Tuesday 20 August 2019

Peter Canavan: 'Monaghan are respected by all but lack depth to be rated real All-Ireland contenders'


Hughes: Injury a big blow to Monaghan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Hughes: Injury a big blow to Monaghan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

On Saturday night, football's pound-for-pound champions go again.

Despite working off one of the smallest playing bases, Monaghan have established themselves as one of the top teams in the country. Residents of the top flight, winners of the most competitive province in recent seasons and All-Ireland semi-finalists last year, Monaghan are respected by everyone.

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However, they find themselves in a strange kind of purgatory, seen as a team that can beat anyone on their day yet simultaneously left on the sidelines when it comes to the All-Ireland contenders conversation.

There's no doubting their talent or their ability to pull the maximum from themselves. The question mark over Monaghan surrounds the depth of their squad and whether they could put the three or four big performances together they would need to win an All-Ireland.

They can beat anyone, but have shown too that they can be chinned themselves by less-fancied teams.

Last year Fermanagh struck late to knock them out of Ulster. The year before that Down made them look ordinary, while they've also lost to Longford in the back door in the past. Monaghan need to be the best version of themselves every time.

Their mood will be tested first this summer by Cavan. Relegated from Division 1, they'll give themselves more than a puncher's chance when Monaghan come to town tomorrow night. Monaghan may have won each of the last three championship meetings between the sides but they have come down to a single score.

Darren Hughes is a massive loss to them. When people think of Malachy O'Rourke's Monaghan they think first of Conor McManus and then perhaps of Rory Beggan, who has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the game.

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But Hughes is the beating heart of the team in terms of the amount of ball he handles, carries he makes, assists to McManus as well as the odd crucial score. When Hughes plays well, Monaghan usually do too.

That won't be lost on Mickey Graham and Hughes' absence might open the door for one of his own key men, Gearóid McKiernan, to rule the roost around the middle third.

I expect Cavan to thunder into the game because this is like an Ulster final to them. Their record in Ulster is poor and they need a win over one of the big three in the province to redress that. And they won't get a better chance than facing Monaghan at home this weekend.

It'll be tight but Monaghan will still get over the line. As I've said, they have struggled sometimes with expectation and lost to teams they should be beating. But the pattern with Monaghan is that those defeats tend to come after a big performance and that's not the case here.

As soon as Monaghan ensured Division 1 status for 2020, their thoughts turned immediately to this game. Last year, one of Monaghan's best performances of the year came in the opening round of Ulster when they beat Tyrone. They had weeks to prepare for that game and they delivered their plan perfectly.

Add in the fact that they know there's little between the sides and there's no room for complacency and I think they'll get through. From there, they'll be favourites to reach another Ulster final. No matter how that game goes, they'd be just one match away from the 'Super 8s'.

If they get that far, however, they'll need to add some depth to move to the next level. Stephen O'Hanlon showed flashes of his talent in the league. Michael Bannigan looks a good prospect, while an injury-free run should bring Barry McGinn on a great deal. Monaghan will need them pushing hard later in the year.

The other quarter-final in Ulster on that side of the draw sees Armagh take on Down. This time, I reckon Kieran McGeeney will get the win in Ulster he so badly wants.

They have struggled in Ulster and have yet to win in four attempts but this time he has a much stronger hand at his disposal and a forward line that will contain Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Rian O'Neill.

They have struggled in the past against teams that play a blanket defence. Tyrone did it to them in Croke Park a couple of years ago and they were picked apart. Last year, Fermanagh choked the life out of them in Ulster and I'd expect them to come up against something similar against Down. But O'Neill is a big, physical player who offers something different both in the inside line and around the middle.

With Tyrone, we lost in Ulster four years in a row from 1990-1993. There were actually five games in there as we lost to Armagh after a replay in '93. It does nothing for confidence but everything for desire. It should be the same for Armagh.

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