MATCH PREVIEW: Champions’ favourites tag will be tested to the max by Monaghan

Ulster SFC semi-final
Derry v Monaghan
Saturday, O’Neill’s Healy Park, 5pm

By Michael McMullan

RYAN O’Toole. What a man. The Scotstown defender’s wonder strike shot the Farney County into Saturday’s repeat of last year’s semi-final and another clash with reigning champions Derry.

As a story, it will take some beating in Ulster this summer.

Twelve months ago, Derry were the box office attraction. Their eye for goal closed Monaghan into a corner after 22 minutes. Benny Heron and Gareth McKinless goals had Rory Gallagher’s supercharged Oaks seven points to the good by the interval with Heron’s second sealing a 3-12 to 0-17 win.

Of the last five games in league and championship between the counties, Monaghan have only found the net once, a Tommy Freeman goal in a seven-point league win in Scotstown that rubber-stamped Derry’s 2010 relegation from the top flight.

Both teams will arrive in Healy Park after trekking along very different trajectories. By the time Brendan Rogers’ winning point against Dublin in Celtic Park all but clinched promotion, Monaghan were bogged down in a fight for their Division One lives.

Darren Hughes and Conor McManus made returns at the right time to put a caring arm around Monaghan side needing a strong finish to stay up. Aside from only Kerry above them, the Farney’s County’s 10 consecutive seasons playing in the top division speaks volumes for the level of consistency.

In terms of championship action, Paul Cassidy’s 26th-minute goal and Derry’s 2-7 to 0-3 lead left the rest of their opener with Fermanagh a case of keeping the scoreboard ticking over. Che Cullen hit two goals, but points from Padraig Cassidy and Conor McCluskey wiped out any danger of Derry being caught.

Oisin McWilliams did miss the game after a leg fracture with Gallagher stating he would be back in training by the week after the visit to Brewster Park.

Conor Glass and Chrissy McKaigue were replaced as a precaution. The concern for Derry is their solidity in the skipper’s absence. It’s the unseen work that sees him back in the defensive pocket.

It’s hard to see how Glen could’ve used Ciaran McFaul in a false number six role without Glass being back. Danny Tallon described Glass as the best team-mate in Ireland. His role is the same in the red and white of Derry.

Monaghan’s championship opener was the ultimate game of two halves. Their first half saw them pushed aside by the best Tyrone performance of the season, but the Farney side were too stand-offish.

When Rory Beggan and Kieran Hughes struck up a relationship on kick-outs, the tide turned. It allowed Karl O’Connell to run – quite literally – the game. He was immense. Add in a fine Stephen O’Hanlon performance after chasing Conor Meyler in the first half and it was the old fashioned momentum change of the highest order.

Vinny Corey will be hoping Dessie Ward is able to push for a start. His club performances for Ballybay only back up his value. It could see Thomas McPhillips miss out with a reshuffle at the back and Shane Carey relegated to the role of impact man again. It will be interesting to see if the returning Ryan McAnespie will be an option.

Gary Mohan’s input is a mere 170 minutes across his four appearances from Monaghan’s 10 outings this year. Their win over Donegal was his only full game and it’s hard to see him as anything else than a substitute option.

For all Monaghan brought to the party in Omagh, their reliance on an average of 5.5 points a game from frees will be a concern, especially when Derry have conceded an average of two scoreable frees per game.

Another area of focus for Rory Gallagher will be use of Conor McManus. In their win over Tyrone, he kicked nine points out of as many kicks. Monaghan and Armagh have the highest use of the attacking mark, with nine in total, with McManus kicking four of them. Paudi McGrogan picked up McManus last year, with McKaigue on Jack McCarron and we could see something similar.

If Karl Gallagher pulls outfield like the Tyrone game, it could see Gareth McKinless playing on him in a similar role to the job on Josh Largo Elis against Fermanagh.

Corey was a selector last year under Seamus McEnaney and there has to be regret with how open they were in the early stages. Aside from limiting an in-form Shane McGuigan, they’ll need to occupy Paul Cassidy and newcomer Eoin McEvoy.

The champions will again wear the favourites’ tag and will have it tested to the max. You’d think Monaghan will need a goal to book their final berth next month. Derry were on a training camp at the weekend and they’ll need to bring the same passion to Saturday as last year’s encounter. If they do, they’ll have one hand back on the Anglo Celt Cup.

2009 Derry 3-16 Monaghan 0-20 – SFC Qualifier
2010 Monaghan 1-16 Derry 0-12 – NFL Division 1
2012 Derry 0-14 Monaghan 0-8 – NFL Division 2
2015 Monaghan 0-15 Derry 0-10 – NFL Division 1
2022 Derry 3-12 Monaghan 0-17 – Ulster SFC semi-final 

Shane McGuigan 5-64 (3 pens, 30f, 2m, 1 ’45), Niall Toner 3-24 (9f), Paul Cassidy 1-15 

Micheál Bannigan 0-27 (15f, 1 ‘45’), Conor McManus 1-22 (13f, 4m), Jack McCarron 0-17 (10f, 1m), Conor McCarthy 1-14 (8f) 

DERRY – Conor Glass
THE last two games have highlighted the unseen value of Glass to the Derry blueprint. He has a natural defensive sense and is happy to roll up his sleeves and work for the team. His loss robbed them of the extra level of cover that leaves them couching up goal chances.  

MONAGHAN – Rory Beggan
KIERAN Hughes had a part to play, but it was Rory Beggan’s kicking that game Monaghan a platform back into their blockbuster with Tyrone. Derry have been very aggressive on their kick-out press with Odhran Lynch even pushing up, so Beggan’s patience and accuracy will be vital


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