ULSTER SFC FINAL:
Monaghan v Donegal
It’s 1998 since a county last claimed a single Ulster senior football title and promptly disappeared deep into the chasing pack.
Proof, perhaps, that while Ulster may be difficult to conquer, it can be an easier proposition to subjugate thereafter. Now Monaghan, the defending champions, have the opportunity to stretch that sequence on a further 12 months this weekend.
The last 15 years have borne witness to the dual dominance of Tyrone and Armagh, followed by the emergence of Donegal who themselves have the opportunity to win a third title in four years in Clones this weekend.
As for Monaghan, it is 84 years since they last backed up one title with another and Malachy O’Rourke’s side will be keen to avoid the fate of that one-off Derry side of 16 years ago as they take on their predecessors as champions on Sunday.
“It’s a massive game for both teams,” admitted Monaghan veteran Paul Finlay. “Donegal have different things going on: three in four years and us going back to back so it is a massive game for both teams.
“That said, I don’t think either team will be looking at those sort of stats too much before the game. If you start looking to those sort of things you are losing what you should be concentrating on.”
That Monaghan should find themselves back here right now was never assured. When the county won its first provincial title since 1988 last year it was met with a sometimes patronising response of ‘good for them’.
Men like Finlay, Tommy Freeman, Dick Clerkin, Eoin Lennon and Dessie Mone had scavenged for years without reward until 2013’s rich pickings came their way, but settling for one piece of silverware wasn’t in their DNA.
“We set out our stall from the start of the year,” Finlay explained. “Malachy asked us a few questions as a group about what our ambition was and where did we really want to go. Nobody in the room that evening said we wanted to take a step back.
“It was all about progressing and trying to bring the team and the squad forward whatever way we could and try to get better, looking at the performances of 2013 and how we could improve going forward. You just become part of that and buy into it.”
Neil McAdam aside, no-one else emptied their locker in the off-season and it isn’t difficult to see why. Finlay has spoken about how careers are short and nobody wanted to call it quits just when Monaghan were finally turning the screw in Ulster.
It is only two seasons since they tumbled into the dark recesses of Division Three and packed their bags for the summer by mid-July. The popular perception was their time had passed and all they had to show for it was two Ulster final losses.
Monaghan didn’t agree. They knew the third tier wasn’t reflective of their talent and the turnaround has been as swift as their demise. Now they are on the brink of retaining Ulster on the back of defeats of Tyrone, Armagh and Donegal.
“It probably would have been far-fetched [in 2012],” said Finlay, “but thankfully we are in a place now that we can look back and say we deserve it because we worked hard.
“Everybody has bought into the management team and what they are trying to do. A bit of good organisation, a bit of good coaching and everybody rowing in with their time and effort. We can look back now and be happy where we came from.”
And where they are going.
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