You didn’t have to be Einstein to figure out that Monaghan and Tyrone were going to be involved at the business end of the championship. The backdoor system suits the strong and has been reinforced by the new format this summer. As a result, Tyrone become the first team in history to reach an All-Ireland semi-final after losing two championship matches. Monaghan have lost one – that last-gasp defeat to Fermanagh in the Ulster semi-final.
That is all immaterial now. They are two of the best teams in the country so they deserve a shot at a big day out. When they met in the All-Ireland quarter-final three years ago it was the game from hell, with all the worst elements and coarseness which Gaelic football can offer at its rawest. There was ‘rufflegate’ with Tiernan McCann, and a couple of Monaghan players did not cover themselves in glory either. In many ways it was a watershed game between these two counties and meetings since then have been more about football than spite.
McCann has recovered his reputation through a series of consistent displays and there are few more athletic player in the country. He is the modern footballer – he wears number five but ranges all over the pitch and if his kicking was a little better he could really destroy teams. In saying that, he kicked a great point off his left foot against Donegal last weekend, so the last piece of that jigsaw might be nearing completion.
In many ways, the change in McCann has been the same for Tyrone. The diving, feigning injury and mouthing has been replaced by a much more manly approach, even if a couple of players went down too easily against Donegal and then stayed down too long. Football needs to be more like hurling. If a hurler stays down for 20 seconds he needs serious medical attention, if he is down for a minute you might as well call the morgue. There is a code of honour involved and getting an opponent sent off would be looked on as a mortal sin. So today we hope for that same attitude among the footballers.
Of course, these sides are no strangers. When they met in the Ulster championship, the Farney men won in a tight finish. Neither team were nearly as good then as they are now. Tyrone have launched the seek-and-destroy bench, who have devastated tiring defences while Monaghan have improved game by game, if you leave out the fiasco against Fermanagh. In hindsight, it was probably a good lesson for them. So they both can be said to be in rude health.
If the game has changed dramatically over a short few years, then it is the role of the goalkeeper which is its greatest manifestation. The onus is now on the ‘keeper to get all his kick-outs to his own side, act as a sweeper, save shots and score long-distance frees. Nobody carries out this role better at the moment than Monaghan’s Rory Beggan. Niall Morgan is not far behind at the other end today. Last week he posted a few long kick-outs in the second half which broke the Donegal press and created scores. Beggan and Stephen Cluxton would have been proud of them. Today’s shoot-out between the two goalkeepers is a sideshow which could have a huge impact on the result.
Tyrone are favourites, mainly because the assumption is that in the last 15 minutes they will send on players who are guaranteed to make an impact. Many teams just put on substitutes and hope for the best. It is not a new thing to pick the team to finish the match and work backwards, I have even tried it myself so it can’t be that difficult. The reality of that approach is the best team invariably does not start and I know very well from experience that players need a lot of convincing that coming on is better than starting. Naturally, they all still want the trappings of being on the pitch when the ball is being thrown in.
There is no doubt that Tyrone have better forwards coming on than those marching behind the band so it is also a bit of a risk leaving them off. At this stage, too, Monaghan know fairly well what is going to happen in the last quarter. They will have their arrangements in order as to who will take Kieran McGeary, Lee Brennan and Harry McClure when they come on. Conall McCann made a big impact last week and will come in to midfield.
So Monaghan have had the puzzle set for them a week in advance and the lesson this year is that they have gone about these things with growing enthusiasm. I have a feeling that the draw against Kerry was a seminal moment for this Monaghan team. Playing so well and letting it slip at the end can be devastating, but it can also harden each individual to ensure it never happens again.
It almost appears that Monaghan have no subs and come to these big games in a 15-seater bus. Or maybe a taxi, and a limo for Conor McManus! Nothing could be further from the truth. They are a team in the proper sense of the word with everyone putting their necks on the line.
The stand-out player along with McManus has been Karl O’Connell, who seems to have become a sensation overnight, yet he understands very well that he is a cog in a big wheel. Vinny Corey keeps him grounded and the Wylie brothers are a big-game act while Ryan McAnaspie and Dermot Malone have had great seasons.
Monaghan demonstrated against Galway the need for width and patience to break down a mass defence. Tyrone are a better team than Galway so the gaps will be smaller and won’t last as long. Colm Cavanagh will stand as a sentry in front of McManus, as well as catching high ball in the middle of the field. He will certainly make life difficult for all the Monaghan forwards.
Still, Tyrone did struggle for quite a while against Donegal and the final scoreline was not indicative of the trend of most of the game. But the great teams make hay in the last quarter and Tyrone have been doing that against all opposition. Even against Dublin they played their best in the last 10 minutes. It shows two things: that they have an incredibly high level of fitness, bolstered by the subs; and their approach to games is a conservative one. Yet, who can argue with a winning formula?
For all the tactical nous applied by Tyrone, I find it very hard to understand why they don’t put much more pressure on the opposition kick-out earlier in the game. They only moved up on Dublin when the horse had bolted and Donegal held on to their own kick-outs quite easily. Some day Tyrone will play with the handbrake off and they will obliterate some big team. At the moment they seem unsure of themselves and won’t take a chance on playing flat-out from the start. On some big days this big push at the end does not work and they have been caught already by Monaghan and Dublin this year.
No matter what Monaghan do at the moment, they seem to me to be constantly underrated. They are a better team now than last year, or for the last decade when they were getting close but never smoked the cigar. There have been times in the past when their discipline let them down, when they needed to hold their heads. That seems less of an issue now but any type of over-macho approach will be penalised by frees and maybe the wrong colour of cards. Most of the referees now go searching for yellow far too quickly and hopefully the referee today does not start issuing cards needlessly – apart from a full frontal assault, and even that is allowed in hurling.
In Croke Park, Ulster sides tend to shake off their conservative approach and really go for it. That may sound a bit optimistic as both these teams have not had happy experiences in the recent past, Tyrone against Dublin last year and Monaghan’s recent record in quarter-finals. Yet I am expecting a better game than normal between these two teams, and the surface and weather makes everything happen a bit quicker than elsewhere.
That should suit Tyrone as their extra personnel in reserve should be even more valuable. Yet there is something about Monaghan, and their group of players who are not wedded exclusively to county football but who turn out routinely in club league matches. They are more composed this last couple of months, like men on an enjoyable mission with their people, exhorting them ever onwards, and I expect them to prevail.