Sport Gaelic Football

Monday 22 January 2018

Eoin Liston: Farney Army play it clever to blow summer wide open

Monaghan players celebrate in the team dressingroom after defeating Donegal in yesterday's Ulster SFC final
Monaghan players celebrate in the team dressingroom after defeating Donegal in yesterday's Ulster SFC final
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

The beauty of football; it's simply glorious. A Division 3 team playing the All-Ireland champions in an Ulster final – the result should be a foregone conclusion. But not so, said Monaghan.

Here was a group of men who were willing to put everything on the line, willing to give every last drop of sweat and effort they had in their bodies to win that Ulster medal.

At the start of the year, Malachy O'Rourke would have got them together and they'd have made a collective decision to give themselves completely to the cause.

It was brilliant to see the outpouring of emotion at the final whistle. It's really given the football championship a lift.

Personally, I was enthralled from start to finish. It was a superb game of football. Who says that the modern game can't excite? The execution of the skills was excellent throughout.

The intensity was huge for the 70 minutes and two teams just went toe-to-toe for the entirety.

Tackled

What Monaghan did, was out-Donegal, Donegal. They let them have the ball from the Donegal kick-out and pretty much said, "come take us on".

Monaghan then just tackled like dogs, forcing errors from the Donegal players and winning back possession. They broke at pace and ran directly at the Donegal defence, which struggled to contain them.

Their use of the ball in the face of the Donegal system was very intelligent. They switched the play and kept it short when they needed to, ensuring that they weren't forced into bringing it through crowded areas.

When they went long, Kieran Hughes proved to be a brilliant outlet. They also had the likes of Dessie Mone and Darren Hughes coming from deep and capable of breaking through tackles.

But this was about the collective for the Farney men and it was great to see the likes of Dick Clerkin and Tommy Freeman, tremendous servants to the cause over the years, coming on and making their contributions.

For Donegal, the weight of expectation was heavy on their shoulders. I know from experience what it's like – history is hard to make. The talk all through the build-up was about the three-in-a-row. No matter what players will say about paying no attention to the hype and approaching it as any other game, it is impossible to ignore.

I have said all along that Jim McGuinness will truly show his magic touch if he can bring his team back to the level of hunger and intensity that we witnessed last year. He wasn't able to do so for this one.

Instead they came up against a team that had nothing to lose with an insatiable appetite for victory that Donegal themselves once had.

Another one of the concerns about Donegal's ability to retain the All-Ireland surrounds their strength in depth. Karl Lacey looked off the pace after his injury, yet he lasted the duration.

Mark McHugh went off injured early on, and his loss was also massive. The problem for McGuinness is that the calibre of player required to replace these men doesn't appear to be there.

But make no mistake, Donegal are not yesterday's news by any stretch of the imagination. I would expect them to get over Laois the next day, and no team wants to get them in the quarter-finals.

Because of the excitement in Clones, it's easy to forget the Connacht title was also decided yesterday. Mayo's performance will slip under the radar somewhat.

James Horan, though, will have some concerns. They duly dispatched London, but it wasn't all easy going. The ruthlessness that was evident against Roscommon and Galway wasn't at the same level.

In the first half in particular their shot selection was poor and they kicked a number of bad wides. At one stage, they went through a 20-minute period where they registered only two scores. On the positive side of things, Aidan O'Shea continues to show he's ready to join the elite midfielders in the game, while one can't help but admire the intensity and discipline in their tackling.

They are struggling from the fact they have had very little competitive football though, and that could count against them in the long run. The flipside is that, at the back of their minds, Mayo always knew they would win here. It can be difficult to motivate yourself for a game like that.

What it all means is that the August bank holiday weekend is going to be the most exciting for years. We could conceivably have Cork, Tyrone and Donegal going into the draw with the provincial winners. Nobody can pick a clear winner with any great confidence. It's fantastic.

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