Monaghan ought to kill Fermanagh's Ulster Championship dream
Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round: Monaghan v Fermanagh (Saturday, 7pm, St Tiernach’s Park, live on RTÉ2 and BBC2 NI)
SINCE Pete McGrath first drove up the stony lane that brings you to the unsheltered surroundings of Fermanagh’s training base at Lissan, his aim has been to create history.
A first ever Ulster title looked a more realistic possibility when they came through the back door to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final two years ago, having pushed Monaghan more closely than the final scoreline suggested in the provincial semi-final.
Staying up in Division Two last year, their first half display against Donegal and a superb effort against Mayo hinted that they remained on the right track.
But this season has been different. Ever since they annihilated Down on the opening weekend of the League, it has been a struggle that resulted in relegation back to the third tier.
Granted, they should have beaten Derry on the final day and stayed up. A victory there would have seen them equal their six points that ultimately saw them finish in mid-table last year.
That could well have changed the complexion of their summer when looking from its outset, yet the bare statistics seem to mask how tough the spring was for them.
Last year’s was a stronger Division Two with Tyrone and Cavan involved, but Fermanagh scored less (1-87 compared to 2-85) and conceded more (12-85 to 6-75) than they did last year.
Both are quite easily explained. Up front, Ruairi Corrigan has missed the entire season so far and remains sidelined. His brother Tomás was troubled by a calf strain in the latter part of it. Ryan Jones’ travels have ended his involvement.
It’s defensively, though, that they have been particularly hammered. The retirements of Marty O’Brien, Damian Kelly and Niall Cassidy have left a huge deficiency in terms of experience.
It has shown. Last year they were so superbly organised at the back that they gave themselves a fighting chance against everyone.
Yet look at some of the goals they have conceded this year, most notably two of the four against Kildare. Twice the Lilywhites were able to work a quick free to an unmarked forward right in front of goal.
That lack of organisation and communication was so uncharacteristic of them and that is where their Achilles’ heel has really been in 2017.
It certainly cannot be afforded against an attack with the calibre of Monaghan’s. The Farney men have named an inside forward division of Conor McManus, Jack McCarron and Conor McCarthy – enough to make even the tightest of defences worry about coping.
Monaghan’s form coming into summer couldn’t possibly contrast any more with their opponents’. They were free of any relegation strife very early and for 69 minutes they had Dublin on the ropes in a battle for a spot in the League final.
That may not be remembered in September and it may count for nothing then either, but the National League has become a reliable form guide that has squashed the “Championship is different” line of thinking.
The club window proved costly for Monaghan, though, with the loss of Darren Hughes a significant one.
The Scotstown man damaged the medial ligament in his knee and could miss the entire provincial campaign, however long that might be.
Jack McCarron’s introduction to the team had given them so much more than a line of support to Conor McManus.
He is being hailed as the answer to their over-reliance on McManus, and with some justification on his League displays, but Malachy O’Rourke is so much cuter than that.
In hammering Derry in a recent challenge game, they displayed a continuation of one of the key themes of their success so far this year – dropping big numbers behind the ball and breaking at searing pace when they force the turnover.
Whatever about their inside pairing, it’s the advances in their running game that have arguably been the most impressive part of their start to 2017.
Having McCarron has also allowed Malachy O’Rourke to finally stop shifting one of the Hughes brothers to the edge of the square when things get tight.
Karl O’Connell was excellent at times last year from midfield – completely running their win over Down, most notably – but he had found another gear again when returned to wing-back during the League.
He will line up alongside Kieran Hughes in the middle later this evening and while that is a source of energy and legs on their own restarts, their long-term ability to compete aerially will be tested on Fermanagh’s.
Tom Treacy, whose concession of four goals compared to Chris Snow’s eight has seen him grab the number one jersey, will surely look to use the direct route from his restarts.
Eoin Donnelly is one of the finest fielders of a ball in the country and Lee Cullen has grown into the role beside him, though they have too missed Richard O’Callaghan for his positional sense defensively.
They had a degree of joy pushing right up on Mark Anthony McGinley in Ballybofey last year, creating a wave of pressure that almost saw them into a half-time lead. Any hesitation in forcing Rory Beggan long could be punished severely.
Ché Cullen, lest we forget, held Michael Murphy well last year until he was black carded, but Murphy’s power is a different challenge to the deftness of McCarron or McManus.
Ryan McCluskey will operate as the sweeper and Barry Mulrone will most likely drop back. His influence on the counter-attack is huge for Fermanagh.
Just as Monaghan have reinvented their attacking game, Fermanagh must bring more to the table than looking for Quigley and Tomás Corrigan every turnabout. If they aren’t able to repeatedly punch holes in Monaghan’s cover – which will include their entire half-forward line – then they will not win this game.
Monaghan are farther down the road and in the fortress that is St Tiernach’s Park, it’s hard to picture anything other than a slow death for Pete McGrath’s dreams of history.