The packed stand at St Mary’s Park roared their approval at the final whistle yesterday as their Monaghan team managed to cling onto their Division One status. Donegal on the other hand weren’t sure how to react - a fourth successive defeat but such was the fantastic form shown in the early weeks of the competition, their score difference comfortably saw them into the semi finals.
Those who travelled to Castleblayney were treated to a rip-roaring battle played in a beautiful setting; the massive field crouched below the main stand gives spectators a great view of the action. Monaghan have honed their game plan specifically to the tighter environs of Clones over the past few years - that is partly to blame for their failure to win big games once they reach Croker – and despite the logistical reason provided for the switch in venue a few weeks ago, perhaps they didn’t want to give Donegal any unnecessary practice at St Tiernach’s Park in case it might stage a potential Ulster Semi-Final in the offing in June.
Many Donegal folk would have passed the pitch on the old Dublin road over the years, before the town was bypassed. The Glencarn always provided a welcome break and a mighty breakfast for the convoy of buses transporting the faithful on those all too seldom journeys to Croke Park.
Donegal got to grips with the new surroundings very quickly, racing into a seven point lead in the first quarter. Martin McElhinney powered home the all-important goal, finishing an incisive move, one of many that troubled the hosts’ rear-guard.
The old adage of being vulnerable after scoring unfortunately proved true and despite the best efforts of the Donegal defence moments later, Daniel McKenna eventually finished to the net after his initial shot was blocked.
For the most part, certainly in that first half, Donegal performed well at midfield. It has been a problem area throughout the spring but with both teams pushing up on the others kick out, we saw a lot of old fashioned, up the middle restarts and the visitors were the ones who profited.
Patrick McBrearty and his forward colleagues did brilliantly in splitting defenders to ensure that Rory Beggan’s short options were cut out and he was forced to go long.
At times there was a fairly similar shape to the Donegal defence as was seen against The Dubs last week but there was an obvious intent in committing more players to attack. After going back to basics, it is a case of step by step and we’d expect much more endeavour to be on display in Croke Park next week than was shown on Easter Saturday.
1-7 was a decent return from the first half but in truth it could have and should have been more. Despite numerous turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities, there was a hesitant element to Donegal’s play when arriving inside Monaghan’s 45m line. That continued throughout the second half and played a big role in the end result.
Donegal’s profligacy coupled with the impressive McKenna at full forward kept Monaghan within touching distance and that was all they needed to do - their final point of the game saw them hit the front for the one and only time all day.
McKenna was being marked by Neil McGee and it was interesting to note that he wasn’t giving the task of shackling Conor McManus – possibly another example of one eye on the Summer and keeping bird and prey apart until then.
Frank McGlynn’s return was a big plus for Rory Gallagher with the Glenfin man making such a difference to his team’s general play. His composure, pace and assuredness on the ball are vital to initiating attacks.
All of those important traits deserted Donegal in the closing stages however as Monaghan produced a huge late surge to preserve their Division One status. Decision-making of any standard disappeared as time and again the wrong option was taken – ball taken into contact, hand passes delayed unnecessarily, bad shot selection – all gifting possession back to a ravenous Monaghan back line.
Michael Murphy was stripped of the ball in the tackle several times in the final minutes – when have we ever seen that? Murphy generally struggles against Monaghan and sure enough before throw-in his old buddy Vinny Corey was a late addition to the starting line-up with a brief to keep him company for the afternoon. Colm McFadden is another who has struggled against this opposition and his wild strike from the wing in stoppage time summed up his team’s approach in the final quarter.
One man who didn't struggle was Ryan McHugh, who put in yet another exceptional performance. Worryingly, his cousin Eoin went off with what looked like a bad hamstring injury; he had also produced a fine display and has become such an integral part of the team that any doubts over his fitness for next week will surely see him excused so as not to aggravate anything further before Championship.
Donegal were punished for their waywardness and when McManus drew the sides level, the visitors would have certainly taken a point having gone over twenty five minutes without scoring. The Faughs branch of the Farney Army demanded more though and Colin Walshe was the man to deliver the point that kept his side up.
Kieran Hughes became more of a threat in that frantic closing stanza, pushing up on the excellent Hugh McFadden, Donegal’s designated sweeper, and having a much bigger impact than he had in the previous hour.
While that point from Walshe was crucial for Monaghan, had Donegal held on for a draw or managed a win the outcome would have been the same regardless of the final score – fourth place in the table and a last four date with Dublin. Granted a positive result would have relegated our fierce rivals, always a satisfying prize but Monaghan are without doubt a top tier team so it is only right that they keep their place amongst the elite.
Despite the negative criticism that both of these teams can often receive due to their style of play, today was a real traditional bruising encounter and a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday afternoon for those present. Referee, Rory Hickey, deserves credit for letting most things go for most of the game, which added to the contests’ pace and physicality, although he did seem a bit more whistle-happy as the game reached its conclusion.
It all means that both teams play Division One football next year and that Donegal will make a trip back to Headquarters for another crack at the league and All-Ireland holders. It also means that in three league and championship attempts, Rory has yet to get the better of his fellow Fermanagh man Malachy O’Rourke. That is a statistic that will need to change in the coming months if his charges are to regain the Anglo-Celt.