Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 17 March 2018

Eoin Liston: Monaghan on top but Sam more within Donegal's reach

Ciaran McManus: Monaghan's stand-out player
Ciaran McManus: Monaghan's stand-out player
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

Monaghan are Ulster champions, but I don't think that they have an All-Ireland in them. Not this year, at least. By contrast, the team they beat, Donegal, are still very much in the hunt for Sam Maguire.

There is so much to admire about Monaghan and the way they went about taking the Anglo Celt Cup on Sunday.

They have been bouncing around the top tier of teams for the past few years and have been improving steadily since Malachy O'Rourke took over as manager.

They came down to Tralee for a league game in March this year and they beat Kerry 1-11 to 0-10 - the only time I can ever remember Monaghan beating Kerry in Tralee. They showed to me that they are a team in relentless pursuit of their goal, which is winning the biggest prize.

They displayed composure that day, they showed desire, aggression and work-rate. They are well organised and it will take a very good team to beat them.

On Sunday they again showed that same desire, aggression and work-rate along with real ferocity in the tackle that Donegal just couldn't match. It was a case of one team who are chasing their Everest and another team that has already been to the top.

Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke celebrates with Eoin Lennon after beating Donegal
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke celebrates with Eoin Lennon after beating Donegal

They are well managed and in Clones they got their tactics spot on. They took on Donegal's main men, Michael Murphy, Neil Gallagher and Neil Magee. Vinny Corey held Murphy scoreless again, Owen Lennon took on Gallagher and won while Ciaran McManus got the better of McGee.

O'Rourke put huge effort into identifying Donegal's leaders and nullifying them. On the field and on the line they showed fantastic leadership and there was great attention to detail.

They had clearly studied Donegal's defensive system and worked out how to get around it. They kept switching the ball from side to side using the foot, which kept the defence moving. Donegal move it wing to wing too, but they use the hand more often and that means it's a lot slower.

Monaghan were kicking touchline to touchline and the defence had to move back and across - they were doing all the work. It was like watching Barcelona when they have the ball, moving the opposition around the field and tiring them out.

They have tremendous individual players, McManus (below) the stand-out and one of the best forwards in the country, but it's all about the collective.

Here comes the but though, and it's a big but.

Eamonn McGee
Eamonn McGee

In beating Donegal they only scored 11 points on a perfect day for football. Most days McManus gets in or around half of their scores, so what happens when he has a bad day? They defended well in Ulster, but how will they fare in Croke Park's wide-open spaces?

They are getting them maximum out of themselves and they are an excellent team. But I don't think they can win Sam this year. It's too big a jump from losing to Dublin by 17 points in the quarter-final last year.

Donegal lacked conviction on Sunday, they went 30 minutes without scoring, even longer than the 28 minutes they went scoreless against Derry, and key performers looked tired.

But I don't think there's much wrong with them. The urgency of old wasn't there yet they still only lost by a point, kicking a pile of wides. It's not even 12 months since they were within a kick of a ball of drawing with Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

They'll analyse what went wrong on Sunday and when they look each other in the eye and ask 'can we put in a bigger effort?'. The answer will be 'yes'. There's no safety net for them now and I think we'll see a very different Donegal in Croke Park.

Something they will have to work on is how they react when they go behind. Against Kerry last year when they were four points down near the end they kept doing what they always did; they stuck to the patient build-up as if they were still ahead.

It was the same against Monaghan, and though they finished the stronger, they need to up the tempo.

The third All-Ireland contender we saw at the weekend was Mayo. Have they improved up front this year? Yes. Have they improved in midfield? Yes. Have they improved in defence? No. The full-back line continues to be a problem.

They hammered a poor Sligo team and still conceded 2-11. Look at the big games they have lost in the last few years - Dublin and Donegal in All-Ireland finals and Kerry in last year's semi-final - and it was goals that could have been prevented that beat them. If they finally want to win Sam Maguire it's something they'll have to sort out.

When they lose the ball men have to filter back quickly as we see other teams do and fill the space, reducing the number of goal chances they give up.

Irish Independent

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