Sport

Enda McGinley: Mentality will be crucial in Ulster double-header

Mattie Donnelly and Drew Wylie will be in the thick of it again when Tyrone and Monaghan meet on Sunday

BOTH big games in the football Championship last weekend turned out to be damp squibs from an entertainment point of view.

The Mayo-Galway clash in Castlebar captured everything disliked about ultra-defensive systems. Both teams sat passing across the front of packed defences and two talented teams served up an encounter, that as I had recorded it, I was able to watch at twice the speed without feeling I missed out on anything. In Ballybofey, we may have had an unexpected scorefest, yet it only proved that open attacking football and multiple scores from play do not necessarily make entertaining fare when played out in a game devoid of the expected Championship intensity and physicality.

The hope this weekend then is for something of a middle ground in the two big games between Armagh and Fermanagh and Tyrone Monaghan.

The League placings of all four counties say it all about their respective closeness.

Both opponents finished right next to each other in their respective divisions, Armagh and Fermanagh taking the top two slots in Division Three and Monaghan and Tyrone finishing third and fourth respectively in the top flight.

Their two encounters in the League also serves notice of this closeness, Monaghan coming home by a whisker in Castleblayney thanks to a few Conor McManus and Rory Beggan wonder points, while Armagh and Fermanagh played out a dour tense draw in Brewster.

Going on recent history, and even leaving Castleblayney in February with the Monaghan cheers still ringing in my ears, I would always feel that come a summer Championship game, Tyrone would always hold the edge.

The recent big All-Ireland

quarter-final matches give testimony to this.

Monaghan had been Ulster champions and had excellent teams and yet played as if completely out of their depth on the quarter-final stage, falling to defeat to Tyrone teams that, for me, they were every bit as good as.

Monaghan appeared to lack belief on the bigger stages against their Red Hand foes. This bore witness to a psychological chink I had discovered when doing a talk show a few years back with Seamus McEnaney.

It was clear from a few of his answers that the Tyrone team his Monaghan teams had come up against had inflicted sufficient damage to instil almost a sense of inevitable defeat.

As a player involved in those occasions, I can firmly state that there was never any feeling of superiority in the Tyrone camp ahead of those big games.

We saw Monaghan as dangerous adversaries, so this feeling of unavoidable defeat which had lodged in someone as irrepressible as ‘Banty’ really surprised me and maybe explains the tendency for Tyrone to prevail.

My automatic feeling about Sunday’s clash was that Tyrone would once again come out on top despite, on paper, Monaghan having a very strong and

well-balanced side which arguably matches Tyrone across every department.

Last Saturday, however, I happened to get talking to a Monaghan supporter and he said, with confidence and a glint in the eye, “I think we have yis”.

I explained my opinions as above, but he said “it’s different now” and additionally, “we are far happier this match is in Healy Park and not in Clones, that’s the key”.

It was his mannerism that really made me think. What if the penny has dropped with Monaghan? What if Malachy O’Rourke has pulled off the feat of removing the apparent inferiority complex? It certainly would be a game changer.

In many ways, the facts for me point to a Tyrone victory. Tyrone won Ulster last year with embarrassing ease.

Since then, and particularly since the second half of the League (notably, after the Monaghan match) they have improved significantly.

Many of the lads who have made their debuts in the past two seasons have really matured into very promising performers, with the likes of Frank Burns and Lee Brennan standing out.

Tyrone, for me, are a superior team to this time last year. I am not sure if Monaghan in the same time frame have added as much. In every line, however, Monaghan do have seasoned and quality players and have the sort of naturally-balanced appearance as a team that Tyrone has struggled to achieve.

Drew Wylie moving out to centre half-back and his very capable full-back replacement, Conor Boyle, along with the return to his excellent best of Colin Walshe, means Monaghan are as defensively solid as ever. Up front, Conor McManus is a player that would make every Tyrone fan jealous but who has assistance now, albeit too occasional to be counted as a given yet, from Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron. A potent mix absolutely but that confidence is key.

In defeating Dublin, have they received the confidence transplant they need to move from nearly men to top men?

I have been an admirer of their team for several years and (on another day anyway) would love to see them fulfil their potential. If they do play with real belief and throw down the gauntlet to Tyrone, we could be in for a very special game.

With much less confidence than I started with, I still expect Tyrone to come through.

Fermanagh v Armagh is a game with pretty low expectations to live up to on the entertainment front, not that either set of players, management or supporters will give a damn if the result is right come Saturday night.

The general feeling would be that Fermanagh are once again managing to punch above their expected weight due to a massive collective ethos and determination which should be the envy of many other counties who achieve much less despite more raw resources.

Armagh, on the other hand, are perceived as a strong county gradually getting back to the strength expected of them.

Both teams are beset with issues of inconsistency.

Armagh’s forwards appear on some days to be among the most talented in the province, yet on others appear bereft of quality and composure.

Fermanagh have undoubtedly a well-drilled defensive system which suits their intense and dogged work ethic. Their issue is trying to get enough of a forward threat without weakening their ability to shut out teams.

Attacking talent is not the issue. In the Quigley brothers, Tomas Corrigan and Conall Jones they have forwards who can do significant damage.

Given that they obviously feel they can’t start all four and maintain a strong defensive system, it is finding the right combination and balance that is the challenge.

This Armagh team have had a fragile look to their confidence for a few years. If they don’t get off to a good start and Fermanagh smell blood, then this game is there for the Ernemen and they will thrive on seeing their opponents rattled.

All things being equal, however, I think Armagh are the better quality side and so back them to win out in the end.

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