Seasoned Donegal a formidable test for improving Monaghan
Jim McGuinness’s priority is Derry clash but side will be eager to atone for Ulster final defeat
Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan in action against Monaghan’s Conor McManus during last summer’s Ulster final at Clones. Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho
The game that kept the Anglo Celt cup in Clones last summer is worth briefly revisiting. Monaghan swamped Donegal, had more hunger than Donegal, gathered six more points than Donegal. And rightly dethroned Donegal from the high seat of Ulster football.
Take almost any raid during that boiling hot day. Same thing every time. Donegal would pour forward in waves but Monaghan would body-check players off the ball to stub out the perceived threat. It worked most of the time.
To be fair to the Farney men, they were sick of being paraded around their own stadium in bridesmaid garb. It was time to end a famine dating back to 1988. Then, in true Ulster fashion, the absence of a black card came back to haunt them in Croke Park. But that’s another tale already told.
Donegal’s flame, as it turned out, had burned too brightly. Winds of change blew into St Tiernach’s Park. Not long after we learned that Jim McGuinness’ tempestuous assault on Gaelic football had run out of petrol. The All-Ireland champions were laid low by a rampant Mayo. Tyrone outfoxed Monaghan. The championship moved briskly on without the pair of them.
Now we are back at square one. A league final in Croke Park to whet the appetite for what should be an engrossing Ulster championship to follow.
That all starts with Tyrone and Down in Omagh on May 18th with Monaghan playing the winner. No prizes for guessing who they want another crack at. Donegal go to Celtic Park in Derry on May 25th.
So, tomorrow gives us a curtain raiser in more than one way. A repeat of the Ulster final then. A surprising Ulster final for those who can’t read the tea leaves. But Armagh manager Paul Grimley has been twirling his saucer for many a year.
“No, it didn’t surprise me,” said Grimley. “I was with Monaghan under Séamus (McEnaney) for a year and the players Malachy (O’Rourke) has brought into the team were blooded by Séamus. Malachy brought them on. Monaghan have quality players but above anything else in Conor McManus they probably have one of the top three forwards in the country. His scoring ratio, for the amount of possession he wins, is phenomenal.
“He works hard, as they all do, they work very well together. They defend well. I watched them against Meath and ourselves. They’ll cause Donegal a few problems. It’s not dissimilar how they play. There is going to be space there in front of the inside line both ends of the field.”
Grimley still feels there is another year of development needed before Monaghan can bid for top honours.
“I think they need 12 months under their belt playing against the Mayos, Tyrones, Kerrys and then you can consider them. At the minute they are probably in the top seven or eight. The main contenders for the All-Ireland will probably come from Division One.”
Except for Donegal. There are signs that they are back to 2012 standards.
“Certainly from their league form the answer to that would have to be yes. It is very difficult to judge teams in January, February, March, April as opposed to May, June, July, August.
“It’s very difficult to sustain momentum for six or seven months. It’s not unheard of for teams to have a poor league campaign and good championship. And vice versa.”
He’s right. Monaghan were Ulster champions from Division Three. Meath made the Leinster final after Division Three football. Playing in Division One matters in September but not May, June, July.
“Hopefully for Armagh’s sake the patterns continues,” Grimley laughed. “But it really is two seasons in the one year. Things can change so much from the league to championship that there is no logic to it.”
No logic to the sprawling season.
“I watched Donegal in the league match against Armagh and they had very little interest in it,” is Tony McEntee’s view. “They were clearly working towards something bigger than playing Armagh. Weren’t impressive at all. But they are much better. They have unearthed a few players.”
Like Odhrán MacNiallais, Darach O’Connor, Hugh McFadden, Luke Keaney and Gary McFadden.
Grimley agrees. “Donegal do appear to be coming back to their 2012 form.”
The problem with McGuinness’s men last year was, it seems widely accepted now, when injuries started to pile up, especially Karl Lacey, their heartbeat, the panel was unable to sustain the load.
“Every team will suffer when they lose key players, regardless of how strong their bench will be. The one or two players Jim has brought in seem to have bedded in but he still has the nucleus of that 2012 squad. They’ve been together for a few years and played the same way for a few years.
“It will be more or less the same team. Ryan McHugh and a few others have been tried and tested but you know the Donegal team by now.”
“One thing that did catch my eye was the physical size of a few of them,” added Grimley. “Paddy McBrearty, when he came on against us, he was very impressive, scored a few points but it was his physique. He has obviously been working hard on his shape. He looked very strong. There are a few of them, over the last two years that have got more physically imposing.”
More physically imposing, if that’s possible, and there should also be more space tomorrow for those lung-busting raids they are so fond of.