Down are Allianz Hurling League Division 2B champions after an efficient five-point victory against fellow Ulster side Derry at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh.
Despite topping the table, Derry succumbed to their second final loss in two seasons as the Mourne men's greater application of the basics allowed Down captain Stephen Keith to raise the cup to only his socially distanced teammates.
Eoghan Sands and Pearse Óg McCrickard lead by example down the spine of Down’s forward line. The pair notched 1-2 a piece, the goals proved crucial in deciding who will play in Division 2A next season.
The three-pointers made Derry rue their wastefulness and gave Ronan Sheehan’s side the confidence to go on and win the showpiece.
Both freetakers struggled to find their range in the cagey opening exchanges, both Oisín McManus and Cormac O'Doherty trading wides as they would feel the brunt of final nerves.
Late change to the Derry side Chris Henry, forced Down goalkeeper Stephen Keith into action, Henry would have to go off in the process and O’Doherty duly opened the scoring from the resultant free, 10 minutes in.
Eoghan Sands shook the game into action with a well taken goal at full forward for Down. Sands goal looked to be the difference as Derry’s dominance finally showed before the first water break with Eamon McGill landing a well taken brace from midfield.
Derry’s pressure didn’t let up but John McEvoy’s side struggled to find the target and Down’s greater efficiency pushed them three ahead. Phelim Savage and Dathí Sands fired over a brace a piece in their best spell.
O’Doherty rust began to fade as he found his groove at the end of the first half to leave two between the two Ulster sides 1-8 to 0-9.
Down got the start Derry required with two quick points from Eoghan Sands and MacManus free to double their lead. Even that early stage, the gap looked to be a winning one.
McEvoy tried to rally his troops with changes but the table toppers grasp seemed to slip, with Diathí Sands and McCrickard landing points. O’Doherty time and time again kept his side in touch with three early second half points, one from play.
McCrickard then landed the killer blow with a quarter of an hour to play. This time, directly after the water break, Eoghan Sands turned provider. Sensing the lull in the game Sands turned the game with a big turnover and then had awareness to square it to McCrickard.
The final looked over at that stage but Derry did rally through O’Doherty and three points from aforementioned replacements John Mullan, Odhran McKeever and Paul Cleary.
Just when the final looked like the final was going to produce a grandstand finish, Derry lost Richie Mullan to injury, and because they used all their allotted subs, the Oak Leafers would finish with fourteen men.
Down would also finish with fourteen men moments later, sub Marc Fisher getting a straight red but Conor Woods and McCrickard made certain anyway with the finals last two points securing the title.
Down: Stephen Keith; Tom Murray, Caolan Taggart, Michael Hughes; Barry Trainor, Conor Woods 0-01 (0-01f), Liam Savage; Matt Conlon, Phelim Savage 0-02; Ronan Costello, Pearse Óg McCrickard 1-02, Donal Hughes; Oisín McManus 0-05 (5f), Eoghan Sands 1-02, Daithi Sands 0-03.
Subs Used: Niall McCusker for Costello (ht), Tim Prenter (0-01) for MacManus 58, Marc Fisher for Hughes 66, Darragh Mallon for Murray 78.
Derry: Seán Kelly; Paddy Kelly, Seán Cassidy, Darragh Cartin; Mark Craig, Brian McGilligan, Conor Kelly; Richie Mullan, Eamon McGill 0-02; Chris Henry, Cormac O’Doherty 0-11 (0-10f), Mark McGuigan; Fintan Bradley, Sé McGuigan, Eoghan Cassidy.
Subs Used: John Mullan (0-02) for Henry 12, Odhran McKeever (0-01) for E Cassidy ht, Paul Cleary (0-01) for C Kelly 50, Thomas Brady for M McGuigan 53, Jerome McGuigan for Bradley 58.
Referee: James Clarke (Cavan)