Tuesday 19 September 2017

Dick Clerkin: Sickening defeat but Farney road to Croke Park still open

Conor McManus was shackled by the Down defence. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Conor McManus was shackled by the Down defence. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Spotting me from the seated stand, standing alone in the corner terrace behind the goals, my father jokingly sent me a text: 'you're like Con Houlihan'.

I have struggled to sit amongst the supporters for any Monaghan games this year, preferring to go to games alone and incognito. Maybe it is because I still feel part of this Monaghan team in some ways, and on match days I prefer to take up an abstract position on the substitutes' bench, rather than a place among the county's supporters and their relentless audio. Even as I write this, I feel an emptiness similar to that which the lads are sure to be feeling since Saturday's shock defeat to Down.

A comfortable Monaghan victory was predicted at every quarter. Not based on any misguided disrespect towards Down, more a simple logic backed by form, quality and experience. Nobody in Monaghan could complain about the result. The best team won on the night.

From start to finish, a luckless breeze seemed to continually steer Monaghan's efforts off target while in contrast, similar Down efforts drew white flags. Down brought an edge and aggression to the game that is normally the cornerstone of Monaghan's playbook.

Difficult

Anyone who has played the game will know how difficult it is for a team to switch back into that mode if missing from the start. Complacency is often the root cause of its absence.

With Monaghan failing to capitalise on their dominance in the early stages, Down sensed an opportunity, and found an energy that stayed in their legs for the rest of the evening. At one stage in the second-half, the outstanding Kevin McKernan broke out from his defensive ranks at such pace that he looked like he was on the run after snatching Conor McManus's wallet.

I'm sure the legendary Con would have enjoyed the contest, as would most observers outside of Monaghan. The doomsday merchants of Gaelic football are becoming more redundant with each passing week, as viewers were served up an engaging blend of modern-day tactics and old-school values.

I allowed the crowd to disperse before making the long, despondent walk back to my car. En route I picked up a coffee and a Double Decker in an attempt to quell the evening's frustration.

As I tried to rationalise what had just unfolded, who jogs up behind me only the great Mickey Linden. As always, Mickey had the cut of a man who hasn't seen too many Double Deckers in his time. Every time I meet the Down great I am struck by his humility and his defiance toward the ageing process. We spent a few minutes chatting about the game, as I tried to sheepishly hide my half-eaten confectionery, and pray he wouldn't spot the bag of Tayto sticking out of my coat pocket.

As we recounted where the game was won and lost, we agreed the main difference was Down's ability to vary their attack, versus Monaghan's dependence on running the ball.

Watching the game back, the stats supported my initial post-match assertions. In total, Down kicked the ball into their attack 26 times to Monaghan's seven. McManus and Jack McCarron, two of the best scoring forwards in the game, were starved of long, early ball all evening.

Feeding off scraps for most of the evening, neither got into any sort of rhythm and Monaghan suffered on the scoreboard.

In contrast, Connaire Harrison, who in all likelihood wouldn't have made the Monaghan starting 15, made a huge impact with balls that were rained in on top of him.

Like few before him, he won his battle with Drew Wylie in a contest that was a throwback to the ages. Drew would be the first to shake his hand and congratulate him on their victory after such a noble joust.

For Monaghan, once the dark clouds rise they will find themselves in a better position than they might think. In recent years, we - I still struggle to use the word 'they' - often didn't have the opportunity to recover from poor performances, as our summer was ended by them.

Another Ulster title is not what Malachy O'Rourke or this team needs to further their reputation. Regardless of what happened in Armagh, Monaghan still have questions to answer in Croke Park.

That exam paper is still on the table. Once the wheat has been separated from the chaff I expect them to feature in the August showdown, with another opportunity for Malachy to put these Croke Park demons to rest.

The qualifiers could provide the ideal backdrop to develop their game, to one required for the open spaces of Jones's Road.

I would love to see a more expansive side to the team's game, as they have the finishing power up front to rival anyone, but you won't win much in Croke Park kicking only seven balls into your forward line.

With proven character in times of adversity, I expect a strong response from Malachy and this team. As we talked I couldn't hide my frustration, but Mickey was his usual cool self, and wasn't getting carried away.

He has been around long enough to know that Down have much more to do before they can gloat about any potential return to the glory days.

Mickey is a proud Down man, of which there are many, and yesterday was a much-needed boost for everyone in the county.

The planets aligned for them on Saturday evening, and after showing their full hand they know they will need more than swagger to beat Tyrone in the final. Mickey Harte will be wise to the threat they can pose if not treated with caution.

Down nearly won an All-Ireland in 2010 with little proven pedigree or form, so maybe an Ulster title this year in similar circumstances isn't all that implausible.

Irish Independent

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