Resilient Monaghan wear down misfiring Donegal
Monaghan 0-11 Donegal 0-10
Taken in isolation, the scoreline sends out all the wrong messages, pointing to a dour, dogged encounter, laced with frees and stoppages.
Ulster SFC final
The reality was different and far more enjoyable on a day when the Donegal-Monaghan pendulum swung back in favour of Malachy O'Rourke's men as they won the Ulster title for the second time in three seasons.
They did it with a powerfully- structured display, which proved marginally too good for the proven kings of detail and organisation. Donegal did well on both fronts again yesterday, but inaccuracy wrecked their ambitions of winning the Ulster title for the fourth time in five seasons.
It surfaced in the first half when they missed some good chances and became altogether more serious in the second half when they kicked 11 wides, some by considerable margins.
Each was important in its own way but the last was the most crucial of all, coming in the final minute of stoppage time when Patrick McBrearty was off target with a long range effort.
Despite that, he was Donegal's best forward, but then he was about the only one consistently used as a specialist striker. The rest were frequently deployed as members of the defence, retreating towards Paul Durcan's goal in line with long-established policy.
Donegal could argue that since they conceded only 11 points - a giveaway rate that wins far more games than it loses - their system worked but, unfortunately for them, the wild shooting at the other end handed Monaghan an opportunity which they gratefully accepted.
Indeed, when they led by 0-11 to 0-6 after 50 minutes, it looked as if they might win fairly easily, but they failed to score again, leaving it all so desperately tight at the end.
Most of the flow was towards the Monaghan goal in the final quarter, a period in which Donegal scored four points. It took them within touching distance of snatching a draw but it wasn't to be.
Monaghan took the title with the lowest winning total in an Ulster final since Derry beat Donegal by 1-7 to 0-8 in 1998. It takes them into the All-Ireland quarter-final, whereas Donegal have to re-group for a qualifier clash with Galway on the weekend after next.
It's unfamiliar territory for this group, requiring them to dig deep into their reserves of resilience.
However, once the initial disappointment subsides, they will realise that many of the fundamentals which have underpinned them for the last four years remain intact.
The big difference between yesterday and other years centred on the absence of precision. Some of that was caused by Monaghan's high-energy game, complete with tigerish instincts which sustained them through the more difficult periods.
Those included the opening six minutes when Donegal raced into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead, while looking very much like a side that was programmed for a high-efficiency performance.
Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn were powering through from their own half, testing Monaghan's defensive alignment to the limit. And when Monaghan did get forward, they were met by two - and sometimes three - defensive banks.
That was pretty much the Monaghan philosophy too and it quickly became apparent that the game would develop into the ultimate war of attrition. And so it proved, but happily for the 31,997 spectators, the exchanges were fair and honest.
So much so, that the first ten minutes produced only two frees, possibly a record for an Ulster final. The first half yielded only nine frees and while the foul rate increased in the second half, it had still only reached 25 at the close of play.
Referee, David Coldrick did a good job, although Conor McManus might have expected more protection than he received.
McManus and his marker, Neil McGee were both booked in the 28th minute, much to the frustration of the Monaghan captain, who felt - and rightly so - that he had been much more sinned against than sinner up to then.
The McGee-McManus duel was one of several fascinating match-ups. McGee had the advantage early on, but once McManus broke free to fire over an inspirational point in the 32nd minute, the balance of power swung his way.
Vincent Corey v Michael Murphy was equally intriguing, with the advantage resting very much with the Monaghan man. Murphy did his best to play his way into the action, but Corey tracked him everywhere, while also contributing to Monaghan's very patient build-ups.
Monaghan must have been delighted to see Murphy posted so far from their goal for so long. With Corey and some others crowding him at every turn, Murphy rarely got within striking distance of goal until late on when he was posted in a traditional full-forward slot.
Apart from addressing the wayward shooting, Donegal's review will centre on how and why they went so long without scoring in both halves. They scored only three points between the sixth and 52nd minutes, a period in which Monaghan posted 0-10.
Indeed, Monaghan's return would have higher only a fine save by Paul Durcan from Dermot Malone in the 15th minute. Durcan touched the ball on the ground after making the block, conceding a free which McManus pointed.
By half-time, Monaghan were four points clear (0-8 to 0-4), leaving Donegal with a range of problems.
Their attempt to rectify them early in the second half backfired when they kicked three wides in the opening three minutes. By the 12th minute, the wides' tally had doubled to six and when McManus beat two defenders to shoot Monaghan's 11th point in the 50th minute, Donegal's case looked well and truly tried.
In fairness, their response was positive as they set about reining in Monaghan. It was a hard, gruelling slog against a packed defence but with Ryan McHugh cleverly working his way through Monaghan's channels, Donegal's chance ratio increased.
They cut the margin to a single point in the 66th minute but just couldn't complete the recovery. It was all very satisfactory for Monaghan who went into the game as rank outsiders.
However, since this was their third successive Ulster final clash with Donegal, they knew exactly what to expect.
The fact that Donegal were so wayward in their shooting was an added bonus for Monaghan, who will feel that they are much better prepared for the All-Ireland bid than in previous years.
As for Donegal, they face a qualifier tie for only the second time in five seasons. "It's not the way we wanted to wake up tomorrow morning, but that's life. We have to deal with it now and we will deal with it," said manager Rory Gallagher.
Galway's new defensive system isn't as refined as Monaghan's so Donegal will be quite confident of relaunching their All-Ireland ambitions.
It must be a source of concern, though, that they are finding it so difficult to score goals.
Yesterday's game was the third successive championship clash with Monaghan that they failed to find the net. Indeed, they never threatened Rory Beggan's goal.
Not that Monaghan were much better in that department, creating only one genuine goal opportunity. Still, they did enough to land the big prize.
Donegal will be hoping that Karl Lacey, who limped out injured after 42 minutes, is fit for the clash with Galway.
His absence added greatly to Donegal's woes yesterday, but then it was one of those days when the gods looked the other way on more than once occasion.
SCORERS - Monaghan: C McManus 0-6 (3f), K O'Connell, O Duffy, K Duffy, D Mone, O Lennon 0-1 each. Donegal: P McBrearty 0-6 (4f), M Murphy 0-2 (2f), K Lacey, F McGlynn 0-1 each.
MONAGHAN: R Beggan 7; D Mone 8, V Corey 8, R Wylie 7; C Walshe 7, F Kelly 7, K O'Connell 8; N McAdam 7, D Hughes 7;
O Duffy 7, O Lennon 7, K Duffy 7; D Malone 6, K Hughes 7, C McManus 9. Subs: R McAnaspie 7 for O Duffy (45), S Gallogly 7 for Malone (58), D Clerkin for Lennon (69).
DONEGAL: P Durcan 7; P McGrath 7, N McGee 6, E McGee 7; R McHugh 8, K Lacey 7, F McGlynn 7; N Gallagher 7, M McElhinney 6;
C Toye 5, O MacNiallais 6, M McHugh 7; P McBrearty 8, M Murphy 6, C McFadden 5. Subs: M O'Reilly 6 for Toye (32), A Thompson 6 for Lacey (41), D O'Connor 6 for McFadden (52), L McCloone for MacNiallais (68)
REF - D Coldrick (Meath)