ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL
Dublin v Monaghan
Saturday, Croke Park, 5.30pm
Live on BBC and RTE
By Niall Gartland
THERE was an uncanny feel to Dublin’s second-half steamrolling of Mayo a fortnight ago.
For the last few years there’s been a stange listlessness to the Dubs – comparatively speaking of course – but when they tore into Mayo from the second the ball was thrown in for the second-half of their All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final, it was like being hurled straight back into the Jim Gavin years.
James McCarthy – phenomenal. His midfielder partner Brian Fenton – unreal, and when have you ever seen him so animated and fired up as in the moments following a rash challenge on Con O’Callaghan? Jack McCaffrey – he hasn’t lost a yard of it. Stephen Cluxton, a little greyer on top but still an ocean of calm between the sticks. Ciaran Kilkenny – yes he was dropped but when he came on against Mayo looked just as good as ever. And so on and so forth.
So they’re still a damn fine team and strictly speaking they’re favourites for the All-Ireland title with Kerry narrowly behind. The question of the hour is whether Monaghan, who have exceeded expectations and then some this year, can really put it up to the Dubs.
They’ve had a gratifying season up until this point, it’s fair to say. They pulled off yet another great escape in Division One, they claimed a dramatic late victory over Tyrone in the first round of Ulster and they claimed a penalty shoot-out victory over Armagh a fortnight ago.
There’s been some bad days out too and the narrative remains unfortunately that ‘plucky little Monaghan have exceeded expectations’ and that the die is cast for a Dublin-Kerry final, but hope springs eternal and Vinny Corey will certainly have his side believing that they can give Dublin something to ponder at Croke Park.
It’ll be interesting to see whether they turn the defensiveness up a level. Dublin have been the past masters of unlocking a blanket defence, and they’ll happily throw the ball around looking for gaps all day long. Really, they wrote the book on this kind of thing (see their All-Ireland semi-final masterclass against Tyrone in 2017) and while their form has dipped in the meantime, they seem to have got their mojo back in recent weeks.
Monaghan have guts and determination and all the rest of it but they have some players in cracking form altogether. Conor McCarthy, now playing in a wing-back role, is a great shout for an All-Star, Conor Boyle was imperious against Armagh, Conor McManus, the term living legend is no exaggeration, Gary Mohan has come of age and Micheál Bannigan and Ryan O’Toole have helped carry the scoring burden that once rested too heavily on Conor McManus’ shoulders.
Vinny Corey has proven himself adept at making in-game changes but this is comfortably their most difficult test to date (indeed, it’s a novel challenge as well as they’ve only played one game against non-Ulster opposition in this year’s championship after seven matches, that being a fairly weak Clare side).
It’s impossible to understate how much victory would mean to Monaghan – they’ve never appeared in an All-Ireland final at senior level, and while they’ve claimed a few league victories over this great Dublin side, have struggled against them in championship football.
The feeling is, unfortunately from a Monaghan perspective, that Dublin are coming to the boil nicely. They had a few mixed showings in the championship but they really stepped it up a notch in their last two matches (against Sligo and Mayo). They have the strongest panel in the country and it’d be no surprise if someone like Paul Mannion slips to the subs bench to make way for Ciaran Kilkenny, while Colm Basquel, once just regarded as a solid club player, has been a revelation up front.
Their only weakness we can see is that they cough up too many goal chances and it’d do Monaghan no harm whatsoever to throw in a few measured long-balls into the full-forward line this weekend. Ultimately, it’s hard to see Monaghan getting enough scores and even if it’s a cagey affair in the first half, or even first three quarters of the game, Dublin should eventually pull ahead and book their spot in the final for the first time since 2020.