When the dust settles this week, there will be a feeling of aching regret in Monaghan. The day passed a fine team by and they can't get it back again.
I spoke to a good number of people from the county on Sunday evening and there was this common sentiment: 'Jes', it would have been great to be there. Just to be in an All-Ireland final! '
You could hear the sorrow and it was real. And I think the whole country would have loved if they could have made it. This is a small county with a terrific and brave team who have given their supporters some brilliant days. But you can’t wish your way to an All-Ireland final. You have to play your way to it. That’s where Monaghan fell short. Sunday was a gilt-edged and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to the All-Ireland final. And they didn’t take it.
On Sunday night, I kept returning to the Ulster championship game they played in Omagh against Tyrone in May. That was Monaghan operating at a premium, when they matched Tyrone for high-intensity composure and brought a very clear set of ideas to their attack.
They used the width of the pitch and had runners off the shoulder and coming laterally onto the ball and were so clever in switching play and getting players like Vinnie Corey or Karl O'Connell coming onto the ball at speed on the weak side and making the vital incision.
Malachy O'Rourke has been brilliant at husbanding every resource available to him. Monaghan have a talent for getting the best out of themselves, Sunday after Sunday. In Salthill, for instance, in the game they absolutely had to win, they beat Galway primarily through the number of turnovers they created and aggressive transition and then showed extreme patience and discipline in just creating the right scoring opportunity.
Their forwards were in complete synchronicity in what they wanted to achieve. It was a mature, composed performance by a group of warriors who had learned to trust in one another and in the game plan.
Yet I felt that quality was fatally missing on Sunday, even if they did manage to scramble their way into contention and actually hit the front with eight minutes to go. I felt that Monaghan weren’t themselves out there. You could see it in the opening exchanges of the game.
Anyone in the stadium would have been thrilled by the huge roar of anticipation just before throw-in. Both counties knew what was riding on this and the sides are so well-matched, it was always going to be close. But as Tyrone raced into that four-points lead, it was startling to see how easily they were getting their shots away. Since when do Monaghan allow any team to shoot with impunity?
And those chances originated in Monaghan players repeatedly carrying the ball into contact and getting robbed of possession for their troubles. That stuff is Tyrone’s oxygen and Monaghan facilitated it.
Both Shane Carey and Conor McManus lost possession in that opening period and it set the tone for a series of inexplicable decisions when Monaghan attackers carried the ball through two and three Tyrone men, where there was no realistic gap. There was only going to be one outcome. It led to a period of classic Tyrone play: rapacious tackling, a turnover and then that lightning transition game.
They are one of the few teams out there now with the ability to exert real pressure on the ball. But that quality was aided by Monaghan running down the kind of blind alleys that they have been cleverly avoiding for years.
Why did this happen? I think it was because the occasion got to them. Things kept happening on the field that made you think ‘this isn’t Monaghan’.
Tyrone repeatedly profited from Monaghan mistakes and they played like the team that expected to be in the All-Ireland final. They were smooth and slick and clinical while Monaghan were sort of passing the buck up front and not executing the game plan. And yet they still managed to claw their way back into the game. Conor McManus and Vinnie Corey both had goal chances; they might actually have gone ahead earlier.
In fairness, I felt Fintan Kelly tried hard and hit that massive point. But that score was emblematic of Monaghan's problems. Yes, you take that score but inspirational points were the on the game plan on which Monaghan's day was predicated. Karl O'Connell made a few incisions and won frees which pulled them back into contention and, in a weird way, they almost got two chances to play the game.
I felt Monaghan were in a brilliant place at half-time. Level at eight points apiece while not having played at all well; here was their second bite. Here was a chance to sit down and talk about the pressure of the occasion and where they were; to take the heat out of it and get back to basics, to relax and trust the game plan and do what they are good at.
You have to be brave and play it. I know that the stakes were extremely high. The All-Ireland final is the biggest day in the Irish sporting calendar – and in Irish culture in many ways. So this was probably the biggest moment of their lives. And in fairness, they ground their way through the second half.
From where I was sitting, it felt as if they were second-guessing themselves and waiting for someone else to come along
They had the honesty and resilience to never let Tyrone out of sight. There was a moment I loved when Drew Wylie got out in front of Lee Brennan and it was like a throwback to the old-fashioned full back attitude of: this is not happening.
I felt that was brave and it was an example of his mentality: real stubborn and can- do. Rory Beggan, I felt, kept Monaghan in the game through his kick-outs. What a gift for a manager to have a goalkeeper that can virtually assure that his team will keep possession from the restart. It gives you a savage platform to attack and he was playing these balls right over the Tyrone press.
There is nothing between Rory and Stephen Cluxton now. The difference is that when Stephen plays over the press, the Dublin receivers are in the final third of the field within seconds.
Monaghan, for some reason, weren’t that direct or aggressive with the ball when Beggan sent them on the front foot with those deliveries. They were cautious and they killed the moment of opportunity on themselves five or six times in the second half.
