GAA Football

Something special brewing as Derry take Monaghan's gift

Derry's Benny Herron celebrates scoring one of his two goals in yesterday's Ulster semi-final at the Athletic Grounds. Picture by Seamus Loughran
From Cahair O'Kane at the Athletic Grounds

Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final: Derry 3-12 Monaghan 0-17

AS Conor McManus’ two-minded free ballooned off to the left in stoppage time, Rory Gallagher turned to the Derry support gathered behind him and bellowed them to their feet. To their feet they got.

He will spend much of the next two weeks trying to dampen and avoid the noise, but there hasn’t been a noise like this about Derry football for a long time.

In the O’Neills superstore in Magherafelt last week, there was not a Derry jersey to be had for anyone between the ages of 4 and 11. The schools had gone bananas for red and white days, and that had driven an entire county borderline crazy with excitement.

Traditionally poorly supported, the Derry ticket allocation for the stand sold out early in the week. Monaghan sent tickets back and Derry ate their leftovers up. The bandwagon was loaded up, but would the wheels buckle?

The Tyrone performance was hard to gauge in isolation. Were the All-Ireland champions really at it? Derry had sprung from the bushes but Monaghan had two weeks of them in full glare, primed to be shot at.

And Monaghan must take criticism for that. This is not the first big half they’ve failed to show up. Last year’s Ulster final defeat by Tyrone was drawn along the same line – woeful first half, big dramatic recovery and ultimately failure.

Monaghan got their match-ups and their setup all wrong.

Kieran Duffy has been their go-to man in the full-back line for a while.

Instead, they chose Dessie Ward to mark Shane McGuigan. The Slaughtneil man had two from play and a mark by the time it got fixed.

Even though Conor Doherty did serious harm against Tyrone, he was still wrongly identified as the threat that Ward needed to pick up.

Gareth McKinless was the threat. Seamus McEneaney put Shane Carey into the team to mark him. Carey was too light to cope with McKinless’ power.

By the time it got sorted and McAnespie went across at half-time, the damage was done.

Ryan McAnespie on Ethan Doherty seemed an obvious call, but instead they drew Micheal Bannigan back into defence. Doherty was excellent again, and Bannigan's defensive inexperience told on the second goal.

Monaghan were absolutely wide to the world at the back, trying to squeeze up against a team that flooded its own goalmouth and broke at pace.

Derry were brilliant and incisive and electric and all those things, but from a defensive viewpoint, Monaghan were criminally understaffed.

The ease with which the winners scored their two first-half goals told the tale. McKinless broke a single half-hearted Carey tackle and was in to bury to the roof of Rory Beggan’s net, making it 1-2 to 0-0.

On the second major, Odhran Lynch launched the ball 80 yards into the bright blue sky. Niall Toner judged the flight where Conor Boyle didn’t. Goalside, the Lavey man was calm.

It was three-v-three inside and he simply squared for Benny Heron, who was abandoned by Micheal Bannigan as he moved to cover his goalkeeper and left it easy for Derry. Heron finished and helped the Oak Leafs lead by 2-7 to 0-6 at the interval.

Derry’s plan was typically shrewd and solid, not much different in its style from what had accounted for Tyrone, but they wouldn’t have believed their luck at how easy Monaghan made that first half for them.

That takes absolutely nothing from Rory Gallagher’s side, who were superb yet again. They protected the middle of their goal with a sea of red shirts but this has all been about what Derry do when they have the ball.

The pace of their middle eight is phenomenal. Led by McKinless, Conor McCluskey, Ethan Doherty, they hit the favourites on the break and made great use of the oceans of space.

It was 13 minutes before Monaghan scored. Jack McCarron didn’t score from play and was largely swallowed up by Chrissy McKaigue, although the Currin man snatched a mark and drew a couple of frees out of the battle.

Conor McManus was lively but playing in areas where he wasn’t hurting Derry, and Gary Mohan was out-maneuvered by Brendan Rogers.

Ryan McAnespie tried his heart out but it was only with the pre-half-time introductions of Karl O’Connell and Andrew Woods that they brought any fire. The pedestrian opening 35 minutes were replaced by a noisy, angry, buzzing outfit that hemmed Derry in for a lot of the third quarter.

But the punishment they’d already taken was too significant. A seven-point deficit against a team whose goal is better protected than the Norwegian Doomsday vault meant that absolutely everything had to be nailed.

Niall Kearns edged a brilliant battle with Conor Glass to lay a platform on which Monaghan created 13 scoring chances in the first 18 minutes of the half. Taking six of them brought them back within a goal, and the momentum and energy and noise of the Athletic Grounds started to will them towards completing the recovery.

But it was just too much they’d left themselves to do. And when Ethan Doherty injected the pace and Benny Heron timed the back-door cut, the chance that Derry were going to get at some point presented itself.

Unsure of his right foot, Heron cut back on his favoured left and found the top corner. For all Monaghan’s dominance in that spell, Derry were back seven points ahead, exactly where they’d started the half.

Their willingness to do the hard yards was mightily impressive. Conor McCluskey, Padraig McGrogan, Conor Doherty all had big breakout runs that led to scores when Derry were getting it tight.

Emmett Bradley came on early in the second half and scored an absolutely remarkable point, taking a short kickout near his own 21’ and carrying it the entire length of the field to score from the other 21’.

Bradley (if he doesn’t start the final), Padraig Cassidy, the returning Oisin McWilliams, there’s just starting to look as though there might be enough punch on Derry’s bench to pull them across the line.

Eleven years after their last Ulster final, they’ll meet Donegal now, a team full of lads moulded by one Rory Gallagher. He took on a new side there after coaching the old one to an historic provincial success in 2011 and even greater heights beyond.

There was a feeling that afternoon in Clones when Michael Murphy buried a penalty past Danny Devlin that something special was happening in Donegal football.

It’s hard to escape that same feeling about Derry right now.

: O Lynch; C McKaigue, B Rogers, P McGrogan; C McCluskey, C Doherty, S Downey; G McKinless (1-0), C Glass; Paul Cassidy (0-2), B Heron (2-0), E Doherty; N Toner (0-1), S McGuigan (0-7, 0-4 frees, 0-1 mark), N Loughlin (0-1)
Subs: E Bradley (0-1) for Loughlin (41), Padraig Cassidy for C Doherty (61), B McCarron for Toner (66), P McNeill for Downey (72), L Murray for Paul Cassidy (75)
Yellow cards: B Heron (37), N Loughlin (37), S McGuigan (56), G McKinless (68), Paul Cassidy (74)

Monaghan: R Beggan; K Duffy, D Ward (0-1), R Wylie; M Bannigan, C Boyle, C McCarthy (0-1); S Carey, N Kearns (0-1); K Hughes, R McAnespie (0-1), D Hughes (0-1); G Mohan, J McCarron (0-4, 0-3 frees), C McManus (0-7, 0-5 frees)
Subs: A Woods (0-1) for Carey (32), K O’Connell for Bannigan (32), D Garland for K Hughes (55), S Jones for Mohan (61), C Leonard for Boyle (72)
Blood sub: C Leonard for Garland (67-69)
Yellow card: K Hughes (32)

Attendance: 14,446

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