Tyrone have the dogs and finishing power on Monaghan to win Ulster
Ulster Senior Football Championship final: Tyrone v Monaghan (Today, Croke Park, 4pm)
AMONG the many imponderables ahead of today’s eagerly anticipated Ulster final at Croke Park one stands out above the rest: Are there 70 minutes in Monaghan? Make that 80 minutes these days.
In fact, does any team have a reasonably consistent 80 minutes in them? Given the sorely abbreviated nature of inter-county preparations in 2021, stitching together back-to-back halves of football has proven to be a bit of a stretch.
Monaghan have been particularly schizophrenic within games. They scored four goals against Donegal in Ballybofey – thanks to some sublime opportunism from hat-trick hero Conor McCarthy – but they ended up frittering away their commanding lead to draw the game.
Of course, this is a common theme across all levels of Gaelic football. Commanding leads come and go. As soon as teams think they’re far enough ahead they stop making those overlapping runs while the trailing teams throw off the shackles and play without fear.
Nevertheless, nobody does losing leads better than this Monaghan team. To this day, it’s still mind-boggling how they threw away last winter’s Ulster Championship preliminary match with Cavan at an eerily silent St Tiernach’s Park.
In the opening half, Seamus McEnaney’s team toyed with Cavan like a dying insect, squandering four clear-cut goal chances.
In the second half, they couldn’t raise a gallop – and Cavan came back to bite them after extra-time.
So, Monaghan had form heading into 2021.
In their Ulster semi-final classic with Armagh two weeks ago, something similar happened to Monaghan. They tore Armagh’s defence to shreds in the opening 26 minutes with some sumptuous attacking play and scored four goals.
While Armagh were authors of their own downfall in that crucial period, the precision of Monaghan’s play was brilliant as it was ruthless.
Then, the Armagh comeback began?
The outcome of this epic semi-final swayed on the thinness of a razor blade.
Armagh most definitely would have won it had Ryan McAnespie not reached with his finger tips to stop ‘Soupy’ Campbell’s fist pass destined for Ross McQuillan who was clear on goal in the 69th minute.
Everyone, including the Monaghan players themselves, would have bemoaned another spectacular Championship collapse.
Moments later, as the game entered stoppage-time, Armagh substitute Tiernan Kelly misplaced a pass, Monaghan gained possession and finally showed that they can game-manage with the best of them.
Trailing by a point, Monaghan proceeded to string together 15 passes for the next 70 seconds, involving experienced heads Kieran and Darren Hughes, Colin Walshe before the imperturbable Conor McManus won and despatched the equalising free.
Another loose pass from Armagh and four passes later, the ball was spirited to McManus again who won and despatched the winning free.
The moral of the story from a Monaghan perspective is that they had suffered another almighty collapse but recovered to win.
It’s the middle third of the game they need to do some serious tidying up on if they’re to stand a chance of beating Tyrone to whom they lost Anglo-Celt deciders in 2007 and 2010, with ‘Banty’ patrolling the Monaghan sidelines back then.
Of course, man-for-man the gap in quality that was once there in the ‘Noughties’ has virtually disappeared. But, what Tyrone have over Monaghan are more dogs in their ranks – dogs in the most complimentary sense.
Few in the modern game execute the ugly aspects of the game better than the hard running Kieran McGeary and Conor Meyler – and the pair are no slouches in front of the posts either.
In many ways, they are the precious kind of problem-solvers out the field that can make the difference.
Their appetite for lung-bursting runs is tailor-made for the wide open spaces of Croke Park – a venue where Tyrone have mastered Monaghan in recent seasons.
In today’s Irish News, Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan goes into some detail to explain the change in step of having two big, mobile men around the middle of the field – Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick - in terms of kick-out strategies.
The only caveat is the pair haven’t been road-tested at this level compared to the likes of Darren Hughes whose ability to break defensive lines has been a glowing feature of Monaghan’s play.
Ryan McAnespie is another vital cog in the Monaghan wheel that Tyrone would do well to heed. The 2015 Ulster medallist is liable to pop up anywhere on the field and has a nose for being in the right place at the right time for the Farney men.
There is a lovely smoothness to the Monaghan attack too.
And what of Conor McCarthy? Capable of playing like ‘Gooch’ one week, he has also been bottled up other days. He didn’t get much change from the Armagh defence last time out and was replaced early on.
If McCarthy has one of those daft days, he can be a match-winner for Monaghan and take some of the pressure off McManus.
Of course, McManus has never minded pressure in the least.
In last week’s Irish Times column, Jim McGuinness bemoaned the lack of hits and defensive meanness of the previous era.
But given the awesome entertainment both Ulster semi-finals served up, the former Donegal manager's musings were perhaps not best timed.
Aside from Rory Gallagher’s Derry side, strong defensive displays have been few and far between in Ulster this year.
Long may that continue at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon.
This final promises so much.
You only have to look at some of the potential duels: Kieran Duffy versus Darren McCurry. Conor Meyler versus Ryan McAnespie. Padraig Hampsey and Conor McManus. Ronan McNamee and Jack McCarron.
And at either end of the field stands the two best goalkeepers in Ireland – Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan.
The outcome depends on how much Tyrone have learned from their malfunctioning League display against Kerry only a few weeks ago - and the signs have been good, especially how they stepped on the gas in the last 10 minutes against 14-man Donegal and showed excellent composure.
For Monaghan, they have attacking moves in them that create so many goal chances - but do they have the same legs and running power as Tyrone?
Benches could play a key role too with the game set to be in the balance coming down the home straight.
Shane Carey and Stephen O'Hanlon helped Monaghan over the line against Armagh. But their bench options don't rival Tyrone's.
At least not on paper.
And if that rare commodity of defensive meanness reveals itself at any stage during today's final, you'd imagine Tyrone's muscle memory will help guide them to their first provincial title since 2017.
Tyrone by four points.