Monaghan and Down set for emotional Ulster final

Ulster U-20 Football Championship final

Down v Monaghan

Friday, Athletic Grounds, 7.30pm

By Niall McCoy

RARELY has the shrill of the full-time whistle one day and its blast to start the next game brought such contrasting emotions for a team.

Two weeks ago, when referee Kevin Faloon brought proceedings to an end, the Monaghan players were ecstatic as they had defeated Donegal to reach the Ulster U-20 final. Hours later, the heart and soul of the team would be ripped away as team captain Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh died in a tragic accident on his way home from the game.

The period since has been one of mourning as the GAA community rallied around Ógie’s family and friends. And around his teammates too.

When Kieran Eannetta throws the ball in for Monaghan’s final with Down on Friday night at the Athletic Grounds, it is sure to be an emotional moment. No matter the outcome of the match itself, Andy Callan’s side will deserve immense praise for even getting to that point. The Mourne county had no problem allowing the game to be put back a week and that hopefully has helped with the grieving process.

Given the circumstances, it’s seems almost strange to be analysing this game from a football point of view, but you can be sure that the Oriel players will be determined to honour Brendan by giving everything that they have.

They have impressed to date with on the road wins in Derry and Donegal.

They made things a lot harder than they needed to be against the Oakleaf county as they missed a series of good goal chances, but their 3-10 to 1-11 victory over Donegal was eye-catching – in the second half anyway.

For 30 minutes it was Donegal who ruled the roost and they led 0-9 to 1-1 at the break, and could have been even further in front.

The key moment came at the break with the introduction of Sean Jones, who started Monaghan’s first game of the National Football League earlier in the season.

The Inniskeen man set up Donnach Swinburne for his second of three goals – the first coming from the penalty spot – with the hat-trick secured with a late breakaway goal.

There were some areas that need improved on though if they are to claim their first title at this level since 2016 and only their fourth overall.

Discipline was an issue as they picked up a couple of sin-bins while goalkeeper Ryan Farrelly struggled to get his kicks away when Donegal operated with an aggressive press. Down would have noted that.

The Mourne county were tipped as potential champions even before a ball was kicked. Manager Conor Laverty would have been keen to avoid such hype, no doubt pointing to the minor team of 2020 who were expected to be a force but were outplayed by Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final.

Laverty’s Kilcoo clubmate Shealan Johnston has been the star of the show and the fact that he opted to drop out of Paddy Tally’s senior squad to focus on this competition speaks volumes.

Laverty’s decision to place Mayobridge midfielder Charlie Smyth in goals has been inspired while they have eased past Cavan and Fermanagh, even if there was only a six-point difference on the scoreboard in the latter.

The team is playing exactly how Laverty, who has Sean Boylan and Marty Clarke in his backroom team, would want them to. They work extremely hard, are aware of their roles, they win a massive amount of break ball and they are flexible when it comes to changing positions during games.

While we cannot be sure how Monaghan will play this Friday given the difficulties they have suffered off the pitch, we can be sure that Down will be flying.

The Mourne county should win a first title at this level since 2009. But of course, given the untimely death of Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh, everyone at the Athletic Grounds will be well aware that football is just a game. One to be enjoyed by all.

Verdict: Down

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