Can Monaghan offer anything new?

Ulster SFC Final

When Tyrone succumbed to Cork in last year’s semi-final, it was said that not having a recent championship history with the Rebels and not having any great cause to dislike them was as much a reason as Seán Cavanagh’s absence was for Tyrone losing. Tyrone love having a cause and however tenuous the perceived enmity between the sides, Tyrone will harness it to their advantage.

That’s why Monaghan, despite all buoyant talk of them being on a roll and being the form team, should be wary of tomorrow’s Ulster final in Clones. The bitter memory of Harte arguing the toss and the timekeeping with the referee at the end of their league encounter in Inniskeen last March could be enough for Tyrone to resurrect feelings of injustice.

That Tyrone should lose that match, shouldn’t normally be of concern to them in the short term but it was illuminating nonetheless. It played as big a part as any other factor in their ultimate relegation, it highlighted their shortcomings and it told Harte as much as he needed to know about Monaghan – the 2010 version.

I have no doubt that one of the key messages Tyrone took out of that league encounter in Kavanagh country was not to foul anywhere close to goal. In an uncharacteristically sloppy performance, many Tyrone players committed needless fouls within kicking distance of their posts at critical stages. Disciplined tackling was always a hallmark of Tyrone sides and, based on the semi-final evidence against Down, it must concern Harte that they haven’t exactly gotten rid of bad habits. Had Paul Finlay or Conor McManus been the opposition place kickers a month ago – and not Martin Clarke and Conor Poland – they would have conceded a lot more than the four points they did from frees.

Down’s inability to nail a high percentage of scoreable frees corroded the confidence and it is in marked contrast to Monaghan’s security when McManus and particularly, Finlay, step up to take frees. The main culprit in giving away free kicks, Martin Swift, is on the bench after injury and the other principal offender, Dermot Carlin is also amongst the subs, so, even if Harte stands accused of being ever loyal to his old guard, at least there is an assurance that his starting six at the back tomorrow don’t have a history of coughing up cheap frees. That may be telling – particularly with David Coldrick on whistling duties.

More encouragingly from a Tyrone perspective, the manner in which they stayed in touch when things were going against them early in their semi-final win and the way they used all their experience and guile to force errors from the opposition when the game was up for grabs, was much more like the team we have come to know.

Seamus McEnaney’s right hand man, Paul Grimley will have known from his last match with Joe Kernan’s Armagh in 2006 that the Cooper-Donaghy axis plays like McDonnell and Clarke and yet Kerry never depended on them for the majority of scores. Likewise from his time with Kildare, he will have learnt that one class forward, Johnny Doyle doesn’t constitute a threat in big matches.

With Monaghan he will have recognised the need to move away from the over-dependence on Tomás Freeman and Paul Finlay for scores- the need to find a third, fourth and fifth punch, the threat Oisín used to offer in Armagh and that James Kavanagh, Ronan Sweeney and Alan Smyth offered to a lesser extent in Kildare last year.

The spread of scorers in Monaghan’s games (nine different scorers against Fermanagh and eight against Armagh) has been impressive and makes them that bit more difficult to counteract. Conor McManus is maturing all the time and the best full back in the business, Justin McMahon, will further that process. Dick Clerkin, Eoin Lennon and Gary McQuaid are less distracted and their game has benefited from the renewed focus while Tomás Freeman must no longer feel he’s ploughing the lone furrow up front.

There are two areas in which I feel Monaghan may struggle. Firstly, the Monaghan bench is not near as potent as Tyrone’s who can call on Enda McGinley, Peter Harte, Brian McGuigan, Ryan Mellon and Stephen O’Neill. The other area is the issue of restarts. In all areas of restarting play, Tyrone have, so far, proven superior to Monaghan. Tyrone offer more outlets on sideline ball restarts and Tyrone always take the right option from free kicks outside scoring range – even if it means taking a ‘50’ backwards as Brian McGuigan did when engineering a Martin Penrose score to close out their semi-final win over Down. If Monaghan hope to win tomorrow, they must match Harte’s tactical substitutions and press up on all Tyrone restarts as Down did to good effect for the first 20 minutes.

If Monaghan manage to do this, many of those walking the laneways to St Tiernach’s Park in Clones tomorrow can realistically harbour some hope that this could be an Ulster final for the ages. Monaghan are aiming to become the first county in the province outside the houses of Tyrone and Armagh to win a title since 1998. Indeed, it would be a first for Monaghan themselves since ten years previous in 1988. Antrim harboured the same hope ahead of last year’s final in Clones, likewise the one before that between Armagh and Fermanagh, the final before that involving both of tomorrow’s teams and the one before that again between Armagh and Donegal in Croke Park. If we were to be true to the recent history of Ulster football, we could view it as a series of hegemonic muscle flexing displays by the potentates and the crushing of Donegal, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Antrim in that order. Sometimes even the most momentous of events have the most drab of textures.

With Tyrone’s cause being helped by good homework, I can’t see tomorrow being any different for Monaghan.

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