Monaghan exact revenge on their Ulster conquerors Down
Farney men recover from an inauspicious first half to take complete control
Second chances aren’t given too often, and Monaghan – with their reputation on the line and no safety net this time around – didn’t need to be asked twice to take full advantage.
Once bitten, twice shy as they say; and Monaghan – ultimately when it mattered more – exacted revenge on their Ulster conquerors Down in an entertaining All-Ireland football championship qualifier on Saturday evening that only swung their way with a second-half clearance of the substitutes bench that yielded rich dividends.
After chasing shadows in the summer sun for a large part of a first-half in which Down showed greater enthusiasm for the task at hand, Monaghan’s experience and greater physicality ensured there would be no further woes to add to a catalogue of past failings experienced on the Croke Park turf.
Locked together at 1-9 apiece at half-time, with Down probably feeling short-changed for their Trojan efforts, Monaghan were transformed in the second half with the introduction of their subs – none more so than the impressive Conor McCarthy, who treated himself to four points from play in putting down a marker of inclusion from the start the next day in the quarter-finals – proving to be the difference.
Bad first half
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke defended his strategy of leaving McCarthy and Jack McCarron on the bench in a first half when not one Monaghan forward managed a score from play.
“Getting that impact from the bench was a big boost for us but it’s not always going to work like that,” he said. “It’s just about looking at the panel that you have and seeing what suits best. There’s days that you put them in from the start and there’s other days that, when the game opens up a week bit, they perform better.”
Although quiet for a long period in play, Conor McManus’s accurate free-taking proved vi- tally important in punishing any Down indiscipline. McManus’s tally reached double digits for his day’s work – eight from frees – and, as the match opened up and Monaghan pulled clear, his influence extended beyond free-taking duties as he got constantly found space, got on the ball and laid it off with that wise head of his.
There was a cutting edge to Down’s play in that first half, almost as if it were they – not Monaghan – who had a point to prove for what had happened in the earlier Ulster engagement.
Conor Maginn persistently looked for the ball and, when he had it, either looked to attack the space or to lay off. Connaire Harrison escaped the shackles of one, two and sometimes even three markers to show his worth.
His third point from play, in the 17th minute, left Monaghan full-back Drew Wylie falling to the turf on the seat of his pants as Harrison weaved one way and then another before firmly planting the ball over. That effort put Down three points ahead, 0-7 to 0-4.
Monaghan seemed surprisingly lethargic and at times unsure of what to do in that opening period, with Conor McManus’s free-taking their primary source of scores.
Monaghan’s goal came from corner-back Fintan Kelly, who is making a habit of surging forward from defensive duties to fashion goals. In the 26th minute, Shane Carey cleverly played the roving defender in for a shot on goal. Kelly finished with aplomb for his third championship goal of the season.
Six minutes later, though, that Monaghan defence was shredded like a razor ripping up thin paper.
A high ball into the danger zone was touched on by the impressive Maginn to Harrison and, despite a fast-advancing goalkeeper in Rory Beggan and defender Kieran Duffy, the Down full-forward drove low into the net.
It took a left-footed free from Kieran Hughes to bring Monaghan back to parity ahead of Maurice Deegan blowing the whistle for half-time.
Monaghan had battled hard – with Kieran Hughes putting in a powerful performance – to stay in touch in that opening half but it was a different story on the resumption as the Farney men took complete control. Owen Duffy and McCarron were brought into the full-forward line at the break, and shortly after, McCarthy – a real live-wire with an eye for point-scoring – was added to bring further firepower to launch one attack after another at the unpopulated Hill 16 end of the pitch.
The critical period proved to be between the 45th minute and the 50th minute when Monaghan took a hold on the match: Ryan Wylie, a corner-back who replicated his fel- low defender Kelly’s boldness of the first-half in venturing forward, fisted over a point from a tight angle to start what proved to be a sequence of five unanswered points. McCarron, McCarthy, McManus and McCarthy again – all from play – added points that opened up a five-point gap that would prove too great for Down to claw back.
O’Rourke claimed his men had a “tough week” ahead in preparing for their quarter-final back at HQ next Saturday. “There are still a lot of things that we know aren’t going to be good enough going forward,” he said.