Antrim lack killer touch
Antrim 0-6 Monaghan 0-11: The form had been good, conditions were perfect, but in the end the decision to not to feature this game live by the major broadcasters was proved correct as Antrim's lack of ambition made for the first poor game of the Ulster Championship when they were cast aside by Monaghan.
In naming their team midweek and introducing no changes from the matchday programme, Antrim boss Frank Dawson may have been blatantly showing his hand.
Monaghan knew that Antrim would wish to play a game of containment after shipping heavy scorelines in their relegation from division three. But in doing so, playing a new formation that takes massive reserves of energy robbed them of attacking threat.
In the opening stages Kevin Niblock may have had a goal when he bore down on Monaghan goalkeeper Rory Beggan. He blasted over instead and the next two Antrim scores came from open play by midfielder Sean McVeigh in the 24th and 27th minutes.
Thereafter, Antrim did not score from play at all, adding only three frees. The statistic of only two wides in the second half said everything about their attacking limitations. A recurring theme of this years' championship – if you disregard the Donegal and Tyrone spectacle which of course should be taken as a game that breaks all known conventions – is how crucial the breakdown of kickouts manifests itself on the scoreboard.
Once the game settled into something of a pattern in the first half, it was evident that Antrim were being hammered on their own kickouts.
Despite using Mark Sweeney and Anto Healy as sweepers with Patrick McBride also funnelling back into a defensive channel, they could not manufacture a free man for goalkeeper Chris Kerr to hit and secure possession.
Of the nine kickouts Kerr took in the first half alone, Monaghan captain Owen Lennon caught cleanly three times, Dessie Mone and Dick Clerkin got one each while Kieran Duffy and Vinny Corey both latched onto breaking ball.
During that wretched spell, Monaghan were carving their way through the Antrim defence. The trouble with playing a packed defence is the danger of defenders switching off mentally and it wasn't until the 25th minute, with waves of Monaghan attacks breaking against the waves of defenders, did we see Antrim's gameplan beginning to pay dividends.
With the rearguard shored up they were able to get forward better and two brilliant points from Sean McVeigh kick-started a revival when it seemed unlikely.
Kevin Niblock then stroked a free over which was won after a typically daring raid upfield by Patrick McBride and from what resembled an unassailable position, Antrim were going in at half-time merely one point adrift, although concerned about Niblock limping off to be replaced by Michael Herron.
Losing Niblock would be critical. In playing the blanket defence, having forwards that the ball sticks to is absolutely crucial. Antrim simply did not have the panel of players and although they tried various permutations, nothing was working for them.
Still, there was significant optimism when a Paddy Cunningham free levelled matters just after half-time, especially with Monaghan reduced to 14 men when Neil McAdam was ordered off for a second yellow card on 39 minutes. Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke reacted by sending on Stephen Gollogly for Dick Clerkin and the impressive Drew Wylie who contained any threat that Michael Pollock may have posed.
Acting as sweeper in the Monaghan defence, Dessie Mone made several raids forward, but a lot of his good work was spoiled by poor finishing from inside forwards Christopher McGuinness and Conor McManus.
It was two frees from McManus that wrestled control of this game for Monaghan, one particularly notable given his reaction immediately after converting the second; turning to bystander McVeigh and giving him the universal hand signal for 'yapping.' The Oriel men were compiling a list of wides when a wild shot from McGuinness ended up in the paws of Kieran Hughes who dished off to Tommy Freeman who made it double scores.
It took Antrim until the 59th minute to get their second shot at goal in the second half as the game limped to an uninspired, inevitable conclusion. There will be better days, no doubt.
ANTRIM: C Kerr; K O'Boyle (capt), R Johnston, A McClean; S Kelly, J Crozier, P McBride, M Sweeney; S McVeigh (0-2), M Johnston; A Healy, P Cunningham (0-1, 1f), K Niblock (0-2, 1f), B Herron; M Pollock (0-1, 1f)
Subs: C Murray for B Herron (30m), M Herron for Niblock (half-time), R Murray for Cunningham (53m), J Carron for McClean (57m) P Doherty for M Johnston (67m)
Yellow cards: Niblock (28m), McVeigh (51m)
MONAGHAN: R Beggan; K Duffy, F Kelly, C Walshe; D Mone (0-1), N McAdam, V Corey; O Lennon (capt), D Hughes (0-1); P Finlay (0-1, 1f), D Clerkin, O Duffy (0-1); C McGuinness (0-2), K Hughes, C McManus 0-4, 3f)
Subs: S Gollogly for Clerkin (42m), D Wylie for Kelly (44m), T Freeman (0-1) for O Duffy (48m), J McCarron for Finlay (64m), P Donaghy for K Hughes (71m)
Yellow cards: McAdam (28, 39m), McGuinness (34m), K Hughes (50m)
Red cards: McAdam (39m)
Referee: David Gough (Meath)