Cavan were on a roll after wins over Armagh and Fermanagh, but Monaghan’s strong last quarter in Clones on Saturday night was spear-headed by Conor McManus, Paul Finlay and Hughes, survivors of the 2007 and 2010 Ulster final defeats to Tyrone, who knew what it took to get over the line.
“We felt all the talk coming into the game was about Cavan and their two Ulster championship wins,” revealed Monaghan captain Darren Hughes.
“But they’d never experienced an Ulster semi-final and we had. We felt when the pressure came on in the last 10 or 15 minutes we would be able to handle it.”
Malachy O’Rourke made a couple of big calls, dropping Paul Finlay from the starting 15. Finlay made an impact when he went in and although Cavan led by a point midway through the second half, Finlay and McManus scored four of the next five points between them to wrestle the momentum away from the Breffni side.
“We felt if it was close in the second half we would come out with a win because we’d been here before. It was a must-win for a lot of us. Being able to bring on boys like Dick [Clerkin] and Paul was huge for us.”
Terry Hyland refused to criticise the decision that cost his team a replay.
Monaghan goalkeeper Rory Beggan clearly took too many steps and over-carried the ball in the last seconds of the game, but referee Marty Duffy waved Cavan’s appeals for a free away and blew the final whistle.
“Within Cavan people have been going around for too long happy with moral victories,” said Hyland. “We should have had a draw today but we have to get away from that [mentality]. Those are the calls. At the time we called it as a free but the referee didn’t give it, so that’s that.
“We had other chances before that. Our shot options were probably a little bit askew in the second half. There’s good guts in this team and give them two or three years and they’ll be there or thereabouts.”
Monaghan got the match-ups spot on from the outset. Although Kieran Duffy operated as a sweeper, he was caught out of position at times and it was Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe who snuffed out the threat of Cavan’s dangerous strike-force of Eugene Keating and Martin Dunne.
Wylie had the upper body strength to compete with Keating in the air and on the deck while Walshe did a superb man-marking job on Dunne. They limited the two men to a point each from play.
The Monaghan defenders stood their men up and didn’t foul them, forcing them into turnovers which gave the team a huge lift.
Monaghan didn’t commit too many bodies forward in the first half and they were lucky to go in level at 1-5 to 0-8 at the break.
They took a lot of wrong options and Kieran Hughes, in particular, was guilty of poor shooting, hitting four wides.
Christopher McGuinness’ goal after 13 minutes was a huge turning point as Monaghan had started slowly and conceded the first two points of the game.
Darren Hughes capitalised on a poor kick-out by Conor Gilsenan and his fist-pass to McGuinness took out two defenders.
McGuinness was unlucky with an earlier shot which rolled across the line after coming off Rory Dunne, but he made no mistake second time around, burying the ball into the bottom corner.
McManus starred with six points. There were only two points scored from play in the second half and he got both of them.
“Things didn’t go so well for me the last day against Antrim but I worked hard on the training field in the last three weeks and it went all right for me today,” he said.
“We knew that it was a big opportunity for us to get to an Ulster final.”
Hyland insists he will have no trouble lifting the spirits of the young Cavan players for the back door tie on July 13.
“I don’t think it will be hard. They’re young and eager and they have another route to go down,” he said.
Scorers for Monaghan: C McManus 0-6 (3f), C McGuinness 1-0, P Finlay 0-2 (2f), D Hughes, K Hughes 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cavan: N McDermott (2f), M Dunne (2f) 0-3 each, D Givney 0-2, E Keating, C Mackey, J McEnroe, C Gilsenan (f) 0-1 each.
Subs for Monaghan: P Finlay 0-2, (2f) for Freeman (43), D Clerkin for Doogan (50), K O’Connell for McAdam (58), P Donaghy for McGuinness (64), D Malone for Gollogly (70).
Subs for Cavan: M Reilly for Brady (47), T Corr for McEnroe (59), K Tierney for Dunne (69), J Brady for McDermott (69)
MONAGHAN: R Beggan; D Mone, D Wylie, C Walshe; V Corey, N McAdam, K Duffy; O Lennon, D Hughes; S Gollogly, K Hughes, G Doogan; C McGuinness, C McManus, T Freeman.
CAVAN: C Gilsenan; J McLoughlin, R Dunne, K Clarke; J McEnroe, A Clarke, R Flanagan; D O’Reilly, D Givney; C Mackey, K Brady, F Flanagan; N McDermott, M Dunne, E Keating.
Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo).