Make no Mistake about it – Monagahan are a Massive Proposition

If I were to tell you about an Ulster Final featuring the champions of the past two years and a repeat of last year’s Final, is that something you might be interested in? Since the draw was made, most of us probably figured that if we beat Derry, we’d face either Tyrone or Monaghan in the Final. Some people are bent on the idea of revenge – not me. I would gladly have faced Tyrone, a team we have clearly established superiority over in the Jim McGuinness era. Instead, it’s Monaghan, a team that we haven’t beaten in Championship since 1983 and one that robbed us of a historic three in a row last year. I don’t fear Monaghan, but I’m all for avoiding trouble. Well, we’re likely to get that in spades on Sunday. All is not lost however. If we want to talk about history, Monaghan lost to Tyrone last year and all the talk this year before their meeting in the Ulster Championship was how they hadn’t beaten the Red Hands since 1988. Such records are largely meaningless.

On the face of it, Donegal come into the Ulster Final in much better form than we did last year. However, we have to acknowledge that neither Derry nor Antrim proved to be much of a challenge. Their subsequent performances in the Qualifiers may serve to take some of the gloss off our wins over each, but I’m not too worried. For me, we showed enough in each of those games to suggest we are on the right track. A repeat of either performance would probably not be good enough to win on Sunday, but I’m fairly certain that Jim McGuinness is well aware of that. Remember that in 2012 it was the second half of the Ulster Final win over Down before we really clicked into gear. Still, Monaghan 2014 are a much bigger test than Down 2012.

Their victory against Tyrone was narrow, but it felt like Monaghan were much the better team throughout. You need to remember that although Conor McManus started the game, he didn’t appear to be fully fit and didn’t score from play. Kieran Hughes missed a penalty. Against Armagh, they lost Conor McManus to a ridiculous black card (which was subsequently rescinded) midway through the second half. Despite losing Kieran Hughes at half time in the replay, they were much too good for Armagh. They have been without Owen Lennon for the Championship so far and they will be missing him on Sunday as well. They have battled through to this Final despite injuries to key players and have shown more than enough to suggest that they will not give up their title without a fight.

But there is hope for Donegal. Consider these stats from their first game against Armagh for a minute. Armagh scored 10 points from play. Monaghan led by three points deep into each half and yet Armagh went in level at the whistle. Monaghan didn’t receive a yellow card all day. The lack of intensity in their performance was evident. Perhaps not surprising given they had just got a huge monkey off their back when beating Tyrone. But, in each of their first two games of this year’s Championship they have established solid leads only to retreat into themselves. Tyrone should have got a draw; Armagh made a better fist of their last minute free. I’ve been saying all along that Monaghan will give us a chance; it now appears that unless they can build a lead greater than three points we will have a great chance. Of course, they laid down a statement of intent in their replay win over Armagh, with a performance that reads very like last year’s Ulster Final display. But one thing that stands out to me from that report is the line ‘building up a four-point advantage at half-time that in truth should have been a lot more.’

In Rory Beggan, Monaghan have a free taking goalkeeper who is approaching Cluxton like levels of accuracy from long range placed balls. We cannot afford to give away too many fouls, or indeed 45s. We’ve been here before – Kerry in 2012 when faced with Brian Sheehan, Tyrone in 2013 when faced with Niall Morgan. In one case (Kerry), our discipline was admirable. Against Tyrone in 2013, we might have fouled at the edge of Morgan’s range, or, he had a really bad day (as he can do every so often). Beggan scored a free and a 45 in last year’s Ulster Final. Keeping him to that that again would be no mean feat. More worrying than the form of Beggan is the threat we will face from McManus, who looks fighting fit again after an injury limited him earlier in the Championship. He scored 1-3 from play and also knocked over a sideline and three frees against Armagh – we know we have someone who is capable of a similar feat however.

Assuming Kieran Hughes is fit enough to join McManus in the full forward line, our defence will face a severe examination in Sunday. But I’m happy with where we’re at. Even in our fragile state last year, Monaghan only scored 13 points when we managed 7. Which team score do you think is more likely in 2014? Derry 11, Antrim 12, Monaghan 13 has a nice linear theme to it. We conceded 8 points to Derry in the 2011 Final, 13 points to Down in 2012, and 13 points to Monaghan in 2013. Past performance is no guide to the future etc. But the swagger and the snarl have returned this year. Our defence will not let us down on Sunday. I’m convinced of that.

The winning and the losing of this game will be up front. Last year, the problem wasn’t really our defence, it was the fact that we only scored seven points. Seven points will never be enough to win a Championship game in the summer months. Before you throw the 2011 All Ireland Semi-Final back at me, let’s just say that was an extraordinary game and leave it at that. No, we will need to do better than seven points this year, and when you look at the scores Monaghan have conceded in their three games in Ulster this year to date (0-14, 0-14 and 1-13), you have to figure that we will need to double last year’s total at least. It would be nice if our inside forwards were scoring more, you get the feeling that they will be required to do so on Sunday. But, the returns from the rest of the team have been impressive, and perhaps this is how we will win the game – you have to believe that like last year, Murphy and McFadden will be tightly marked, and Monaghan will almost certainly deploy a sweeper.

With regard to team selection, assuming everyone is fit, there could be some interesting calls to be made. As is generally the case, the defence picks itself. Paddy McGrath was injured in a club match after the Ulster Semi Final and Karl Lacey sat out the win over Antrim, but both are expected to start. Midfield is a bit of a mystery, with both Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher far from certain to be fit based on what we have read, even if they have returned to training. For me, if they are fit, they are still our first choice pairing, despite the strong claims of Martin McElhinney.

Half forward line is where we have real competition for places. Over the past few years, the starters in this line have been variable, but not to the extent of 2014. You’d have to figure that Christy Toye and Leo McLoone will start. On Christy, I’d urge you to have a read of this piece by Chris McNulty and recall what he’s given to the jersey over the years. His comeback is the best story of the year for Donegal as far as I am concerned. The third position will probably be a choice between Ryan McHugh and the man of the match from the Semi Final, Odhran MacNiallais. Also in contention will be Jigger of course, but more on him in a moment. MacNiallais gets the position if we’re short in defence, when you would assume Ryan McHugh would drop back. Before the Semi Final, I would have had Ryan over Odhran, but I’m having a hard time choosing this time around. In MacNiallais’ favour, he is probably more of a scoring threat than McHugh, but on the flip side, McHugh seems to have more of a nose for the ball. Whoever starts, I’m sure both will have some part of play on Sunday.

In the full forward line, I feel that there has to be a change. After a point on his debut against Derry and 1-02 in the win over Antrim, Jigger’s claim to start cannot be ignored. The obvious choice in terms of who to make way is probably Paddy McBrearty, who has looked out of sorts in the two games so far, and was hooked early enough against Antrim. He’s been virtually ever present since making his debut as a sub against Antrim in 2011 (by my reckoning, he has started every Championship game since then, except for the All Ireland Semi Final in the same year), so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he starts on Sunday, but I’d question the wisdom of this. His confidence appears low, but one theory is that the worst thing you can do for a player (especially a forward) in such a situation is to drop him. At the same time, in a game when chances will likely be at a premium, we cannot afford to carry a player who has been wasteful in his previous two games. He was an effective option off the bench in the National League, and this is where I would prefer him to start from on Sunday.

In the other corner, there is growing concern (from me at least) about the form of Colm McFadden. The effort is not in question, but the returns are not encouraging. Held scoreless against Derry and managing only two points (one from play) against Antrim is a meagre return from a player who is generally renowned as a pure scorer. I’m not for a moment suggesting that he shouldn’t start, especially if I’m advocating McBrearty should be dropped as we still need a left sided free taker, and last year, Colm was the only member of the full forward line to score in the Ulster Final, albeit all four points came from frees. Michael Murphy is obviously more important to the team than just his scoring, but you feel he will need to contribute more this year than he did in 2013, when, in fairness, he didn’t have a free to kick on that awful day in Clones.

When you try to decide on who will win on Sunday, think of Donegal’s potential, not last year’s Ulster Final performance. Forget about that game, forget about the league game in Letterkenny earlier this year and forget about the Division Two Final in April. There can be absolutely no disagreement that Monaghan were better than us last year. They may well be better than us this year too, but last year’s performances were not reflective of what this group of players and manager is capable of – they have earned our trust, well mine anyway. Let me repeat – when analysing how you think we’ll do on Sunday, think of our potential. If we lose again, so be it. But I think, well, I am confident enough to say, I know, that we are better than what we have shown in our recent encounters with Monaghan. It’s a very tough one to call. I’m not hugely confident of victory, but I’m certainly not writing us off. Look at the way both Tyrone and Armagh came back against Monaghan – I think that gives us a chance as long as we don’t let them get off to a fast start. Their intensity in defence is very impressive, but I know we can match them in this regard. We’ve been winning without getting much scoring from Michael and Colm, and they both had miserable games last year. I am looking for big games from both of them on Sunday, as well as another vintage performance from Christy and Leo continuing his strong play.

Unless there are injuries and issues we are not aware of, I think we’ll be well prepared. It should be an epic battle, and I don’t care what kind of game it is as long as we win. I’m not looking past Sunday (I haven’t done so all year) and all I care about right now is regaining the Ulster title.

I think we will.

Until Victory, Always

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