Monaghan go down fighting as old foes Tyrone scramble clear

Cruel Tyrone goal late on in tight affair leaves Monaghan in mood of bitter reflection

Tyrone’s Peter Harte and Matthew Donnelly celebrate at the final whistle. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Tyrone’s Peter Harte and Matthew Donnelly celebrate at the final whistle. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

This Ulster romance has always been flinty. Monaghan teetered on the brink of a magical slow-dive into a place where the county has not been since 1930. Tyrone were trying to turn the clock back to a decade ago, when they were kings. On a muggy day in Croke Park, you could feel the strain as both counties tried to feel and guess their way towards that elsewhere.

As has always been the case under Malachy O’Rourke’s watch, Monaghan wanted nothing for courage, and as has often been the case, they could argue a deficit of luck here. When the last whistle sounded, they ended up in the worst place of all. Nothing gnaws at the soul like a one-point defeat. Afterwards, portraits of deep frustration and profound disappointment flickered across Malachy O’Rourke’s face as those nerve-racking closing passages raced through his mind.

“It was such a massive day for the lads, for the whole county, to be in an All Ireland final. I didn’t think we played our best football but the character of the team – they just refused to go away. Kept battling back. That’s what makes it so disappointing.”

Championship history is defined by tiny moments. This game was no classic but was littered with crucial interventions: the 70th minute, when Colm Cavanagh, in what was one of the truly great individual hours ever given to the Tyrone football tradition, cleanly swiped the ball out of Jack McCarron’s grasp just as the Currin man looked through for an equalising point. Or the unforgettable surge in belief when Kieran Hughes somehow landed a point with his left foot even as he fell to the ground to bring Monaghan level on the score board. It was a vivid reminder that this Monaghan team don’t surrender; that they find a way. Three minutes later big Hughes won a free, which Conor McManus emphatically banged over the bar. It was Monaghan’s first lead of the day. They were eight minutes from that impossible place.

Untrustworthy place

You can’t know how to feel when you have never been that close to it before. By now the Monaghan crowd had been transported to a place that felt strange and untrustworthy. A tentative chant travelled through the stadium. They knew they could beat Tyrone: they had seen that happen – in Omagh, no less – back in May. But this was about bucking all the perceived ideas about how far a county of Monaghan’s size could go. It was about ploughing on with limitless faith that not every summer has to end in the lovelorn air of a Big Tom ballad. They came very close. A combination of desperation and brilliant instinct prompted Peter Harte to put the head down and go in the 62nd minute. Tyrone hadn’t scored in fifteen minutes and looked stuck. Harte and Tiernan McCann carved out a space, and though the shot was blocked, the ball spilled to Niall Sludden. Unbelievably, inevitably, the net rippled. Monaghan’s lead evaporated. They were running uphill again.

The goal was cruel: it would have broken lesser teams. So naturally, Monaghan just dug deeper. They chased this game deep into injury time, hauling Tyrone back with scores from Hughes and Drew Wylie, and in the 74th minute it looked to all the world as if Anthony Nolan, the referee, was signalling a close-range free for a foul of Hughes. Extra-time beckoned. The old foes would not be separated. But the whistle did not sound. The Tyrone men scrambled clear. Seconds later, it was full time.

Bitter reflection

And just like that, Monaghan were caught in a mood of bitter reflection: the time of their lives ripped from their grasp. And just like that, a full decade fell away from Tyrone. Ten years after their last All-Ireland success, Mickey Harte has guided the Red Hand back to the final. Back then, they played and behaved like they owned Dublin teams. Now the world has changed. They have lost four semi-finals since then, while Dublin are closing in on their fourth All-Ireland title in a row. Harte has yet to coach a losing team in an All Ireland senior final. Getting back here is a remarkable achievement for the Ballygawley man and stands as the perfect response to a season of intense scrutiny and criticism.

“Getting to the final is one thing but there is something to be won in the final,” Harte reminded everyone.

“And we have to really knuckle down now and do our very best and make a game of this final. The public need it and Tyrone people need it, for us to make a real fight of this final. And we haven’t great memories of our semi-final last year here against Dublin, so we need to be so much better than that and if we are, it should be a better game than that one was. And if you are in a good game, who knows what will happen?”

Who knows?

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