The game needed a dramatic intervention from somebody and Tommy Freeman was the man to provide it.
The man who spent much of last year working in America whilst the team suffered an early exit from the championship with defeats to Tyrone and Offaly, turned this match on its head at Clones yesterday.
While he was warming up, Antrim’s James Loughrey scored a goal in the 46th minute which got the Saffrons back into the game and five minutes later they were in a winning position at 1-8 to 1-5 ahead.
But in a game of small margins, it was always going to take something a little bit special to get over the line.
That something, or someone, turned out to be Freeman, who scored with his first touch when Monaghan were rocking.
Badly missed by Monaghan last year, his first introduction to championship football since 2010 was clinical. He scored again to put them in front as Monaghan’s experience came to the fore in the last quarter.
Captain Paul Finlay was forced off with a shoulder injury after 20 minutes but the old war horses of Dick Clerkin, Dessie Mone and Freeman steered them to a first championship win since 2010.
The first half was a turkey of a game, the little spat between Clerkin and Michael McCann just as the teams were about to head for the tunnel was one of the more lively episodes.
The second half more than made up for it though with scores aplenty as the game started to open up.
Monaghan led 1-4 to 0-5 at the break, the goal coming after 32 seconds from rookie Karl O’Connell who showed electric pace to surprise Antrim right from the off.
He carried the ball from deep and had the presence of mind to drill home the rebound after his initial shot was blocked.
Antrim got themselves right back in it with a goal from James Loughrey in the 46th minute. It was a brilliant finish, as he cut the ball across goalkeeper Mark Keogh and into the far corner.
Antrim’s tails were up. They scored an unanswered 1-3, with points from Aodhan Gallagher, Michael McCann and Mark McAleese to lead by three, 1-8 to 1-5, after 51 minutes.
They should have kicked on, but a combination of the Saffrons going into their shell and Monaghan’s greater experience coming to the fore, meant the home side gradually clawed their way back into it.
Antrim captain Aodhan Gallagher was clearly not match fit after a recent injury scare and he started at full-forward, an experiment which backfired badly.
Once he moved into midfield just before half-time, he was a more dominant figure although the battle between Clerkin and McCann —who both scored 0-2 from play — was a pleasure to watch.
Kieran Hughes did brighten things up when he came on for the injured Finlay — a direct replacement at full-forward — and scored a point from a seemingly impossible angle.
Monaghan were just about deserving of their two-point lead at the interval but the second half was when the game came to life.
Antrim committed a few more bodies forward and it was James Loughrey, playing further forward than his number seven jersey suggested, who struck an important blow with his goal.
Monaghan were struggling to make anything stick up front, Conor McManus clearly not yet match sharp after his long injury lay-off although he scored two important frees in the last quarter.
Freeman’s introduction seemed to inspire the rest, especially after he scored from range with his left-foot with his first touch, almost like he had never been away.
Mone and Clerkin had huge second-half performances and Mone scored an inspirational point to put Monaghan ahead 1-10 to 1-9 with five minutes to go.
It was a decisive blow and Antrim couldn’t recover, as Dooney and McManus sent over late insurance points.
Scorers for Monaghan: K O’Connell 1-0, D Clerkin, C McManus, T Freeman, K Hughes 0-2 each, P Finlay, P Dooney, D Mone, O Lennon 0-1 each.
Scorers for Antrim: P Cunningham 0-4 (2fs), J Loughrey 1-0, M McCann 0-2, M Magill, M McAleese, A Gallagher 0-1 each.
Subs for Monaghan: K Hughes for Finlay (20), T Freeman for McGuiness (47), P Dooney for McKenna (47).
Subs for Antrim: O Gallagher for Scullion (59), C Kelly for Murray (60), B Neeson for Magill (65).
Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois)
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