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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Paul Curran: Ulster champs will take a lot of stopping

Conor McManus, Monaghan lifts the Anglo Celt cup
Conor McManus, Monaghan lifts the Anglo Celt cup

Ulster football over the years has come in for some heavy criticism - mainly because of their defensive systems - but the games are always fascinating.

Yesterday in Clones Monaghan won their second provincial championship in three years with a hard earned but fully deserved victory over defending champions Donegal.

Both teams adopted an ultra-defensive plan, with as many as 13 players behind the ball in the first half and it was no surprise that there was only seven scores registered in the opening 30 minutes of play.

Donegal started brightly and were three points to one ahead after five minutes but just when they seemed to be gaining control of the game, Monaghan’s game plan kicked in.

They were watertight at the back and their tackling was disciplined. At times it would have been easy to mistake this Monaghan team for Donegal in their prime.

Donegal, however, would have still been happy enough going into the last five minutes of the half just a single point behind but Monaghan managed to break through and score four very important points to give them breathing space.

Donegal were really poor and looked a tired team but they are a resilient bunch and the second half was always going to be an opportunity to up the ante and go at Monaghan and ask some questions of them.

That they did and were it not for some poor shot selections they would have been right back in the game. I counted four good scoring opportunities, none of which were converted.

At the other end Monaghan scored with their very first attack of the second half from the boot of Eoin Lennon. It was a sublime effort that would have really hurt Donegal but Monaghan didn’t really kick on after that.

Instead it was Donegal who found their running game, with Ryan McHugh central to everything, and in the next 25 minutes they outscored Monaghan by six points to three to leave just a point between the teams.

The game was in full flight at that stage but both teams, particularly Monaghan, were guilty of giving away cheap possession. Monaghan, in fact, should have killed the game off but just couldn’t get the important scores that would have kept their opponents at a safe distance.

With time running out Donegal looked a good bet to earn a draw at the very least but even with all their experience they couldn’t get through the Monaghan defence.

In the end Monaghan probably deserved the victory and they had a real match-winner in Conor McManus, who had another outstanding afternoon in the Clones sunshine.

He really is a top marksman and some of his scores were out of the top drawer. He has also got stronger and now seems to have the confidence to take on his markers and head for goal.

I am looking forward to watching him again in the quarter-final and  his team must be taken very seriously in the All-Ireland series in a couple of weeks’ time.

No team left in the competition will fancy the task and I think they are a dark horse to go all the way. They have quite a lot of Croke Park experience behind them too so it won’t phase them one bit when they arrive at headquarters.

For Donegal it will be difficult to pick things up and go at the qualifiers but they still have the firepower to trouble anyone. The real question is whether or not they have the hunger and the desire to go at it again.

I saw a quality team yesterday with miles on the clock and some very important players are on the wrong side of 30. I wouldn’t write them off but I can’t see them beating a Kerry or a Dublin and for them to go the whole way they will more than likely have to beat both.

Elsewhere,  the Connacht final turned out to be a very one-sided affair as many predicted but the result will do neither team any favours as they prepare for their next game.

Sligo were completely out of their depth and Mayo sensed this from very early on and went for the jugular.

Mayo got harder games in the national  league and I suppose it is another nail into provincial coffins.

Nobody likes to see a team getting destroyed at this stage of the year but these results are becoming more common especially in Connacht and Leinster.

To be fair to Mayo, they were ruthless yesterday and went about their business in a way that you would expect from a seasoned outfit.

They will need to get their collective feet on the ground as soon as possible but if they can perform close to their best they will have a huge say in the championship.

For me it’s still Kerry’s to lose after they took care of business on Saturday.

They are moving nicely without showing a whole lot and will no doubt find something extra when they get back to Croker.

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