Dick Clerkin: 'Monaghan man in Cavan camp helps expose the Farney squad's frailties'
Ulster again dropped a fly in the ointment with two intriguing contests over the weekend that gave a timely shot in the arm for the continued relevance of the provincial structures. Up North at least.
Cavan's defeat of Monaghan was their first victory on home soil over their neighbours since 1987. With victories in 2013, 2015 and 2017, beating Cavan had become somewhat routine for Monaghan over recent years. With the tables now slightly rebalanced, an understandable sense of relief permeated throughout the supporters as they embraced their team on the immaculate Breffni pitch after the final whistle.
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In Newry yesterday, Armagh and Down served up a throwback contest between two long-standing provincial rivals.
Remarkably, Kieran McGeeney took his troops to the Marshes ground looking for their first provincial win in five seasons.
If Cavan got a monkey of their back on Saturday evening, McGeeney threw off a veritable gorilla yesterday, as his young team edged out Down in a thrilling contest.
Out west, Galway got the job done after a stubborn Sligo resistance that kept the contest competitive up to half-time. Nothing lost nothing gained here for the Tribesmen, with the jury still out on whether they can be considered real contenders to Dublin's throne later in the summer.
Earlier in the year I had hopes that Monaghan could also be strong contenders, but my optimism has been severely dented following their defeat to Cavan.
With the light dimming, despondent Monaghan supporters meekly slipped out past their jubilant neighbours after what was arguably their team's worst performance in recent memory.
No scores from play in the first-half; countless wides, turnovers and wasted possessions; not a single goal chance; scarcely any player that would rate higher than 6/10.
All defeats are obviously difficulty to take, but performances like Monaghan endured linger that bit deeper.
I know, having suffered plenty of them myself in the past.
Anyone I spoke to in the run-up to the Cavan clash will confirm my apprehension, that an upset was very much a possibility. I knew Monaghan were vulnerable.
Already shorn of their powerfully consistent midfield from last year in Darren Hughes and Niall Kearns, Jack McCarron rolled his ankle in a challenge match to give further headaches to Malachy O'Rourke. Their absence was sorely felt.
On the other side of the fence Cavan had plenty in their favour.
Local man and Mullinalaghta hero Mickey Graham was always likely to get a bounce thanks to 'New Manager Syndrome'. More pointedly, Graham has astutely recruited Monaghan man Martin Corey, brother of Vinny, as team trainer.
As Coaching and Development officer in Monaghan over the past 10 years, Martin would have known the strengths and weaknesses of the Monaghan players inside out.
While it must have been difficult for Martin to work against his own, he showed his true professionalism in how his team were ruthlessly prepared to deal with the Monaghan threat. Cavan were disciplined, conditioned and confident throughout.
Monaghan, on the other hand, looked flat and frustrated at times, but that is no slight on any individual player or the management. With a game plan that is so dependent on collective endeavour and work rate, even the slightest dip in confidence or energy can create a chronic ripple effect throughout the team.
It is what has kept them so competitive over the years, but equally makes them beatable when the intensity drops even slightly.
It will be a tough week for the Monaghan players, who face into another qualifier tour of Ireland if they are to make the Super 8s. Despite Saturday's showing they are still one of the top eight teams in the country, but O'Rourke badly needs to find an injection of energy and guile to kick-start what has been a largely flat season to date. It's nothing he hasn't managed in the past, however.
After what was a good weekend for football overall, McGeeney and Graham head off to prepare for an Ulster semi-final in two weeks that has the potential to be a great contest, while Monaghan yet again slip away into provincial obscurity.
However, the Monaghan players and management have built their careers on silencing the doubters, so don't be surprised if O'Rourke outlasts the aforementioned duo in what is shaping up to be an eventful summer.