Derry 0-14 Monaghan 0-14
It’s not over until it’s over. Karl O’Connell should get the tattoo.
With Monaghan’s All-Ireland SFC round-robin opener against Derry on Saturday night in Celtic Park having seemingly slipped away from the visitors in injury-time, O’Connell added to his Man of the Match display by kicking over a 76th minute equaliser from just inside the 45-metre line.
“It wasn’t any old score, it was a big score to pull out,” said Monaghan boss Vinny Corey. “And there was a hostile support and plenty of noise. But what a player and what a season he has had. He deserves an awful lot of credit.”
Thirty-five years old but zipping around with the energy of a youngster, O’Connell has truly been a boy of summer for Monaghan this season.
He was a sub for most of the league last year and made only one championship start, in Monaghan’s All-Ireland SFC qualifier defeat to Mayo. He was a sub throughout the league this year too, making his sole start in their crunch round seven game against Mayo.
At some stage over the last year it would have been easy for the 2018 All Star to merely punch it in, or even just walk away.
But Monaghan beat Mayo in that league game in March and once more avoided relegation from Division One. O’Connell has started every game since, scoring 1-1 against Derry in the Ulster semi-final, and has possibly been their best player in the championship.
“Karl has been brilliant,” added Corey. “For a man of 35, he owes Monaghan nothing.
“He gave us a lot of energy in everything he was doing. He was matched with Brendan Rogers there, he gave a real power-packed performance I felt throughout, as well as the equalising score. He deserves great credit for doing what he is doing at this stage.”
Monaghan’s approach on Saturday night contrasted with how they tackled the Ulster semi-final in late April, a game Derry won by eight points.
This time stalwarts Conor McManus and Darren Hughes started on the bench as Monaghan looked to bring more pace and energy to their game from the throw-in, introducing the experienced players near the end.
And yet it was a game they almost lost. Monaghan, who led 0-7 to 0-6 at half-time, were the better team for the most part and they managed Gary Mohan’s black card astutely during the second half, actually extending their lead from two to three points during his absence.
However, from the 63rd until the 74th minutes Derry scored four points on the bounce to edge in front by the minimum with the game deep in injury-time. Shane McGuigan, whose brilliant left foot kept Derry in the contest, scored three of those four points.
But in a frantic last passage of play Monaghan pushed all 15 players forward – Rory Beggan, who scored an outrageous 45 during the second half, spent as much time up the field as he did in goal all evening – in a bid to create one final scoring opportunity.
Eventually the ball was worked back out to O’Connell in a central position just inside the 45-metre line. He eyed the posts, wrapped his right boot around the ball and watched it sail high and accurately over the crossbar for what was the least Monaghan deserved from the game.
“Listen, probably mixed emotions,” admitted Corey. “A wee bit disappointed when you put yourself in a position to win the match, it’s disappointing not to do it.
“But we could have been driving back down the road with nothing after getting sucker-punched so we have to see the positives.”
The sides were level on six occasions in the first half and there was never more than one point between them during that opening period. It was a tight, cagey affair with both sides getting numbers back to create solid defensive structures designed to prevent goal chances and generally frustrate the attacking team.
O’Connell was superb throughout – he was always available to Beggan for kick-outs, made a nuisance of himself on Derry’s restarts and constantly looked to surge forward with purposeful runs.
For Derry, it was a performance that lacked the kind of energy and intensity we have come to associate them with over recent seasons. It certainly wasn’t one of their best displays of the year, and yet they almost won it in the closing stages.
“Yeah, I probably would have taken it [a draw] with ten minutes to go, but disappointed then that we didn’t see it out,” said Derry manager Ciarán Meenagh.
“The character of the players can’t be in doubt because everything looked like it was going against us there in the second half.
“It was a very difficult game, it was a game we were exceptionally worried about, the emotion of that Ulster final and the come down after that.
“The players have gone through a lot and there has been a lot of emotion involved. And the Monaghan team, the respect we have for them, the warriors they have been for ten-plus years.
“You have to take your hats off to them, they deserve amazing respect. The manner we beat them in the last day and the way they dusted themselves down, they are a lesson to everybody in terms of how you come back.”
Karl O’Connell has been delivering that lesson this summer.
It’s not over until it’s over.
DERRY: Odhran Lynch; Chrissy McKaigue, Eoghan McEvoy, Conor McCluskey; Conor Doherty, Gareth McKinless, Pádraig McGrogan; Conor Glass, Brendan Rogers; Niall Toner (0-2, 1f), Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty (0-1); Ciarán McFaul (0-1), Shane McGuigan (0-9, 1m, 5f), Niall Loughlin. Subs: Benny Heron for Toner (55 mins); Lachlan Murray (0-1) for Loughlin (57 mins); Pádraig Cassidy McGrogan (59 mins)
MONAGHAN: Rory Beggan (0-2, 1f, 1 45); Ryan O’Toole, Kieran Duffy, Ryan Wylie; Karl O’Connell (0-1), Conor Boyle (0-1), Conor McCarthy (0-3, 1f); Kieran Lavelle, Gary Mohan (0-1); Ryan McAnespie, Dessie Ward (0-1), Shane Carey (0-2); Stephen O’Hanlo, Karl Gallagher, Michael Bannigan (0-3, 1f). Subs: Darren Hughes for Mohan (62 mins); Darragh McElearney for Carey (65 mins); Jack McCarron for Gallagher (69 mins); Kieran Hughes for Lavelle (69 mins); Conor McManus for Ward (74 mins)
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan)