PREVIEW BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THERE were sparks of battle filling the Longford air last Wednesday night.
The locals didn’t know what was amiss inside in Pearse Park.
Security was tight, prying eyes were kept away and even the groundsman was behind the wire.
Monaghan and Mayo were slogging it out in a challenge game. “Only the Mayo bus driver knew the venue so word wouldn’t get out!” one Mayo man said this week.
James Horan and Malachy O’Rourke have challenges in different orbits this Sunday: Horan’s Mayo go into the Connact final as 1/500 favourites against Monaghan. Horan needed a big game for his players, though, and sought out a Monaghan team readying themselves for the Ulster final against the reigning Ulster and All-Ireland champions, Donegal.
Details from the behind-closed-doors are sketchy, but there have been a few leaks from underneath the doorsills of Pearse Park.
Monaghan scored a late, late goal to win the game by a point.
It was said to be an aggressive game, where the physicality levels were cranked up to boiling point.
Mayo should be able to win Sunday’s game without over-exerting themselves, but Monaghan are preparing to go to to war.
Sunday in St Tiernach’s Park will be no place for the faint of heart. Monaghan, always a team who carry serious pride, will ramp up the heat on what will be an already boiling afternoon on which the temperature levels will soar to around 26 degrees.
This will be white hot on so many tiers.
Donegal have been readying themselves for a war of attrition, though.
“They played Mayo in a behind closed doors challenge and, while there have been a few reports coming out from it, there wasn’t a whole lot new to come out of it,” said the Donegal assistant manager, Rory Gallagher.
“They played quite well by all accounts and it was probably a typical Monaghan style. We’re always expecting Monaghan to make a real fight of it.”
The teams are running along the lines expected.
Donegal will welcome Karl Lacey back to their starting XV, with Neil Gallagher kept in reserve. Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn and Ryan Bradley have all recovered sufficiently enough to be given the nod, with no surprises on the fifteen that will take to the cauldron on Sunday evening.
“Everyone has taken a full part in training over the last number of weeks. Everything is good and we’re practically injury free, with the exception of Matthew Smyth, who won’t make it,” Gallagher said.
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke has made a number of changes ahead of Sunday’s Ulster final at Clones, but again there is little in the way of elements of surprise.
In attack, Paul Finlay and Dermot Malone have come into the team in place of Tommy Freeman and Gavin Doogan.
There is also one positional change in the line-up with Kieran Duffy and Dessie Mone switching places in the backline. Duffy is now named at corner back with Mone out on the wing.
Gallagher has not been surprised by how Monaghan have developed in the short reign of O’Rourke so far, the Donegal assistant manager having played under him in his last year as a Fermanagh player, 2010.
He said: “I played under Malachy in Fermanagh. He has a tremendous record in his first seasons with teams: He won an Ulster title in his first year with The Loup and won county titles in his first seasons at Errigal Ciaran and Cavan Gaels. In Fermanagh, he reached an Ulster final in his first year.
“Monaghan had a false reading there for a while. Monaghan were never a Division Three team, but they’ve done well this year and they’ll be well up for the game.”
Donegal will have the same routine as always this weekend. They will spend Saturday night in the Slieve Russell Hotel before travelling to Clones for the game on Sunday afternoon.
Clones is Monaghan’s home, but on Ulster final day Gallagher doesn’t believe it will have as big an impact as a run-of-the-mill Ulster game. He said: “I’ll be shocked if Donegal don’t have as many or more supporters at the game than Monaghan.
Donegal football is on a real high and people are so enthusiastic about it. I was out at a blitz recently and the crowd was huge.
“We’re fairly familar and well accustomed to Clones at this stage.”
There are a couple of big posers for Monaghan: Can they restrict Donegal’s in-form forward division to an extent where they can outscore them? And, if they do, can they find a way past a watertight rearguard that has conceded just two goals in ten Ulster Championship outings – both of which were penalties?
On the first, Donegal will again have a three-man inside line of Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.
With Colin Walshe expected to shackle McBrearty and Dessie Mone likely to be the man stationed on the sharp-shooting McFadden, it will be left to Drew Wylie to shadow Murphy – a daunting task for the Ballybay man, who is towered by some three inches by the Donegal captain.
At the other end of the scale, Monaghan do have quality forwards. In Conor McManus, Jim McGuinness said Monaghan possess ‘one of the top five forwards in the country’.
McManus is certainly a player who can exploit any chances that fall his way, while the dynamism of Darren Hughes cannot be discounted either, nor can the return of Paul Finlay or the penetration of Stephen Gollogly.
However, every one of them will need the game of their lives to get past the McGees, Frank McGlynn and Paddy McGrath.
With a three-in-a-row in their sights – which would be a first for Donegal – there is a real significance to this game for Donegal.
“It would be huge for the players,” Gallagher said.
“We haven’t been throwing out the usual spiel about this. It has been an option for us since the start of the Championship, but now we are one win away from making it happen. We’re also just one win away from an eleventh straight win in the Ulster Championship, these players not having won one game for three years prior to 2011.
“It’s huge. We’re delighted to be in this position. We have done tremendously well so far to get over the line against Tyrone and Down. We are very satisfied with where we are.
“We feel that it’s something they deserve, but it will only happen if we take care of the business at hand. Monaghan have their own agenda, but it all boils down to two counties looking to win the Ulster Championship.
“We have to bring it on. We can’t be coming home on Sunday with excuses.
“The prize is too huge.”
The return of Lacey to the Donegal rearguard will offer an outlet that hasn’t been seen yet in 2013. Monaghan are the unfortunate opponent to face it – and are unlikely to curtail all of Donegal’s aces on what could be a landmark day for what has fast become a special band of men.
History beckons for Donegal. The tenure of Jim McGuinness has been pock-marked by dots of history being written. Donegal should insert a new chapter to the book this weekend. The bookmakers rarely get it wrong, but the spread of -6 seems a little high.
Donegal will have enough to get over the line, but it won’t be without a battle of serious intensity. It could go along the way of last weekend’s Leinster final, in which Dublin pulled well clear of Meath in the closing stages.
Donegal to have too much firepower.