole tried to win the mind-games by moving towards the left-hand side of his goal, but Conor Woods’ penalty was struck firmly to the other side to get Down within three.
Down’s Marc Fisher and the industrious Pearse Óg McCrickard continued to keep the umpires busy with Conway and Colum Harty replaying at the other end.
When Sheehan brought Down level 15 minutes from time, it looked like there would be only one winner – but Kerry dug in.
Woods and Oisin McManus traded scores with Conway and Harty before the Mourne pair landed a point apiece as Down made their charge.
Kerry though, who had a goal effort cleared off the line by the alert Caolan Taggart, would not go away and Harty brought the gap back to one before Maurice O’Connor landed an equaliser.
A draw would have put Kerry in the final at Down’s expense but with a vocal support behind them, the home side were rewarded for their intensity and work-rate in the second half as McManus landed two late frees, the first of those moved forward into a more favourable position due to dissent.
For Down, they are now one game away from two promotions in three seasons while Kerry will hope for redemption through the semi-final route.