Monaghan weather Orchard storm but dark cloud of sorrow hangs over victory
Ulster SFC semi-final: Armagh 2-21 Monaghan 4-17
FOUR minutes into Saturday’s Ulster semi-final, heads were spinning. On the field, in the stand, for anybody watching anywhere. Even now it is difficult to fully reconcile the mind-boggling mix of mayhem and majesty with the jarring, inescapable sense that none of it really mattered. Not in the big picture.
A crystal clear blue sky welcomed the Armagh and Monaghan players out into the 30 degree cauldron but the darkest of clouds hung over Pairc Esler before they set foot on scorched earth as a county - a country - tried to digest the tragic loss of U20 captain Brendan Og Duffy in a car accident late on Friday night.
There’s no doubt he would have gone on to grace occasions just like this. Three years ago Brendan Og Duffy was captain as Seamus McEnaney’s Monaghan minor side swept to the Ulster title and went onto an All-Ireland final.
The same night he died he led the U20s to a provincial semi-final victory over Donegal, the pre-match picture of a young man at the peak of his powers a moment forever frozen in time.
When he faced the media, McEnaney had just watched his Farney side battle back from the brink in a game that looked won then lost. The highs, the lows, the exhilaration of Championship days – this is what ‘Banty’ lives for.
Yet, having received the horrible news in the early hours of Saturday morning, his thoughts were nowhere near football or a first Ulster final since 2015.
“My overriding emotion is sadness…. devastating,” said the Corduff man, who also paid tribute to close friend and Monaghan sponsor Philip Traynor, who died in America last week.
“I had a special relationship with Brendan Og, being captain and manager. He was a great young fella, huge in that dressing room.
“I’m devastated for his family. Football will move on but his family will never be the same again.”
Perhaps the game shouldn’t have taken place at all, given the circumstances. Even with a free weekend coming up, McEnaney says Monaghan were “never offered the opportunity” to play the game at a later date.
Somehow they managed to put emotion to one side as the Farney ripped into Armagh from the off, bagging 3-6 in a breathless opening 15 minutes, the ball hopping high off a rock solid pitch, the pace rarely dropping once the bar had been set.
For as brilliant as some of Monaghan’s attacking play was, though, the Orchard were their own worst enemies and paid a heavy price for their own naivety.
Attempting to engage McEnaney’s men far too high up the field, and with no designated sweeper, a full-back line of Aaron McKay and James Morgan was left woefully exposed – the first of four first half goals coming from Conor McManus just three minutes in.
The Clontribret man coolly side-stepped Championship debutant Shea Magill after Jarlath Og Burns had failed to get his boot under the ball in time, allowing Monaghan to swarm forward.
It was Ryan McAnespie who laid the ball off to McManus, and the Emyvale workhorse was causing Armagh all kinds of problems with his clever runs out to the wings, taking Connaire Mackin and then Niall Grimley with him at times to engineer space through the middle.
The second goal in the 10th minute was the stuff of nightmares for Magill, an 11th hour replacement for regular number one Blaine Hughes between the sticks.
The Killeavy man pulled his kick-out straight into the hands of Miceal Bannigan on the 20 metre line, he found McCarron who gave Magill the eyes, shaping to go right before cutting back and rolling into the empty net.
A class finish from a classy operator – and he wasn’t done yet. Five minutes later Monaghan scored goal number three, this time Darren Hughes finding McCarron wide open. After giving McKay the slip with a dummy, he waited and waited until Bannigan arrived in the square ready to palm home.
Monaghan could not believe their luck, but at the other end Armagh – with the superb Rian O’Neill and Rory Grugan to the fore – were still engineering enough scores to keep them just about in touch.
Yet when Darren Hughes cantered through unchallenged for the Farney’s fourth goal to put them eight clear nine minutes before the break, it looked like it could be all she wrote.
