Jack Madden: Groundhog day

“DERRY surprise Monaghan to continue Ulster run”. That was the RTÉ headline from May, 15, 2022.

Less than 12 months on, it seemed as though Derry surprised Monaghan again, in spite of the reputation they have earned since. Seven points was the margin at the half-time break last year in the Athletic Grounds. In Healy Park, once again that proved to be the Farney handicap at the interval. Once again, Derry marched on.

Déjà vu, a phrase au Français, directly translating as already seen, or by definition, the feeling of already having experienced the present situation.


Lán cac, a phrase as Gaeilge, directly translating to something you probably can’t write in a newspaper, or by definition, the experience of walking back to the car off the back of an Ulster Championship defeat, facing into the Omagh traffic, stoking up dead conversations about Brighton and Hove Albion and Ronan O’Gara, all in an effort to once again distract yourself from the broken dreams of another year.

And now that is a year that just merges with the rest. Consigned to history. And we all know that history is a tale told by the victors.

You could forgive yourself in the immediate aftermath for ignoring the fact that Derry were imperious. Perhaps that makes the pill a little less bitter. The numbers don’t lie, and when you’re up against 81 per cent shooting accuracy, or 22 shots converted from 27 efforts, it’s likely going to be a long day.

Monaghan will have been disappointed with how they fared on Odhran Lynch’s kick-outs however. When they forced Lynch to go long, they were effective, turning over three out of four restarts that went beyond the Derry ‘65. The press wasn’t utilised early or often enough however.

The loss of Niall Kearns to this Monaghan side has been understated, with the Sean McDermott’s clubman one of the few midfielders in the country who got the better of the talismanic Conor Glass last year.

Another man on his travels, Ryan McAnespie, has recently returned home, and should he return to the panel, it would be a huge boost to a Monaghan defence that looks leakier than usual. Conor Boyle has shifted from full-back to wing-back to fill that particular void, with more onus placed on 35-year-old Karl O’Connell.

O’Connell’s pace was one of the few things that seemed to trouble Derry. The zonal, stand off defending of today’s game can be penetrated by purposeful runners at pace, and the old art of taking a man on seems to be coming back into fashion. It was no coincidence Conor McCluskey’s goal was almost a carbon copy of O’Connell’s.

Derry are an incredibly pacy team, and in truth they put the shackles on a Monaghan forward line that did well to return 2-10. On the sole occasion that the ball went in early to Conor McManus, frustration saw him stick the elbow out a little beyond the threshold of the rule book.

The ball inside was far from Mícheál Bannigan’s best, but he kicked it before Derry got set, which they did incredibly quickly and efficiently throughout. Had McManus got away with the elbow, it would have presented a kind of opportunity from play that was all too rare.

But much like last year, McCarron and McManus weren’t the answer inside. The likes of Seán Jones may have raised a few more questions in getting out in front fast, but then again Monaghan didn’t look to launch the ball in early enough. The changes they did make were size over speed, Gary Mohan and Conor Leonard in particular.

The fewer men that are back, the bigger the pitch is. Bannigan’s ball proved that kicking doesn’t have to be 100 per cent on the money, as long as the ball is early and winnable. Any intercounty footballer should be capable of a 40 or 50-yard kick pass. In fact it’s almost certain that they are.

Of course. there are the risks of being crucified by the dreaded stats and video analysis, but a look at GAA Statsman’s map on Instagram of where Monaghan were shooting from in comparison to their opponents wouldn’t exactly have the Farney backroom team chuffed either. Derry’s shots are far more clustered, more systematic, and typical of a well-oiled machine that they are. Everything they did on the counter was just faster, and all the while efficient.

Fascinatingly, eight of their points came in the tight spaces between the Monaghan ‘21 and ‘13. It would have come as no surprise to Vinny Corey that Derry lined out in attack with four or five men inside the ‘13 at times. These men have to be marked, it’s that simple, and even more so with the threat of the attacking mark.

The individual brilliance of Shane McGuigan is nearly all that can’t be accounted for on the Derry blueprint. Every man knows his role. You don’t hit over 80per cent% shooting accuracy by fluke. Monaghan, by contrast, were at 54 per cent, and notching only 7 out of 15 from play. The Kieran Hughes and Shane Carey wides at the start of the second half typified a more individualistic and disjointed performance.

Derry exerted a level of control that would never allow the game to descend into mayhem, a mayhem that seems to suit Monaghan. Both Farney goals, although well taken, certainly had an element of luck about them. The first handed Monaghan the only sniff of victory they would get throughout the 70 plus minutes.

Derry’s discipline is a feature of their game that doesn’t get enough credit. It’s almost ironic how the general barks, the veins in his head bulging as the decibels notch up, while for his troops, even the sternest challenge is equivalent to the stress levels you would measure in a hash café in Amsterdam.

Then again, it is not that ironic at all. There is a common theme of control. Leadership is expressed in a variety of ways, and Derry have ample leaders in absolute abundance.

This Gallagher project is a little further down the line than Vinny Corey’s. The victory over Tyrone meant little in terms of seeding in the end, but having that victory in the bank, as well as the lessons from Saturday, will stand the Clontibret man and his team in far better stead for the All-Ireland group stages.

Meanwhile, the roots continue to strengthen beneath the Oak Leaf tree. They will have their sights set on Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh, and a glimpse of the Anglo-Celt cup in Clones will give them their own sense of déjà vu. Been there, done that, and it would take a brave man to back against the 1993 All-Ireland champions repeating the feat next weekend.

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