Monaghan experience could be enough to edge out Orchard

By Niall McCoy

ANOTHER week, another ‘will he, won’t he’ plotline about one of Ulster’s top forwards. This time it’s Monaghan star Conor McManus who seemed to pick up a serious injury in the dying embers of their win against Fermanagh in the provincial quarter-final.

While Donegal’s Michael Murphy was only fit to come off the bench against Derry last weekend – and he made a fine impact from there – McManus is expected to line out from the start against Armagh in Saturday’s Ulster semi-final in Newry. Darren Hughes also took a knock on the knee against the Erne county, but he should be fit to play also.

That’s great news for Oriel fans, especially as they looked short on punch without the duo during the first half of their Division One North loss to Armagh in Enniskillen back in May.

Generally speaking Monaghan have enjoyed their meetings with the Orchard county in the championship with their record reading P5, W3, D1, L1. It was that loss though that really kick-started notions that Armagh were a team on the up while their opponents were starting to slide.

That came in a Qualifier in 2019 when Rian O’Neill did his business and Armagh left Clones with a hugely impressive 2-17 to 1-12 win. The fact that Malachy O’Rourke called time at the final whistle only added to the end-of-an-era feel for the Farney.

But that demise never really arrived, even if last year’s shock Ulster loss to Cavan was a real blow. The side remain a Division One outfit and 11 of the players that started that 2019 clash were in the first 15 for the recent 1-21 to 0-14 pummelling of Fermanagh.

The one big progression under returning manager Séamus McEnaney, either by accident or design, is that there seems to be less reliance on their star names. Conor Boyle is a superb full-back who can break forward at will, Mícheál Bannigan’s brilliant performances have flown under the radar, Dessie Ward is now one of the key components in the side while youngster Aaron Mulligan doesn’t look out of place in his first year at senior level.

As well as a team that looks finely balanced, Seamus McEnaney can enjoy operating with a side that has moved up the gears perfectly as the season has progressed while confidence levels are sky high.

Suspension meant that the manager had to watch the four league games and championship win over Fermanagh from the stands, but after a shaky start against Armagh, he witnessed brilliant attacking interplay against Donegal, good scrapping qualities against Tyrone and then that wonderful battling display to beat Galway to safety when they looked cornered.

Perhaps most pleasingly of all was their controlled display against Fermanagh. They had 12 different scorers in the game while team captain Ryan Wylie, Boyle, Karl O’Connell, debutant Killian Lavelle and Bannigan delivered top displays. They even managed to get Colin Walshe back from injury with the Doohamlet man acting more like Conor McManus than Marc Ó Sé in his 20-minute cameo.

While Monaghan look to have things balanced out evenly, there is still a suggestion that Armagh are top heavy.

The defence has improved under new coach Ciaran McKeever, no doubt about it, but there remains the suspicion that they will revert to type – fouling and being drawn to the ball – when the real pressure is cranked up.

And there is pressure there for the team and manager Kieran McGeeney. Their Ulster record under his watch, as oft reported, has not been the best, but a first Ulster final appearance since 2008 would go a long way to silencing any remaining doubters that this is a panel on the rise.

They have cashed that in by maintaining their Division One status, but they must top up the pot, especially after their dismal display against Donegal in last season’s semi-final.

From number one they will have to be on it against opposition with much more big-game experience. That goes for goalkeeper Blaine Hughes especially. Monaghan opted for an aggressive press on the Fermanagh kick-out, expect it to be absolutely hyper against Armagh. The Carrickcruppen man has been putting in massive effort outside of county training on his home club pitch, and he really needs to have his long kick-out strategy free of rustiness.

He’ll also need help around the middle, of course. Stephen Sheridan is injured so it’s likely to be a three of Oisin O’Neill, Jarly Og Burns and Niall Grimley with the likes of Rian O’Neill coming out to assist from time to time.

While Oisin O’Neill continues to excel, Grimley is still struggling to find the form that many expect of him. Having represented Ireland already in his career, there is a feeling that he really could be an elite midfielder – but he is yet to hit top stride this season.

Of course, Armagh’s chances of winning this match will almost certainly fall to their attacking unit, one considered among the best in the country.

The O’Neill brothers have been doing the business for a while now, while Rory Grugan has found a new lease of life. Credit must go to captain Stefan Campbell who responded to a nightmare display against Tyrone with a series of superb performances.

Clann Eireann youngsters Conor Turbitt and Tiernan Kelly both goaled in the win against Antrim and they are two good options off the bench while the unorthodox Andrew Murnin cannot be written off even if Armagh simply could not get him into the game against the Saffrons.

This weekend’s double bill is not one that is easy for predictions with Donegal and Tyrone looking like another coin toss. Armagh have a history of hitting a bum note when talked up, and maybe Monaghan’s experience can keep them out for a little while longer. It’ll be close, one way or another.

Verdict: Monaghan

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