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Steven McDonnell: More big game experience will only benefit current Orchard crop

Armagh pushed Monaghan all the way in an epic Ulster Championship encounter in Newry on entering weekend of action Picture: Philip Walsh.
STEVEN McDONNELL

ABOUT two miles outside of Clones you start to notice the cars parked alongside the road. That feeling of excitement and nervous tension starts to creep in. You try to keep the journey from the Westenra Hotel in Monaghan to Clones as light-hearted as possible, but this is the moment when things start to get real.

We always had our dedicated seats on the bus so we knew each other’s behaviour quite well. We take the right just past the filling station and you start to notice the beer gardens full up.

At this point, Kieran Hughes always had his very own fan base of family and friends shouting and roaring us on. I loved looking at the flags. Nowadays there are very few flags at our Championship games compared to 15 years ago.

We’re looking out thinking, 'wouldn’t it be great to be out there?' They are looking in thinking 'Wouldn’t it be great to be in that bus?' Fact is, I’d always rather be in the bus and as the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side.

We turn onto Church Hill in Clones and this was my point to totally turn my full attention onto the match. Knowing when to focus was key for me. I was lucky and very fortunate to play Ulster finals in Clones and Croke Park.

The atmosphere in Clones on Championship Sunday is electric but every player wants to play in Croke Park. The drive down Jones’s Road is exactly the same as Church Hill in Clones. It's time to focus, with the sirens of the Garda escort ringing before you.

This year’s final will be in Croke Park, and I won't lie, I really believed Armagh would be competing in it. The experience of hearing those sirens ring in your ears as you drive down Jones Road and witnessing the fans along the streets could only have benefitted the current Armagh squad.

That big match experience where there is a trophy up for grabs could have worked wonders for them given how competitive they were in all their games this year. After witnessing the contest in Newry between Armagh and Monaghan, I would not deny Monaghan their place in the final though.

Ulster football has thrown up some classic encounters down through the years and this was up there with the best of them. There were mistakes made of course, some of them led to Monaghan goals but the attitude and application of each and every Armagh player to get themselves back into contention after being nine points behind can only be admired.

The way young Shea Magill (from my own club Killeavy) responded after four goals went past him early on in his Championship debut was refreshing to see. His long kickouts were excellent.

I love watching forwards that are in form and Rian O’Neill and Jack McCarron gave an exhibition in creative movement, catching, passing and clinical finishing. They were both excellent on the day although Aidan Forker did a brilliant job on McCarron when introduced.

Forwards win games though and the beauty about being one is that you can be relatively quiet for the majority of a match and come up with the all-important match winning scores when it matters most.

Paddy McBrearty did it the previous weekend against Derry and did Conor McManus it against Armagh. There was no doubt in my mind that both of his frees were going over the bar. He has consistently shown throughout his career that he has the big game and big moment mentality.

For sure, it is disappointing for Armagh as we have not been in an Ulster final since 2008, but in every game, they played this year they were competitive and this is a huge step forward for this group of players.

Given the tragic passing of one of Monaghan’s hottest young prospects, Brendan Óg Duffy, this could not have been any way easy for them to prepare for this game.

To be able to put in the level of performance that they did and to come away with a win is just a credit to them all. No player should ever go to a game of football and never return home and my heart goes out to Brendan Óg’s family, friends, team-mates and the entire Monaghan GAA community. This puts sport into perspective and as an Armagh fan, I will accept this defeat for what it is. Life is simply more important.

In what was without a doubt the warmest weekend in quite a while in Ireland, the scorching temperatures could not have been easy to play in.

In the most competitive provincial football tournament, we witnessed four teams going at each other and putting up big scores. That is what makes knock-out football more entertaining and I for one want to see more of it.

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