The Scotstown man picked the ball up around the middle, fist passed 20 yards into open space, McCarron got out ahead of McKay, laid it back into Hughes’s path and he slid under Magill. Again, it was all so shockingly easy.
The experienced Aidan Forker was brought on for McKay a few minutes later and, although he eventually got to grips with McCarron, Armagh still had a huge mountain to climb at the break.
The introductions of Conor O’Neill and, in particular, Conor Turbitt gave the Orchard more cutting edge but for the first quarter after the break, they were still just sharing scores with Monaghan. No headway was being made.
Yet the Farney have form when it comes to complacency and chucking away commanding leads. The hurt of last year’s second half collapse to Cavan – when they were also seven up - should have been at the forefront of their minds. Instead the dynamism that defined their first half performance deserted them.
Armagh seized the invitation to pile on the pressure. One thing you know about McGeeney’s men is that every game will have a purple patch at some stage and, as has so often been the case in recent years, Rian O’Neill was the catalyst.
His outrageous mark to claim Magill’s kick-out in the 52nd minute was followed by a beautiful, flat delivery that allowed Turbitt to bravely fist to the net, despite being clattered by Rory Beggan in the process. Four points in it, game on.
Dominating the middle now, Armagh were irresistible as the Farney floundered. And when another sub, Tiernan Kelly, cut inside Darren Hughes and rifled home, the Orchard led by a point with 10 to go.
Monaghan looked gone. Oisin O’Neill put Armagh two up – they couldn’t lose it from here… could they?
Unfortunately the Orchard have shown an aptitude for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory all too often and, rather than putting the Farney to the sword, they backed off again. Nerves, perhaps over-eagerness kicked in too as captain Stefan Campbell twice gifted possession back to Monaghan when Armagh had acres of space to exploit should they pick the right pass.
There is no better man than McManus to capitalise on such mistakes, and he used all his street smarts to earn and convert three frees, dragging Monaghan back into the box seat. The last free out near the 45 metre line, following a rash challenge from Kelly, was a lesson in nervelessness.
Bizarrely, Forker was shown a second yellow card two minutes into added time for felling the Clontibret ace, but referee David Coldrick didn’t follow up with the red. Not that it mattered in the end.
Even before Stephen O’Hanlon’s final score, there would be no more Armagh comebacks. They had their chance and they blew it – another hard luck story, another what might have been to pick the bones out of next winter.
For Monaghan, players and management finally allowed themselves to consider what they had lost, never mind what had been won, as they pulled together in a huddle moments after. Football matters for little in these moments, but there is little doubt they had done the memory of Brendan Og Duffy proud.
Armagh: S Magill; J Morgan, A McKay, R Kennedy; C O’Hanlon (0-1), G McCabe (0-1), C Mackin; N Grimley (0-1), O O’Neill (0-3); J Hall, R O’Neill (0-6, 0-3 frees), J Og Burns (0-1); R Grugan (0-3, 0-1 free), A Murnin (0-1), S Campbell (0-1). Subs: A Forker for McKay (28), C O’Neill (0-1) for O’Hanlon (HT), C Turbitt (1-1) for Grimley (HT), T Kelly (1-0) for Hall (49), R McQuillan (0-1) for Mackin (51)
Yellow cards: A Forker (32, 70+2), J Morgan (65), R McQuillan (70+5)
Monaghan: R Beggan (0-2, frees); K Duffy, C Boyle; D Hughes (1-0); R Wylie; K Lavelle, K O’Connell; R McAnespie; N Kearns (0-1); M Bannigan (1-0); A Mulligan, D Ward (0-2), C McCarthy (0-1); J McCarron (1-1), C McManus (1-7, 0-5 frees). Subs: S O’Hanlon (0-2) for McCarthy (34), S Carey (0-1) for Mulligan (41), C Walshe for O’Connell (47), K Hughes for Lavelle (48), A Woods for Kearns (58), F Kelly for D Hughes (70+2).
Yellow card: R Wylie (66)
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)