McManus proves the difference as Monaghan sink Cavan to book Ulster semi-final place
Cavan 0-15 Monaghan 1-15
CAVAN substitute Ryan Connolly lay prone on the Breffni Park turf at the final whistle of this tense Ulster semi-final, barely believing what had just happened.
Just seconds earlier, Cavan were chasing a three-point gap, when Gerard Smith floated in a delivery towards Rory Beggan’s Monaghan goals.
Men skittled in every direction, but the ball finished up in the arms of Connolly, who smacked a shot off the post.
As the ball made its way out, referee Paddy Neilan blew his whistle to confirm Monaghan’s safe passage through this local skirmish for their sixth consecutive Ulster semi-final, against Down in two weeks time.
And this is the largest margin recorded between the sides in around a dozen meetings, yet still it came down to the inches game, even as Cavan fans were streaming out of the old venue, having lost faith in their team.
Maybe they had their reasons. Going in at half-time 0-9 to 0-7 up, Cavan had nabbed two scores in time added on from James McEnroe and Gearoid McKiernan, when both men glided past Monaghan’s Gavin Doogan, who was replaced by Ryan McAnespie at the break by manager, Malachy O’Rourke.
But this is the beauty of this Monaghan side at present. While they rely on the likes of their Dermot Malone and Doogan figures to do the heavy plundering of the first halves – and first halves are merely becoming extended softening up periods in Ulster football – they can bring on someone with the engine of McAnespie, and the sheer class of a Conor McCarthy to make the difference when the game opens up for the stylists.
To get a flavour of how tight this contest was, the sides were drawn level half a dozen times before the crucial moment on the hour mark.
Central as he was to everything good Monaghan did, it was Owen Duffy that located Conor McManus – the right man, in the right place – 30 metres from goal, facing Conor Moynagh.
McManus caught Moynagh flat footed with a sidestep and passed the ball to the net beyond Cavan goalkeeper, Raymond Galligan. Another special moment for a player not short on highlights reel footage, to nose Monaghan into their first two-point cushion of the Drumlins Classico.
A few moments later, Duffy sent over a score from play and Conor McCarthy profited from turning over a Galligan kickout himself and finishing the passage with a point.
Cavan’s failings are not hard to identify. If anything, they are remarkably similar to the last meeting between these sides two years back.
With the benefit of a strong wind in the first half, they could send shots over from serious distance.
From their nine first-half points, two were dead-ball conversions from Niall McDermott, and six were kicked from considerable distance, rendering Monaghan’s defensive structure with Kieran Duffy as a late inclusion for sweeping duties redundant.
Facing the wind in the second half, they only scored one from play, that coming from Cian Mackey, who, if he has ever seen a lost cause in his life, is not
In all their successful under-21 teams, who claimed four provincial titles in a row from the turn of the decade, they have only really been able to mine one forward in Niall McDermott from those groups.
Seanie Johnston still has a measure of craft and never wasted much here, but at the same time, he was never going to beat his marker, Fintan Kelly, to a sharp burst for a ball in front of the posts and thus had to forage deeper.
They have creativity in their middle third, but last year were dependent on long ball towards David Givney and Michael Argue. With neither man about this year, they struggle to vary their attack.
Monaghan are in a different position.
On a rotten day for taking shots, they sent fifteen wide, with the usually excellent McManus responsible for five of them and dropping two efforts short.
That can be worked on and the winds will not always be so harsh.
They also have a blend to their panel that acts as a clear delineation between a good ‘team’ and a good ‘squad.’ The best sides and managers know the distinction.
O’Rourke was able to send Darren Hughes back on, nine weeks after he ruptured a medial ligament in a league game for Scotstown, a full week before the doctor’s cautious prognosis.
And they now have an in-built confidence that keeps the panic button untouched when they enter the crucial final phase of games.
The last time they met Down in an Ulster semi-final, they threw away a mammoth half-time lead through lack of composure.
There’s no way a repeat is on the cards in a fortnight. Monaghan football is in a good place right now.