And, from where I was sitting, it felt as if they were second-guessing themselves and waiting for someone else to come along. And within five or six seconds the Tyrone cavalry had arrived and the defence was set. But these were fleeting windows of immense opportunity provided by Beggan which his team did not exploit. Those chances could have yielded four or five points and it could have been a different game.
Because it has to be remembered that Tyrone were also in uncharted territory here. It is ten years since they last reached a senior final. It was a battle between a young Tyrone team and a grizzled Monaghan team trying to get there and wondering how to do so. And twice Tyrone went missing. But Monaghan couldn’t truly capitalise on those absences. The best they could do was to stay in touch.
The introduction of Kieran Hughes did create a dynamic that Tyrone struggled with. I felt he could have been on a bit earlier. Quality diagonal ball into Hughes could have caused even more havoc in the Tyrone full back line. He hit two big points and won the free which gave Monaghan the lead and there was this swell of noise in the stadium and for a minute or so a sense that Monaghan were on the threshold of something magical.
And then came the killer blow of Niall Sludden’s goal.
What annoyed me about that sequence of play was that when Peter Harte made his run, Fintan Kelly was with him and tackling him and he started remonstrating with the referee even as the play was going on. And he let Harte continue with the ball. That was a fatal mistake. Act now, talk later.
Fintan could have got fingertips on the ball or forced a poor pass but he actually forgot about the task at hand and engaged the referee. If you are a manager, that would infuriate you. He needed to see that play out and then go back to the referee. It was actually ironic because I felt that the referee gave a lot of marginal decisions to Tyrone. Like, a few times, I felt Conor McManus was kind of thrown to the ground but was called for over carrying And the Monaghan players quietly accepted that.
Conor didn’t jump to his feet and demand some justice or let the referee know he was unhappy. So the referee is thinking: well, Conor is accepting that so I must have got it right. And yet and all the one time they did remonstrate was in the middle of Tyrone’s goal play! Pick your fights! Pick your moments!
Again, this was unlike Monaghan. They are no shrinking violets. I watched Monaghan against Galway and they tactically fouled. They slowed them down, they got in front of the ball, they allowed it be brought forward, they spoiled and they played with seasoned know-how.
Again, that was absent on Sunday. They weren't themselves. And that's because of where they found themselves. The weight of the occasion weighed heavily on them. Another sign of this was where they fouled. They fouled stupidly. Remember Colin Walsh just flying into Mattie Donnelly. Free kick. Conor McManus did the same with Colm Cavanagh. These guys don't make those kind of mistakes. Their speciality is making life difficult for offensive players. They never just tear into tackles and give away easy frees.
And with Mickey Harte, there is always a chance that he will do something left-field for the final
Rory Beggan’s last play, where he ballooned the ball into the air, almost summed up the entire day for Monaghan. It was something you never see him doing. Their calling card has been about discipline and squeezing the percentages. They didn’t bring that to the All-Ireland semi-final and yet they only they lost by a point.
So what a moment this is for Mickey Harte. The All-Ireland final will be the tenth game of this campaign. He has brought them here under an intense critical gaze and without the calibre of attackers that his teams had a generation ago. He has coached a young team to know how to think their way through the game. That's what got them through Sunday's test.
He placed a lot of wisdom on young shoulders. They may be classed as rank outsiders against Dublin but I think it will be tight enough. And with Mickey Harte, there is always a chance that he will do something left-field for the final. He is one of the few coaches out there with the capacity to do that.
Sunday wasn’t perfect and they will know where and when they went missing. The question will remain: can you win the All-Ireland without a top quality forward? Conor McAliskey really stepped up in this semi-final but the onus is on the front six to produce something special in the final.
Tyrone looked like themselves on Sunday in certain spells, that pep in their step, that Tyrone-ness
Also, it is obvious that the range of Tyrone's free-kicking potential is fairly limited. Can they afford not to utilise Niall Morgan for frees from 40 metres out? Morgan is having a brilliant season and is in a good place; we know he has the range to kick from distance. If there is no long range threat, Dublin will just foul 53 or 54 metres out to stall the Tyrone break when they need to.
Tyrone looked like themselves on Sunday in certain spells, that pep in their step, that Tyrone-ness. They have a manager with a phenomenal record in All-Ireland finals and that front-foot mentality has returned. Tyrone behave as if they feel like they belong in All-Ireland finals. There is a sense of entitlement; we are back. It has been too long.
Naturally, Monaghan were coming from a different place. They just wanted to get there and savour that special atmosphere that falls over a county for the few weeks before the final. And it is a kind of enchantment. Who wouldn’t want a true football county like Monaghan to experience that?
The big regret for Monaghan is not that they lost but that they didn’t play their own game. My sense is if they could play that semi-final over, they would approach it very differently. But that is what makes these days what they are. They materialise rarely, if at all. And the cold reality is that the chance may not come again.