ULSTER SFC QUARTER-FINAL:
Monaghan v Tyrone
Perhaps it’s a sign of my cynicism but my first action on sitting down to deface the white page this weekend was to check the identity of the appointed referee for tomorrow’s clash between Monaghan and Tyrone.
Eddie Kinsella brings no baggage to this potentially explosive match-up and he’s coming in on the back of a brilliantly instinctive performance in Hyde Park last weekend. One only has to look back on the free kick he correctly gave against Roscommon centre-back Niall Daly in the first half to see that this is an official on top of his game. He’ll need to bring that game with him from Laois tomorrow.
Despite the playing down of the rivalry by players on both sides during the week, there is a sense of tension within both camps after last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
It irks Monaghan that the Ulster Championship began with them fourth favourites at 8/1, despite being reigning Ulster champions and the only team in the country to win back-to-back promotions in league football this year. This is perhaps based on the sense Monaghan got lucky last year by being drawn on the easier side of the Ulster Championship and by meeting a jaded Donegal team ripe for the plucking in the final.
Subsequent events seemed to bear that out with Donegal folding the tent against Mayo and Monaghan falling short once again when the shining moment was there for them in Croke Park. It was very easy to pigeonhole Monaghan after that and it is something they are going to have to address if they are to be taken seriously this year.
It irks Tyrone that they were branded toxic after last year’s quarter-final because of Martin Penrose’s sending off and Seán Cavanagh’s infamous tackle. They will point out that Monaghan were never shrinking violets either and that issues around cynical tackling had been festering for months beforehand.
Nothing carries as much currency in Ulster football as a sense of being slighted in some way. It feeds into pre-match rituals as witnessed last week in Armagh, it manifests itself in every gesture, every tackle and every breaking ball on the field of play, and it is there again after the game when, inevitably, somebody will talk about finding motivation in the fact that nobody gave them a chance.
So how will this one pan out? I believe much will depend on how many of Niall Morgan’s restarts Tyrone can retain and on how some of the individual match-ups go. When Tyrone manage to salvage their own kickouts, they are more than adequate. When they don’t, as witnessed during a nine-point swing in the second half of their first game against Down, they are rudderless.
With Darren McCurry and the two O’Neills on the inside line and Seán Cavanagh on the 40, it is crucial for Tyrone to get these four on the ball as early and as often as they can. While Cavanagh is free to roam to get into the game, the other three are dependent on supply from others. For this supply to materialise, Morgan is going to have to get much more tactical with his restarts than he was in both games against Down.
In last year’s Ulster final Monaghan allowed Donegal possession from their own kickouts, invited them on to them, then tackled like dogs and countered quickly after the turnover.
Donegal eventually got tired of the ambush and introduced Neil Gallagher at midfield to save themselves the hacking. Tyrone don’t have a Neil Gallagher-type catching midfielder so they must go tactical on kickouts tomorrow.
Monaghan’s game plan, carried out by their higher-than-usual quota of relentless scavengers (Dessie Mone, Kieran Duffy, Padraig Donaghy and Paudie McKenna) between numbers 5-12, makes securing possession from these kickouts more difficult than normal. Dermot Malone is also likely to retreat towards midfield from his starting position at number 13 to give Kieran Hughes and Jack McCarron that bit of extra space inside. All of this means that getting hands on the breaking ball becomes a proper scramble.
An appreciable rise in temperature is expected today and tomorrow, making it an occasion for those of endurance and stamina in Clones. Monaghan are better served in this department with a new group of players taking ownership of the team’s core over the past year or so. Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe have established themselves as defenders of substance and won’t be fazed by Stephen O’Neill and Darren McCurry after holding both scoreless in last year’s quarter-final.
The Hughes brothers are becoming leaders in their own right, even if they should have regrets after the way 2013 ended. For their part, Dessie Mone, Vincent Corey, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay owe this group very little but they too are going to have to show the Clones faithful and most importantly, Malachy O’Rourke, that the twilight Ulster medal of last year wasn’t the be all and end all for them. For them to cruise through another season on the back of last year’s success would be stupid and dishonest. Tyrone teams of the Mickey Harte era have a reputation for punishing both stupidity and dishonesty. Monaghan teams could rarely be accused of dishonesty, but some of their mistakes in big matches in the recent past have bordered on stupid and, worse still, they came from the aforementioned experienced players who gave so much to Monaghan football. If Monaghan play stupid tomorrow, they won’t survive.
Regarding match ups, expect Malachy O’Rourke to get it right. Wylie and Walsh on O’Neill and McCurry. Mone and Corey on Penrose and Cavanagh (or even Darren Hughes on Cavanagh if the Moy man starts to exert his usual influence). And the big one that Monaghan must make work to their advantage; a fired-up Kieran Hughes at full forward on Justin McMahon, who can’t be up to the pace of such a challenge after a broken season.
After 26 years without beating Tyrone, form and fate points to a Monaghan win. After the disappointment of last August weekend, Monaghan’s first championship outing of 2014 offers them an immediate opportunity to settle up for the bubble-bursting failure of last year.
It shouldn’t be this easy.
The few balancing theories go as follows. After two earlier outings against Down, Tyrone have been tempered in battle in 2014 whereas Monaghan have not. Monaghan struggle for goals, scoring none in their last two championship matches and only three in a league division they dominated. Monaghan, and particularly Paul Finlay, have a history of getting little change out of Tyrone and the last time they had to do without Conor McManus for any period of time, they ended up in Division 3. And, finally, Monaghan just don’t do back-to-back Ulster titles.
I am loathe to make predictions until I see both teams line up just before throw in, but I trust the hard pragmatism of the Ulster champions to see them through.