Tyrone and Monaghan renew fierce rivalry with tight League expected
Allianz Football League Division One, round one: Tyrone v Monaghan (Healy Park, 3.45pm tomorrow, live on TG4)
IN some respects, the Tyrone-Monaghan rivalry isn't a close one, but the Red Hands might be hoping that proves to be the case on the Healy Park pitch tomorrow afternoon.
Travelling along the south Ulster hinterland, the area where north Monaghan abuts south Tyrone isn't a GAA heartland. Truagh Gaels may reached this year's county SFC final, but they've never won it; nor have Emyvale, with their solitary final appearance in 1986. Their club-man Ryan McAnespie could have been a Tyrone star, but chose the blue and white.
North of that bendy border, Aghaloo have never been in the Tyrone senior decider, while Augher's last win was back in 1985.
Yet the inter-county battle is undoubtedly intense, and increasingly so.
The Red Hands just held on for victory by the minimum margin in last year's Ulster SFC Final in a Croke Park thriller, while the sides fought out a 0-14 apiece draw in round three of last year's shortened league, in Division One North.
Tyrone have dominated recently, winning nine of the last 15 League and Championship meetings, with five wins for Monaghan – but the league is a tighter affair.
Indeed Monaghan have the edge over the past encounters, winning four, including the epic one-point success on their return to the top flight in 2010.
Seamus McEnaney was the boss then and the 'Banty' returned in 2020 to oversee another success, by four points in Castleblayney.
Malachy O'Rourke master-minded the two other wins, in 2015 and 2018, over his erstwhile Errigal Ciaran club-mate Mickey Harte, the first of those a seven-point stroll in Omagh – the only away victory in this fixture since ?????
Tyrone will also be aware/ wary that that 1-13 to 0-9 Monaghan victory came in round one of 2015, a campaign which ended with relegation for the Red Hands.
The drop is a long way off yet, and joint-bosses Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher will have three more home matches, against Kildare, Dublin, and Mayo. However, with away trips to Armagh, Donegal, and Kerry, all of them sure to be bear-pits for the reigning All-Ireland champions, this game is close to being a 'must-not-lose', if not quite a 'must-win'.
Monaghan have been in fine form this year, drawing away to Derry before beating Fermanagh, Armagh, and then Donegal to collect the Dr McKenna Cup, the first time they've done so since the start of the Harte era in 2003.
Even better than the trophy was the game-time given to 32 different players, with the Farneymen now boasting a squad of great depth and quality, full of flexible, tactically astute footballers.
The same can be said of Tyrone. The likes of Footballer of the Year Kieran McGeary, fellow Allstars Peter Harte and Conor Meyler, former captain Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden, Conor McKenna, and Cathal McShane can all operate successfully in several departments.
So too for Monaghan skipper Ryan Wylie, one of his predecessors Colin Walshe, Hughes brothers Darren and Kieran, and Kieran Duffy, Conor McCarthy, and Dessie Ward.
The tactics, switches, and movements will be a bewildering whirl, with two of the best goalkeepers of the modern era, current Allstar Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan, heavily involved with both their kick-outs and their forays out the field, both making it truly a 15-man game.
That's before the benches come into play, with both able to call on game-changes who can affect the outcome.
While Tyrone have lost Tiernan McCann, Mark Bradley, and Hugh Pat McGeary from the All-Ireland Final 26 to inter-county retirement, along with Ronan O'Neill and Michael Cassidy, they have welcomed back Rory Brennan and Richie Donnelly after Covid-19 curtailed their 2021 campaigns. Others pressing for starting slots include Paul Donaghy, who impressed as a second half substitute against Armagh, and the returning Lee Brennan.
Monaghan's attack in that McKenna Cup final included Micheal Bannigan, Shane Carey, Jack McCarron, and Aaron Mulligan, with the brilliant Conor McManus not featuring this year – yet.
Either side would snap your hand off for a flukey one-point win, and they'd both settle for a share of the spoils.
With last year's All-Ireland Final referee Joe McQuillan in charge, this has the feel of a huge clash, bordering on the Championship.
Referee Joe McQuillan (Cavan).