Kevin Madden: Where the Ulster final will be won and lost
As we look ahead to this Sunday's Ulster final between Tyrone and Monaghan at Croke Park, Kevin Madden takes a look at some of the key areas where this game may be won and lost.
The clever one-two that Darren Hughes played for his side's fourth goal in the semi-final win over Armagh won't be repeated in the Ulster final. The Tyrone system will demand that Frank Burns is patrolling the D, ready to snuff out any untracked runners that happen to escape the snarl of the Tyrone defensive pack. The Red Hands looked to have tightened things up considerably since the Kerry game but question marks still remain as a missed penalty and the loss of Michael Murphy were big factors in their semi-final win over Donegal.
Monaghan themselves kicked 4-17 the last day, but let's not forget they also conceded 2-21. I don't think they will want to engage in that type of a shoot-out this time around but they will be poised to pounce on any gaps that may arise. Monaghan love to score 'cut and back door' type goals which basically involves the inside forward running towards the ball carrier as if he's taking it on the loop but then cutting back on himself and attacking the space in behind the defender. Conor McManus is a genius at it but Conor McCarthy wasn't bad at it either when he scored two goals against Donegal in the League from this exact tactic. Tyrone will need to be ready for this but equally they will know that sitting off and allowing the Monaghan running game to build can be a expensive exercise.
THE BENCH V STARTING TEAM
For Monaghan, it's pretty straightforward. They will most likely start with the same team as the last day, but they do have that luxury of slotting Colin Walshe into that full-back line for a man-marking job should a problem arise early on. With Walsh, Kieran Hughes, Stephen O'Hanlon, Shane Carey and Fintan Kelly all to come in, the Monaghan team that finishes the game will be very strong but will it be enough to get them over the line?
The Tyrone management have a much bigger dilemma, as they have the Cathal McShane and Conor McKenna conundrum to deal with. If they start without them and can manage to have the game evenly balanced with 20/25 minutes to go, then that could be enough to see them over the line. The risk with starting them is that you lose the luxury of introducing that star quality when the game might still be in the melting pot.
Ultimately, Feargal and Brian will want them on the pitch in the closing stages when this game is likely to be won.
Even though he scored 0-3 from the bench the last day, I don't think they will be tempted to start Tiernan McCann but with him, Mark Bradley, Darragh Canavan (if fit) and possibly McShane and McKenna to come in, Tyrone have the bench to tip the scales.
BEGGAN V MORGAN
Both men couldn't be any further apart on the pitch but in terms of skill set and quality, both are similarily huge assets for their respective teams. The old cliche that "the game will be won or lost in the middle of the field" is a dated one but the possession stats from kickouts is maybe more important than its ever been. We know at this stage that possessions won from own kickout and opposition kickout is a strong score source for teams in the modern game. Tyrone and Monaghan will both press their opponent's restarts aggressively, when possible. How these percentages fair out is likely to have a big bearing on the outcome.
Tyrone have three excellent man-markers in Ronan McNamee, Paudie Hampsey and Rory Brennan but who will be tasked with the top job of marking the insatiable Conor McManus? I would be surprised to see anyone other than McNamee picking him up. That would probably leave Hampsey to match up on Jack McCarron with Brennan on Conor McCarthy. If it materialises, that will be three intriguing battles to watch out for. There is less certainty around the Tyrone starting 15 which makes Monaghan's preparations slightly more difficult. But I'd expect Ryan Wylie to match up against the man in form, Darren McCurry.
I am going to stick with my original prediction of Tyrone to win Ulster. For the first time in a couple of years, they seem to be getting all the injuries cleared up just at the right time. I expect this one to go right down to the wire though, and it may even take extra-time or penalties to separate them.
Masters of ceremonies
On Saturday evening I had the privilege of playing in the Alps Masters v Antrim Masters - a charity event in Portglenone in aid of promoting mental health. The day started off with a brilliant match between the Antrim and Derry 'GAA for All' teams who showcased a game full of joy, fun, and spirit that could only leave a body feeling in good form.
On a scorching hot day, there were a lot of sun-baked bodies out there defiantly disobeying any instruction coming from the brain. Thankfully most, but certainly not all, were observing on-pitch social distancing but a competitive game ensued nonetheless. It was great to see so many former stars showing their support for what turned out to be a brilliantly organised and well supported event. Well done to Frank Diamond and his colleagues at Alps, to Stephen Mulvenna and co at Antrim Masters, the match officials, the four teams, to the Roger Casement's Club in Portglenone and to the countless others who played their part in making this such a fantastic event.