Simply a bad day at the office or a sign that all is not well? There are arguments for both when looking at all of the different aspects of today’s Ulster Final but we won’t know the definitive answer for another few weeks.
What is not in doubt is that Monaghan were the sharper, hungrier team today and despite a valiant comeback, the last few fingers clinging onto the Anglo Celt cup eventually slipped off.
All pre-match predictions forecasted a tight game with nothing much expected to separate the teams and so it proved.
Donegal, as they have done regularly this year, started well and posted three early points from play through Patrick McBrearty, Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn. There were plenty of players breaking forward - Eamonn McGee in particular was marauding towards the town end goal, setting the agenda with his marker Kieran Hughes, daring the Scotstown powerhouse to follow him.
All seemed to be going according to plan at the other end too with good hassling and pressure put on the ball carrier while there was some wonderful blocks put in, including two fabulous shutdowns from Christy Toye.
The transition to counter attack was slick and Donegal made numerous incisions into enemy territory in the opening quarter but once there they became ponderous, began to over elaborate with intricate passing and inevitably Monaghan started turning the ball over. Turnovers are like fuel in the modern game, each time a team successfully stops an attack and takes possession they find a bit more in the legs, the crowd gets up and there’s always an extra runner or two committed to the offensive effort. The partisan home crowd thrived off these incidents and it conversely sapped the enthusiasm and energy from those in green and gold, both in the stands and out on the field.
In recent contests between these sides, most notably in last year’s league final, Monaghan have been superb at shooting from distance against the blanket and again today they chalked up a few mammoth scores. It was in stark contrast to Donegal’s shooting in the second half which was woeful - and that is putting it mildly.
At no stage during the opening exchanges, when Donegal were in control, was there any hint of panic from the men in blue and white. They were completely focused on the task in hand and stuck rigidly to their plan. Their evergreen defender Dessie Mone hit an absolute stinker of a wide early on, the ball screwing wildly off his foot, yet soon after he backed himself when presented with another opportunity and delivered a glorious score. He epitomised the attitude of Monaghan and they just looked that bit more clued in throughout the seventy minutes.
Another who exploded into life following a quiet start was Conor McManus. Clontibret’s finest is up there with Michael Murphy, Diarmuid Connolly, James O’Donoghue et al as the games’ leading forwards and he showed his class with six points. His marker Neil McGee was intent on roughing him up from the first whistle and the pair were involved in a couple of flashpoints before eventually being booked. This didn’t perturb McManus who went about his business and kicked over point after point. At one stage in the second half, McManus attacked up the left wing with McGee and Paddy McGrath in tow. The defensive pair did everything right – didn’t allow McManus to get past them, forced him out wide; half the job was done, now they had dispossess him or force him to pass. Inexplicably, the duo let McManus turn back, find a yard of space and drill the ball over the bar. It was a most un-Donegal sequence of play and one which will be raised when the video analysis is carried out amongst the squad this week.
It’s quite a while since we’ve seen McGee on the end of such a run around, particularly in the Ulster Championship, and you can be sure the three-time All Star will be determined not to let it happen again.
The ‘roughing up’ was obviously a deliberate tactic and you’d have to wonder is it worth it or does it work? Glenswilly’s Murphy was quite simply ‘McMahoned’ against Tyrone yet stepped up to dispatch the last three points in a three point win. Dublin had three men marking McManus at certain stages of their league semi-final in Croke Park earlier this year yet he still scored 0-8 and came away with the man of the match award. Maybe defenders are better off focusing on the ball more than the man.
Donegal spluttered and stammered their way through the second half and despite wide after wide stayed in the game. Monaghan only scored three times in the second half as they dug the trenches in front of their goal and were prepared to hold what they had. That task was helped by some horrid shooting from the likes of Martin McElhinney and Odhran MacNiallais but of course in previous games in this campaign those two and many others were splitting the posts from all angles. Maybe it was just one of those days.
There is so much analysis and meticulous studying of games these days yet quite often a bit of luck here and there can have a big influence on games. Karl Lacey went off early in the second half, whether it was an injury or a tactical switch is not known, either way it didn’t help his team’s cause. The heavy strapping on Captain Murphy’s right knee suggested all is not right with the Maestro and Vinny Corey certainly had an easier day that he would have been anticipating.
History can also play a factor in these jousts; even though there has been an intense rivalry building up between both teams over recent years, the truth is that Donegal have a wretched record against the Farney Army.
So even with luck and history not quite on Donegal’s side today, the team very nearly snatched a draw or could maybe even have got a win. A large part of the comeback and the fact that the gap was closed to the minimum was down to the Kilcar contingent. Ryan and Mark McHugh along with McBrearty were immense in the second half with the brothers taking responsibility time and again in collecting possession and trying to find gaps in the Monaghan rearguard. They won frees, took the hits and went back for more.
At half time the likely message from Rory Gallagher and his backroom team was to shoot on sight. It would keep the score board ticking over while also drawing out the Monaghan back line. As the wides mounted, Rory was short on options and it is clear he needs to work on his team’s attacking shape. With Colm McFadden misfiring, Darach O’Connor and Martin O’Reilly became the Donegal full forward line. Two small, fast players who could normally cause defences all sorts of problems but with so little room in front of the Monaghan goal and physically imposing defenders beside them, the pair were on a hiding to nothing. O’Reilly did make some brilliant runs from deep when he came out the field for the ball and even looked to have the slightest chance for a goal at one stage before he won a free for McBrearty to tap over.
While the county held its collective breath as McBrearty’s last gasp effort hung in the Clones sky, in truth a replay would have spelt the end of All-Ireland ambitions for the eventual losers. Had we been travelling back to Clones next weekend for a replay, it would have meant one of the teams would have faced a qualifier the week after followed possibly by a quarter final – four matches on four successive weekends would have taken its toll. As it stands Donegal have a potential fixture list of three games in four weeks; still a tough itinerary but manageable. At the start of the year, the last eight is where every team wants to be and Donegal will still expect to be there.
The road is now mapped out in front of Donegal – Galway in two weeks time and while the Tribesmen are an up and coming force, a fully functioning system should be too much for them. Should the qualifier hurdle be cleared, Mayo lie in wait, just as they did two years when the Ulster title was last surrendered. For the first time under his stewardship, Rory is now under pressure. How he and his team respond over the weeks ahead may well define his tenure.
For Monaghan, it’s show time. They’ve collected a second provincial crown in three years, now they have to ask themselves the question – is that it or have they the wherewithal to go the distance? It’s going to be an interesting August.