Enda McGinley: Monaghan have the capacity to bounce back from loss to Cavan
TWO years of runaway victories, in which Tyrone and Donegal won Ulster titles with average winning margins of over nine points across their respective campaigns, meant there was plenty of scoffing at the claim of this being the most competitive football Championship.
Last weekend’s football provided a welcome rebuttal to that and the fact that it was only the first round means the competition has an early momentum that it has not gained in a few years.
Off-shoots from this, including the likely bigger attendances and the positive feedback for the BBC bosses who are televising the games, shouldn’t be discounted as the trend appeared to be heading in the other direction. These factors, of course, will not matter to the teams involved but an argument can be made that for all six teams involved so far, there was enough in the early games to allow all to have a degree of optimism and enthusiasm regarding the rest of the summer.
Derry produced a display against Tyrone that left more people talking about them in the aftermath than Tyrone.
Derry supporters went home almost surprised at the level the team showed and suddenly started to believe an extended run in the Qualifiers is possible. The dropping of a big Ulster shark like Monaghan into that Qualifier draw bowl is of course unwelcome, but they will be hoping, having drawn Kildare last year, they are due a bit of luck in this regard.
Tyrone will simply be happy that they got over Derry to get themselves up and going after their post-League lay-off.
Aspects of their new style are still functioning very nicely and, while some players are still to find form, in some ways it is better, and likely planned, not to be at top performance levels just yet. Bottom line, when they needed to and the pressure was on, they were able to produce a flurry of quality scores.
It may have only been a small window into the team’s full potential but it was a strong statement.
Cavan, of course, will be somewhere on cloud 10, if it exists.
For years of being nearly men, they produced the big Championship performance they have been waiting on and to do so against Monaghan will have made it feel well worth the wait.
Mickey Graham’s delayed arrival likely didn’t help their early-season exertions, yet nowhere will the eternal truth that no-one remembers the League be more true if this result marks the arrival of Cavan as a Championship team again.
An Ulster final is now very possible if they can overcome the other team that came good on the years of expectation at the weekend.
Armagh had gone four years with no Ulster Championship win and then produced one of the best wins we have seen in five years.
The first Ulster Championship game to go to extra-time since Tyrone v Down in 2008, if my memory serves me right.
Again Newry was the venue and produced a similarly intoxicating atmosphere.
This time it was the Orchardmen who used the occasion to finally get over the finish line and, in doing so, faced down their demons. That line between victory and defeat is desperately narrow yet notoriously difficult to cross. Armagh had plenty of reasons to feel they were somehow going to yet again pass up the chance of Ulster Championship victory.
This time, they stayed in the fight long enough to get the little bit of fortune that sometimes you deserve but which this time, after four years, Armagh will feel they earned.
A few months back, I said that I feared for that monkey that had been hanging on the back of this Armagh team, well it eventually got its comeuppance on Saturday. With it gone, Armagh will relish the semi-final against Cavan and see a definite chance of a return to the provincial decider.
Their defeated opponents on Saturday, Down, would have been devastated in the post-match dressing room as, having stared defeat in the face, they had not only got themselves back in the game, but had put themselves on the cusp of victory only to see it torn away from them with the late Armagh smash-and-grab.
Yet for a Down team that is in the midst of a major changing of the guard under Paddy Tally, they produced a commendable performance which displayed in spades, those crucial ingredients of resilience and hunger for the battle that augurs well for the future.
A bit like Derry, despite defeat, there was much more positive than negative about their first round performance.
With a shade of luck regarding the draw, an extended Qualifier run is well within their grasp.
That leaves only Monaghan to discuss. On the face of it, it is much harder here to see positives. I, like others, looked upon their Allianz League campaign and saw a team that seemed to be either struggling to regain previous levels or taking things at their leisure.
When this indifferent form spreads into Championship, especially with a team that has been around the block a few times, the voices saying they are done grow louder.
Here for me, though, is the twist. Monaghan, on paper, still have a very high quality team.
That team is now being written off by all. They have essentially reached the bottom of the barrel and that will hurt.
From here, teams can either accept they are finished or rise again.
It has echoes of Tyrone in 2008. For me, looking back at the personality this Monaghan team has shown in the past, I fancy it will be the latter. They thrive in the underdog role.
Bottom line, they had a shocking first half when, for whatever reason, they were caught completely off the pace of the game. The Conor McCarthy exam saga certainly wouldn’t have helped nor the somewhat dubious penalty award.
In the dangerous but forgotten waters of the early rounds of the Qualifiers they are now the big shark.
When they get over the disappointment and look around the dressing room, they too can see more to be positive about than not.
This brings us to Donegal, Fermanagh and Antrim who make their bow this weekend. Win or lose, I expect Donegal to have a good run this year while Fermanagh have made huge Championship victories routine over this last while and are so eternally optimistic, that it’s hard to see anything making them lose that positivity.
Finally there is Antrim, who, more than any other county, need some of this positivity that is spreading into their Ulster neighbours.
While I have no doubt in Antrim’s efforts in terms of their preparations, this feels like a game in which margin of victory will be determined by choice by Tyrone.
Tyrone will feel they have given out enough encouragement to opponents already in this Championship and are likely to be in a more of a business mood this weekend. It’s rare to be in such a generally positive position.
Unfortunately the summer has a very limited quota of happy endings and the next few weeks will no doubt start to cast things in a harsher light as the level starts to climb.