By Niall Gartland
ULSTER CHAMPIONSHIP QUARTER-FINAL
Tyrone v Monaghan
Sunday, O’Nelll’s Healy Park, 4pm
LET’S get ready to rumble and all that, but there’s a nagging feeling that the Ulster Championship has been diluted by the decision to essentially prise apart the provincial championships from the race for the Sam Maguire.
Indeed, a few commentators have gone as far as to suggest that Mayo would actually benefit from their surprise defeat to Roscommon last weekend thanks to the new All-Ireland structures. They’ll now have a protracted break while their rivals slug it out in Connacht – not that anyone likes losing, of course.
So as much as we’d like to hype to the gills this Sunday’s Ulster Championship encounter between Monaghan and Tyrone, there’s a sense that it mightn’t matter too much in the overall scheme of things…right?
Well the natural counter-argument is the Anglo Celt is still a prized asset and that you can’t beat a bit of momentum. Tyrone aren’t quite a runway freight train just yet, but they’ve reached a perfect crescendo in the National League, concluding their campaign with successive victories over Kerry, Monaghan and Armagh.
The victory over Kerry was the one; it was nearly like being back in 2003 again as the Tyrone players feasted on their prey, forcing umpteen turnovers and playing some fine attacking football into the bargain.
Hard to believe it was only a week earlier that they coughed up four goals against Mayo and relegation looked a very real possibility, but that’s Tyrone for you – when they turn it on they really turn it on.
There were a few other takings from their league campaign. They wrapped things up with a 100 per cent record at O’Neill’s Healy Park, something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time, so that bodes well for Sunday’s game from a Tyrone perspective.
There have also been a few subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks from last year. Midfield pairing Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy have been given licence to roam and the team’s astute deployment of the long-ball paid off at various stages of the campaign. Errigal Ciaran duo Joe Oguz and Cormac Quinn have made a hugely positive impression and some of the stars of last year’s All-Ireland U-20 success are already starting to show what they can do at senior level.
Prior to one of Tyrone’s league games, Pat Spillane described the squad as threadbare, but we’re not convinced – the panel has certainly been bolstered by the addition of Niall Devlin, Ruairi Canavan, Michael McGleenan and the like.
As for the familiar names, Mattie Donnelly has recovered from a career-threatening injury sustained against Kerry in Killarney last year. His leadership qualities alone are priceless. Padraig Hampsey is back to his unyielding best and could be tasked with picking up Conor McManus (now 36!) this weekend.
We could go on, and it’ll be interesting to see if Cathal McShane will come back into contention after missing the final league rounds with injury.Monaghan, meanwhile, will also be in high spirits after pulling off another great escape on the final day of the league (as Irish News Sports journalist Cahair O’Kane tweeted in the wake of their victory over Mayo in Castlebar, “Monaghan, the cat with 900 lives.”).
Under new management this season, they haven’t lost any of their old doggedness anyway and stalwarts such as McManus (in his first start of the season), Darren Hughes and Karl O’Connell were exceptional in their deserved 2-14 to 0-14 victory over Mayo.
The jury is still out, however, on their younger cohort of players. When Monaghan met Tyrone in the league, with McManus sprung from the bench late on, they only mustered a single point from play across the entire 70-plus minutes of action.
Tyrone were in their element really, soaking up the pressure, hitting them on the break and running out comfortable 2-15 to 0-13 victors at Clones (weirdly, the first ever league meeting between the teams at the famed provincial venue).
Then there’s the long-running stereotype that Tyrone are always ‘fit’ for their plucky neighbours across the border at Aughnacloy. Well it’s not strictly true. Tyrone’s league record against Monaghan isn’t anything noteworthy, they came out second best in Ulster Championship matches in 2014 and 2018 and their recent wins have generally been close-run things, for example edging Monaghan by a point in the 2018 final.
So the Tyrone camp is unlikely to be touched by complacency leading into Sunday’s game. They know every ball will be a battle, but it’s still hard to make a case for a Monaghan upset. The Farney’s trajectory has hit a snag in the last few years, and arguably is trending downwards, whereas Tyrone seem to have the goods to reach deep into this year’s All-Ireland race. Games aren’t won on paper but the smart money is on Tyrone to take this one.