Monaghan and Antrim toiled in the sun and served up a turkey of a game which no-one will remember for long. Monaghan kicked more wides (17) than points on a day when none of their star performers came out to play.
But the dour struggle had a lot to do with Antrim’s defensive strategy which appeared to be a damage limitation exercise from the word go.
Frank Dawson, in his first championship match in charge of the Saffrons, persisted with Mark Sweeney as a sweeper even though they had an extra man for most of the second half.
Monaghan defender Neil McAdam was sent off for an innocuous-looking second yellow card offence in the 39th minute, and Antrim should have taken it as a signal to push on. Instead it was Monaghan who reacted best to the setback.
On a day when scores seemed to be hard to come by, the visitors reeled off three unanswered points in the 10 minutes after McAdam’s red card to effectively close out the game.
Conor McManus, Paul Finlay, Owen Duffy and Christopher McGuinness were frustrated figures all afternoon. They were starved of room to operate in, though the latter did score a point in each half from play.
Monaghan were five points to one up after 21 minutes, Darren Hughes, Owen Duffy and Conor McManus all scoring from play, and the result already looked a formality.
Maybe the Monaghan players thought so too because they endured their worst spell of the game, completely fading out of the match in the second quarter. Antrim capitalised on Monaghan’s lethargy and got themselves back into the game with three unanswered points to trail by just 0-5 to 0-4 at the break. Midfielder Sean McVeigh, who had lined out for London against his native county last year, scored two of those points from play.
Paddy Cunningham’s free drew them level immediately after the restart but the sending off of Neil McAdam hurt Antrim more. Suddenly there was renewed vigour and appetite about Monaghan.
The introduction of Drew Wylie at full back had a big impact and as the Monaghan defenders pressed up a lot harder on Antrim’s packed defence, Wylie was one of the men forcing the turnovers.
Owen Lennon took some fine clean catches in midfield and although Darren Hughes and Dessie Mone — who was a spare man with no-one to really mark, due to Antrim’s packed defence — tried their hardest it was a day when nothing really clicked for them.
Maybe winning ugly is the best thing that could have happened Monaghan.
They were never going to get any credit for winning this game and the reaction would have been the same even if they’d won by 15 points.
O’Rourke admitted later that complacency may have been an issue and it’s fair to say they have plenty to work on before an Ulster semi-final against either Cavan or Fermanagh.
After 17 wides, 11 of them in the second half, shooting practice will be key. The loss of Kevin Niblock to injury just before half-time was a massive blow to Antrim after he had kicked two first-half points. He carved Monaghan open in the eighth minute, blazing the ball over the bar in what was the only decent goal chance either side created all day.
“Niblock is a great ball winner and his experience was a loss,” admitted Dawson.
“Things went well for us in the first half and we put ourselves in a good position but losing him was a big blow. We restored pride in the jersey and our championship season is not over.”
Scorers for Antrim: S McVeigh, K Niblock (1f) (0-2 each), P Cunningham, M Pollock 0-1 (f) each.
Scorers for Monaghan: C McManus (0-4, 3fs), C McGuinness (0-2), O Duffy, D Hughes, P Finlay (f), D Mone, T Freeman (0-1 each).
Subs for Antrim: C Murray for Herron (30), M Herron for Niblock (ht), R Murray for Cunningham (53), J Carron for McClean (57), P Doherty for M Johnson (65).
Subs for Monaghan: S Gallogly for Clerkin (42), D Wylie for Kelly (45), T Freeman for O Duffy (49), J McCarron for Finlay (64), P Donaghy for K Hughes (70).
Referee: David Gough (Meath), Attendance: 7,713.