Wednesday 22 November 2017

Red Hands a cut above

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It won't hurt Monaghan so much that an Ulster football title continues to elude them into a 23rd year. That a team which prides itself on its competitiveness performed so poorly in its pursuit will mortify them, however.

This was an Ulster final without the necessary combative trappings of an Ulster final, lacking drama and, for too long, lacking the intensity these occasions can produce. All week it threw up enticing prospects and for most of the first 20 minutes it threatened to deliver, both sides enterprising in their approach and content to allow football decide the destiny of the Anglo Celt Cup.

There were no complex tactical nuances, no strong-arm ploys, just two teams going for it at full tilt with conviction and control. When Rory Woods stepped on to his left side and booted over Monaghan's fourth point on 19 minutes to ease them 0-4 to 0-3 ahead, neither side had conceded an inch.

But then it died a horrible death. A horrible slow death at that. Some 41 minutes later, Monaghan were still waiting for their next score; Tyrone had struggled to 10 points but were so comfortable they could never have felt threatened.

They had Monaghan at arm's length, reducing them to swinging aimless shots that carried no real punch. Once Tyrone got a foothold, they strangled the game more impressively than the scoreline suggests. They got bodies back tackling hard. None of Monaghan's marquee names were spared and for Conor McManus, Tommy Freeman and Paul Finlay, the game just passed them by. There was no cutting edge to their play and they were too easily dislodged by much more physical opponents.

In that regard, Cathal McCarron was an outstanding championship debutant, locking up Freeman after cutting him some early slack, with Justin McMahon enjoying a similar return from his battle with McManus.

Monaghan manager Seamus McEnaney admitted afterwards that the performance was "unacceptable" and perhaps there'll be a regret that they have ditched the narkier, more aggressive side of their game that made them the team no-one wanted to play for the three previous years.

Had Tommy and Damien Freeman been more clinical with clear goal chances, both stopped smartly by Packie McConnell at either end of the first half, the dynamic of the second half might have changed. But as a shot-stopper, McConnell is continuing to prove himself to be one of the best in his trade.

Stewardship

For Tyrone, it is back-to-back Ulster titles for the first time since 1996, their fifth provincial title in 10 years and a fourth under the stewardship of Mickey Harte. The legacy continues to build.

He hasn't lost his faith or optimism with the years and despite the flood of talent backing up behind frontline troops, he has retained a fair degree of loyalty too, loyalty that was rewarded handsomely in the performances of Kevin Hughes, Ryan McMenamin, Philip Jordan, Davy Harte and Conor Gormley.

Their defence was immense against opponents who had averaged 18 points in their previous two games, their control in possession their hallmark for so many years.

Monaghan, in contrast, relied on some heroic defence from a few -- Colin Walshe and JP Mone -- and missed the forceful play of their captain Vinny Corey, who was ruled out with an ankle ligament injury.

Tyrone now have their province in a vice-like grip. In constructing back-to-back title wins, they have reeled off six victories where scarcely a glove has been laid on them: Armagh, Derry and Antrim last year, Antrim, Down and now Monaghan all giving the blue riband team in these parts an armchair ride. If they look like they have it easy, Harte doesn't admit to feeling it.

"I wouldn't like to describe it as that. Monaghan maybe found in the last 15 minutes that the game was going away from them and it was hard for them to try and salvage the day," he said.

"That's the thing. You might be four or five points up but that is nothing in the modern game because one break up the field and the opposition can score a goal, get the next kick-out and maybe get a point. It is a fine line between a comfortable win and a dangerous win and we had a comfortable win today."

Harte watched Monaghan's midfield dominate the early exchanges through Owen Lennon with help from Kieran Hughes.

Freeman's early goal chance fell invitingly as McCarron and Justin McMahon failed to control but McConnell was equal to the shot after just three minutes.

Darren Hughes, the controversial choice for goalkeeper in the opening two games in Ulster, returned to outfield duty and shadowed Sean Cavanagh carefully from centre-back for most of the afternoon and he too enjoyed early prominence.

But once Philip Jordan brought the sides level, 0-4 each, on 22 minutes and Kevin Hughes pushed them ahead two minutes later, the nature of the game changed. Slowly Tyrone began to drift out of sight with Cavanagh adding a point as he finally got some traction and Davy Harte popping up to join fellow half-backs Jordan and Gormley on the scoreboard.

There was time for redress for Monaghan when Gary McQuaid and McManus combined to put Damien Freeman in the clear but once again McConnell stood firm.

A 0-7 to 0-4 interval lead was built on steadily as Joe McMahon continued to offer extra security behind his half-back line, allowing them to push forward liberally. There was no spark in Monaghan, no creative element to unhinge any aspect of Tyrone's defence. Nothing.

Finally, almost 59 minutes in, McManus landed a free to reduce the deficit to 0-10 to 0-5 but the ship had already sailed. The final nail in their coffin saw Jordan deliver into space and Colm Cavanagh, a ball of energy all day, race on and finish in style for the game's only goal. It was tokenism after that as Harte offloaded his bench.

McEnaney couldn't hide his indignation afterwards. An Ulster title remains no easy touch and the idea that this Monaghan team deserves one for effort can be parked. Right now, they are not good enough under the weight of expectancy.

"We were with Tyrone after 20 minutes of the game," said McEnaney. "We felt we were in a good position controlling their dangerous forwards but the last 40 minutes were wild disappointing for Monaghan, probably Monaghan's worst 40 minutes in six years.

"We know ourselves it was a totally unacceptable performance from a group of players that has put in so much and given so much. We won't finish on that note. We won't be walking away from the 2010 championship in that fashion."

McEnaney believes this Tyrone team may be the best ever to leave the province, an argument that grows in their favour with each title. Harte hopes that the path they are taking will be kinder than it was last season.

"We like winning Ulster titles but there is another title just down the road and there are a lot of hard miles to climb. It is serious knock-out stuff now and we would like to make a few more strides than we did last year."

Scorers -- Tyrone: C Cavanagh 1-0, S Cavanagh 0-3, M Penrose (0-2f), D Harte, K Hughes all 0-2 each, T McGuigan, C Gormley, P Jordan, B Dooher, J McMahon (0-1 '45') 0-1 each. Monaghan: C McManus 0-2 (0-2f), D Clerkin, P Finlay, T Freeman, R Woods, D Mone 0-1 each.

Tyrone -- P McConnell 8; C McCarron 8; Justin McMahon 7, R McMenamin 7; D Harte 8, C Gormley 8, P Jordan 8; C Cavanagh 8, K Hughes 8; B Dooher 7, S Cavanagh 7, Joe McMahon 8; M Penrose 7, T McGuigan 6, O Mulligan 6. Subs: P Harte for McGuigan (63), C McCullagh for Mulligan (63) D Carlin for McCarron (64), B McGuigan for Dooher (68), S O'Neill for D Harte (71).

Monaghan -- S Duffy 7; D McArdle 7, J P Mone 7, C Walshe 7; D Freeman 6, D Hughes 8, G McQuaid 7; D Clerkin 6, O Lennon 6; K Hughes 6, P Finlay 5, S Gollogly 5; R Woods 7, C McManus 4, T Freeman 5. Subs: C Hanratty 6 for Gollogly (46), H McElroy 4 for Mone (46), D Mone 6 for Finlay (54), M McElroy for Hughes (63), N McAdam for McQuaid (69).

Ref -- D Coldrick (Meath).

Irish Independent

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