GAA Football

Mournemen need a miracle to overcome Monaghan in Clones showdown

Monaghan secured their Division One status for another year with a dramatic last-gasp victory over Dublin last month - and they can get their Ulster Championship campaign up and running against Down today. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

AIB Ulster SFC quarter-final: Monaghan v Down (today, Clones, 4.30pm – live on Sky Sports Arena)

THERE are a couple of different schools of thought floating about heading into today’s Ulster quarter-final clash in Clones. On the one hand, you have the camp who can see nothing but Monaghan romping across the line, adding another layer of misery to an already forgettable year for Down.

This is the prevailing mood, one which rationality and common sense cannot argue against, no matter how red and black tinted your glasses may be. Even before you examine the personnel on the field, consider the circumstances that bring both into this year’s Championship.

The Farneymen have just completed a seventh consecutive campaign in Division One, and spent the spring trading blows with the likes of Kerry, Mayo and All-Ireland champions Tyrone.

A hair’s breadth separated the pack from beginning to end and, with their top flight status on the line once more, Seamus McEnaney’s men managed another Houdini act at the death – downing Dublin in dramatic fashion to save their hides.

Supporters flocked onto the field to pat the backs of experienced men and new blood alike. Job done, Monaghan in a good place. If that doesn’t send you off with a spring in your step, nothing will.

Down, by comparison… well, where do you start? Back at the beginning I suppose, when a five month search for a successor to Paddy Tally finally ended with James McCartan’s appointment in late November.

The elongated nature of that process, and the inescapable sense McCartan was stepping in because no-one else would, was hardly the perfect footing for a fresh start. With most counties already up and running, Down’s management were playing catch-up from the off in a bid to pull their panel together.

With Derry coming up, surviving in Division Two was always going to be a big ask. Even looking at the previous year - Tally’s last - would the Mournemen have avoided the drop had it been a regular League campaign, and not one truncated due to Covid? You’d have your doubts.

After defeats to Derry, Galway and Roscommon, as well as a draw in Meath, so much rested on the Saturday showdown with Offaly. That was always likely to be the case. It was a wet night, but the poor attendance for what was arguably Down’s most important game of the year spoke volumes of the apathy in the county at present.

By the time the last rites were performed against Clare on March 27, a lot of Down supporters clearly decided they would rather spend the day with their mothers than go to Pairc Esler.

The loss of US-bound full-back Finn McElroy and Burren playmaker Liam Kerr in the weeks that followed, as well as the Kilcoo trio of Anthony Morgan, Jerome Johnston and Ceilum Doherty, did little to lift a darkening mood.

And then came the incident in Dublin three weeks ago. The one where things got out of hand at an otherwise productive training weekend, to the point McCartan told the county board he was finished, only to eventually change his mind and return.

This brings us to the other school of thought doing the rounds, particularly in recent days.

That, with the air cleared to some degree and a line in the sand drawn, Down are actually in a better place now than they were before chaos was let loose.

Reports from the camp suggest the mood has been good, the role of massive underdog embraced and fire in the belly restored, with all united in their determination to put pride back into the jersey at the very least.

Those seeking to add credence to that theory point to how heavily the favourites hat has sat on Monaghan before. Sure they can put it up to the big boys any day you like, but remember Longford in 2016? The losses to Cavan in 2019 and 2020? And what self-respecting Down fan needs reminded about the Ulster semi-final of 2017?

Twelve months earlier, Monaghan had 19 points to spare as Down were demolished. The Mournemen came into the 2017 renewal off the back of a similar League campaign that started with a nine-point home humbling at the hands of Pete McGrath’s Fermanagh.

Rumblings of discontent echoed around the county then too, but momentum was gathered at the last when Jerome Johnston’s late free in Cork kept Down in Division Two. By the time they got Monaghan in Armagh, the likes of Connaire Harrison, Darragh O’Hanlon and Shay Millar were finding their groove.

Five years on, however, the notion that short-term siege mentality can narrow such a yawning gap appears fanciful in the extreme. Allied to the constant revolving door of players in Down, compared to the comparatively meagre turnover in Monaghan, there is serious straw clutching required to make a case for anything other than a convincing Farney win this time around.

Indeed, the fear among many Down supporters is that this could follow the path of 2016 rather than 2017. That, if Monaghan come out all guns blazing, determined to avoid falling into the complacency trap, it could get ugly - fast.

Conor McManus was used sparingly through the League, but that is commonplace in recent years. He will almost certainly start today. Jack McCarron shot the lights out on his return to the fold against the Dubs, while the directness of the mulleted Gary Mohan has seen him assume cult-hero status.

Down will surely pack the defence. With goalkeeper Niall Kane a possible absentee due to injury, Monaghan will try to hem the Mournemen in from Rory Burns’s kick-outs and take it from there.

Yet even if they do find a way to frustrate the Farney, it is at the other end where the real conundrum lies. The Mournemen have managed an average of around 11 points per game this year – that was in Division Two, and that was with Liam Kerr in their ranks.

So much responsibility, therefore, falls on the shoulders of Barry O’Hagan.

Against Donegal in last year the Clonduff ace couldn’t have done any more, leading the line brilliantly and taking Eoghan Ban Gallagher for eight points, including four from play. Down still lost by 16.

It’s as much of an irrelevance now as that 2017 shock, but Down’s record in Clones doesn’t inspire much confidence either. James McCartan scored a second half goal the last time they won a Championship game there, against Fermanagh in 2003. Seven defeats – including two in Ulster finals – and one draw is all they have to show for their visits since.

It will require a miracle for that hoodoo to be lifted today.

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