Functioning Monaghan to end Derry charge

Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final
Derry v Monaghan
Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 4pm

By Niall McCoy

RORY Gallagher heads to the Athletic Grounds on Sunday afternoon missing one of his favourite things, the element of surprise.

The Derry boss, who is busily preparing a plan for opponents Monaghan, has always been a coach who can be relied on to upset the odds.

Farney fans will need no reminder of their shock loss to a Gallagher-managed Fermanagh at the same stage in 2018, the Erne County also coming into the game on the back of a comfortable five-point win over a fancied Armagh who were held to seven points.

As the right-hand man for Jim McGuinness a decade ago, he was pivotal in taking the Tir Chonaill county from provincial also-rans to the side that topped the pile in Ulster in 2011 and ’12 with the latter being transferred into All-Ireland success.

Tyrone were Donegal victims in both of those seasons – and the Red Hands felt the might of Gallagher once more last month as underdogs Derry went to Healy Park and not only shocked the All-Ireland champions, but pretty much dismantled them.

Eleven points separated the sides at the death with the critical moments arriving as a pair towards the end of the first half. Tyrone midfielder Brian Kennedy was first sent off for a kick out at Gareth McKinless before Paul Cassidy quickly won a penalty that was converted by Shane McGuigan.

There was no Red Hand revival because Derry denied them oxygen. They comfortably cantered home and that’s why Gallagher will have more than a couple of pundits predicting a first Ulster final appearance for the county since 2011 when he happened to be on the Donegal bench.

A lot of things went right for Derry in Omagh. A shot conversion rate of 68 per cent isn’t perfect, but most managers would be very satisfied with it. They took two points off the opposition kick-out and their possession lost number was low. Their ability to produce a similar performance is not beyond them, but psychologically Gallagher must look for other factors to prime his side for the battle in Armagh.

Go back 11 years and Derry’s hopes in that Ulster final were pretty much extinguished before a ball was thrown in as Paddy Bradley had been ruled out with a cruciate injury while younger brother Eoin suffered the same injury just before the match with the Tir Chonaill County.

Those two were the star turn of that Derry side, but the current crop are not relying on a superstar as such, albeit that Shane McGuigan has the capabilities to match the very best when on form.

Conor Doherty was the Man of the Match for most against Tyrone, Paul Cassidy’s running caused the Red Hands no shortage of bother, Gareth McKinless was the tone-setter in the first half, Benny Heron got a couple of nice scores.

They have some big names, like Sleacht Néill duo Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers and Glen midfield star Conor Glass, but they’re not dependent on them.

For Monaghan, their dependence factor has also changed slowly over the last 18 months.

For too long, their attacking prowess relied on the contribution of Clontibret ace Conor McManus. Step forward Jack McCarron.

“For maybe the first time in a decade, an opposition team will be spending as much time trying to work out a way to quell the Currin man’s threat as the irrepressible Conor McManus,” the Gaelic Life preview said ahead of their Ulster quarter-final with Down.

Further evidence was presented at Clones as McCarron was easily the best player on the pitch in a 0-23 to 2-7 win over the Mourne County.

McCarron brought his 2022 scoring total to 3-26 in that game, 2-13 of that coming from play. McManus, on limited game time it has to be said, has 1-25 so far this campaign – albeit with 0-20 from frees and marks – so he still has that sparkle factor.

Seamus McEnaney’s team may have cantered to the semi-final but the concession of sloppy goals either side of the interval provided ammunition to use in the post-match interviews. Instead he put the gun in the holster.

It was interesting, and while he did not say anything particularly sensational, hearing him remark “I’m absolutely not concerned with any part of the day” was telling.

Perhaps we should take him at his word because this, at the moment, looks like a Monaghan side that is functioning well.

The first four names on his team sheet – Rory Beggan, Kieran Duffy, Conor Boyle and Ryan Wylie – all got on the scoresheet against Down and while the next three – Ryan McAnespie, Conor McCarthy and Dessie Ward – didn’t, we are well aware that they are good for scores.

The positional freedom of this Monaghan side is a thing of beauty, particularly when it comes to their defence.

Up front they have so many battering rams that can operate inside that selection issues are huge.

Kieran Hughes’ ability to act as a target man is well known, Andrew Woods is a beast of a man and in Gary Mohan they have a brave battler. At various times we should see McCarron and McManus work for the scraps off those three.

Darren Hughes looks completely reenergised this year in midfield and his battle with Glass – just a few months after Derry’s Glen defeated Monaghan’s Scotstown in the Ulster Club – will be well worth a watch.

Overall, these are two very good sides. One coming, one already there. Monaghan still hold the advantage when it comes to big-match experience, and that should get them through with three or four points to spare.

Verdict: Monaghan

READ MORE – Martin McElkennon takes a look inside both camps. Click here…

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