GAA Football

Tyrone can see off Monaghan in clash of Ulster heavyweights

Mickey Harte has led Tyrone to back-to-back Ulster titles
Andy Watters

Ulster Senior Football Championship: Tyrone v Monaghan (tomorrow. Healy Park, 2pm, deferred coverage on BBC2 at 7pm)

TALK of the new Super8s has drawn some focus away from the start of the Championship, but Ulster’s two genuine heavyweights begin their campaigns with nothing else on their minds but beating their neighbour.

It's early in the year (these sides haven't met in May since the 1980s) but the stakes are high. As well as laying down a sizeable marker for the season, the winners at Healy Park tomorrow automatically get installed as clear favourites for the Anglo-Celt Cup and with it qualification for the new last eight format. Meanwhile, the losers get another go through the backdoor route of course, but it’ll be a longer road back for them.

Nevermind the Super8s, the Ulster title still means a lot to both camps. Tyrone are chasing a first-ever three in-a-row, while the Farneymen will be determined to regain the prize that has eluded them since 2015.

To get there they have to stop a Tyrone machine that is fuelled by collective effort and organisation rather than individual brilliance. Monaghan know that, to win, they have to throw regular spanners into the works.

In Conor McManus, the Farneymen have the outstanding forward on show but the levels of quality throughout this Monaghan side have improved over the past couple of seasons and, crucially, manager Malachy O’Rourke still has vast reserves of experience in the side.

McManus is the trump card, but the supporting cast now includes Jack McCarron and Conor McCarthy and elsewhere there are the Hughes brothers, Kieran and Darren, Dessie Ward, Fintan Kelly and a defence packed full of seasoned campaigners including the Wylies, Drew and Ryan, Colin Walshe, Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone who form a formidable screen in front of ball-playing/free-taking/shot-stopping goalkeeper Rory Beggan.

This is a formidable and talented Monaghan panel – as good as the county has ever had – and Tyrone will have to produce their best to match them, something they didn’t have to do last year when they cantered to the Ulster title after Down shocked Monaghan in the semi-final and left the door wide open.

“Monaghan have been a Division One team for a number of years now and won Ulster titles and appeared in a number of other finals,” conceded Mickey Harte.

“So it would be fair enough to suggest it (beating Monaghan) would have been a more difficult game to win.”

Three three-time All-Ireland winner Harte added: “I’ve always said you’d rather be winning your provincial title than going any other way.

“You can anticipate and project it better, who you’ll possibly be playing and what dates.

“When you go the other way, you don’t know for sure where you’re going in the country or for sure who you’re going to meet.

“It was seeded A and B for a few years and it was more of a permutation than a draw, so this is definitely adding a lot of difficulty to the qualifying route, and I’m sure that’s not lost on any of us in the first round.”

Tyrone have won six of the last seven Championship meetings between these counties, but Monaghan were the victors in an absorbing Division One dress rehearsal back in February.

Old-timers will say ‘Ach, it’s only the League’ but there was a real intensity about that game as Monaghan – who had taken their lead from Dublin’s victory over Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals – used the width of the field at Castleblayney to stretch the Red Hand defence and create pockets of space for their runners.

Tyrone found themselves four points down but they reacted quickly, pushing out the field to meet the Monaghan threat and they went in ahead at half-time before the introduction of McManus swung the game the home side’s way. Even then, Peter Harte could have snatched a draw for his side.

In that game, Tyrone played with Connor McAliskey and Lee Brennan as inside forwards but their game is built on a counter-punching system that is fed from turning over opposition attacks. The loss to Dublin last year was the catalyst for a lot of tactical soul-searching in Tyrone and there is a speculation that Harte could look to become more proactive this season.

However, the wily Red Hand manager isn’t a man who is swayed too much by public opinion.

“I don’t look at it who’s inside – I look at when you have possession, how many people and how quickly can you get in an attacking part of the field,” he explained.

“That’s a very fluid situation; it doesn’t matter whether you have one up, two up, three up… It’s how many you have up when you’re in a position to do something about it.

“We look at it in terms of how we play our game, how we create space for ourselves in the attacking zone, and how we win the ball back when we haven’t got it.

“That’s the first part of attacking; you can’t attack if you haven’t got the ball. If you’re weak at the back and you allow people to score at will, it doesn’t matter how many you have up the field, I don’t think you’ll win the games. It might be very exciting and high-scoring games, but I don’t think you’ll get too many wins.”

There has been a lot of talk about Tyrone setting up in a more attacking style, but is that realistic for a game of this magnitude this early in the Championship?

Don’t pack your flask and sandwiches tomorrow expecting a score-fest at Healy Park. Tyrone will retreat when Monaghan have the ball and Monaghan will do the same when the Red Hands have it. It’s what happens in those in-between phases that will decide the outcome.

Monaghan have a potential match-winner in McManus and, if the game comes down to long-range frees, you’d back Rory Beggan ahead of Tyrone’s mercurial custodian Niall Morgan to land them.

If Monaghan can get an early lead on the board, they have the players to win this game, but Tyrone – particularly with Colm Cavanagh, Tiernan McCann and Lee Brennan all fit – have a range of scoring options and bench-strength that means they start as favourites.

The recent spell of dry weather is heaven-sent for the home side’s running game and it should give Tyrone the edge to get over the line in a low-scoring but intense tussle.

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