By the time Monaghan realised this wasn’t in the script

Well, I have to admit, I certainly didn’t see that coming.
By the time Monaghan realised this wasn’t in the script

In last year’s Ulster quarter-final Monaghan blitzed Down by 19 points, 2-22 to 0-9, and as I headed for the Athletic Grounds in Armagh on Saturday I expected a similar outcome.

Seventy minutes later and Down had pulled off an incredible win to set up and Ulster final appearance against Tyrone.

It was a modern-day classic and for the people who suggested the Ulster championship was getting stale, the two semi-finals have ripped up the form book.

One thing that’s been reiterated: pay no heed in future to the rumour mill. We heard that Down only had 10 players at training not so long ago, that things were completely disjointed and that the players didn’t believe in their manager, Eamonn Burns.

He was accused of not being as tactically aware as certain other managers but if a Malachy O’Rourke or a Mickey Harte pulled off what Burns did on Saturday then we’d be singing their praises. It was refreshing to hear Burns say afterwards “We’ll enjoy this win tonight and we’ll think about Tyrone then.”

Down’s win certainly was an upset. Like last week after Tyrone’s victory over Donegal, Mattie Donnelly made a bit of a Freudian slip when he said: “The chances won’t come as easy the next day against Monaghan here… or Down.” He wasn’t alone in thinking that.

That’s probably what Tyrone might’ve thought deep down, but Down, if they can continue their incremental improvements of late, can certainly make a game of it next month in the Ulster final.

This wasn’t a flash in the pan victory. Down played some great football and were resolute when they had to be.

They’ve been criticised and when people from all over the country - all over the world, come to think of it, get criticised, it’s a natural reaction to come out fighting. Down did exactly that - but there was substance in what they did and how they achieved it.

They were structured and organised, while at the same time possessing some of their traditional values and were never afraid to put the ball into the forward line with the boot.

I’ve seen Drew Wylie, the Monaghan full-back, troubled by forwards occasionally before but never out-muscled.

That’s what Connaire Harrison did on Saturday, scoring three unbelievable points and winning man of the match. There’s something about Harrison, Ryan Johnston and Donal O’Hare in that they look like natural footballers who aren’t over-coached.

They can adapt to situations and think for themselves.

Kevin McKernan gives the team protection at the back and then is free to go forward as he sees fit. He scored two fantastic points, the second of which at the start of the second half looked like something from the School of Ronan O’Gara.

McKernan sat in the pocket patiently as Down went through the phases before laying the ball back and he split the posts. It appeared to be a pre-planned move.

Down’s half-back line of Darragh O’Hanlon, Conaill McGovern and Caolan Maloney played a huge part in the victory.

Monaghan, who might have suffered from complacency — a situation I’m familiar with from my own playing days — aren’t a team who have prospered in the qualifiers but Saturday might have given O’Rourke’s side a kick up the backside.

Usually, we assess the performances of referees from one week to the next but with David Coldrick picking up a knee injury and having to be replaced by Paddy Neilan at half-time, we got to compare, rather unusually, two referees in a single game.

While Coldrick wished to let things flow, Neilan was blowing things much more frequently and when the assessors sit down, neither can be accused of not adhering to the letter of the law, but the change in approach was noticeable.

I’m still not sure if Colin Walshe knew anything about Niall Donnelly when Down were awarded the penalty.

It’s his call and we can watch it over and over and have different opinions. At the end though, Down were certainly unfortunate not have have been awarded a 13-metre free when Rory Beggan, the Monaghan goalkeeper, certainly touched the ball on the ground.

Down were only a point up at the time with time thin in the ground so it might’ve turned out to be a massive incident.

There’s always something special about evening games at provincial grounds and I’d be a fan of making a GAA Friday through Sunday weekend of it, with matches on Friday and Saturday nights if the competing teams are close enough geographically, as they were at the Athletic Grounds.

That’s for another day, though.

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