When Malachy O’Rourke took over the Monaghan reins from Eamonn McEnaney, he knew he faced a daunting sporting mission.
O’Rourke has winning feeling but still dishes out grim reality checkTight affair: Down’s Mark Poland is closed down by Kieran Hughes in the semi-final showdown at the Athletic GroundsPresseye
And if less than a month on active duty has seen Enniskillen schoolteacher O’Rourke plot the Farney side’s route into the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup final, it has certainly done nothing to dilute the enormity of the task he faces.
Scarcely had referee Noel Mooney heralded Monaghan’s surprise semi-final victory over Down at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh yesterday than O’Rourke seized the opportunity to provide his players with a grim reality check.
“We gave away too much possession, we took wrong options and our passing was poor,” he said. “We have an awful lot of hard work to do, that’s patently obvious.”
While he can take a ration of encouragement from the manner in which his side closed out a game that at one stage appeared to be beyond their reach, O’Rourke suggested that Monaghan’s itinerary to date has not proved a demanding examination of their credentials.
“The three teams we played up until now had all been under-strength and this Down side gave us our biggest test so far. We have to take lessons from this game and work on a lot of things,” added the Monaghan boss.
Down’s early flourish was highlighted by points from Donal O’Hare (2), Connaire Harrison, Keith Quinn and Mark Poland with Monaghan restricted to a brace of Conor McManus points from frees.
But by half-time Monaghan, feisty, combative and hardworking, had reined in their opponents primarily through a superb 28th minute goal, the product of a sublime Own Duffy pass and a clinical McManus finish.
And when this duo swooped for points immediately afterwards, Monaghan, rather against the run of play, enjoyed parity of esteem at the break (1-5 to 0-8).
But Down were dealt a blow in the 48th minute when Keith Quinn was red-carded following an off-the-ball tussle with Karl O’Connell.
When McManus and Poland, who scored on four occasions from play, traded points, Down enjoyed an uneasy one-point lead (0-12 to 1-8) but looked to have the pathway to victory smoothed for them when O’Connell was sent for an early bath after incurring a second yellow card.
Yet it was Monaghan in general and the inspirational Darren Hughes in particular who lorded the vital closing phase.
After McManus, who landed 1-7 in all, had levelled matters at 0-13 to 1-10, Hughes proved a tour de force by thundering over two majestic points in the 69th and 71st minutes that propelled his team into the final — and left Down manager James McCartan harbouring feelings of frustration.
“We made at least five bad errors in the closing minutes through our failure to protect possession. I would like to have seen us close out the game but this did not happen,” said McCartan.
But although his team has been denied a final slot, McCartan believes that the McKenna Cup has been “a means to an end”.
He said: “Boys like Ryan Boyle, Ryan Mallon, Danny Savage and Conor Gough have come in and performed well for us and more will be heard from them so in this context it was a means to an end.”
Down: M Cunningham; D McCartan, P Turley, R Boyle; D Rooney, A Carr, R Mallon (0-1); K King, K McKernan; D Turley, M Poland (0-4), K Quinn (0-1); D O’Hare (0-3, all frees), A McConville (0-1), C Harrison (0-1). Subs: D Savage (0-1, free) for McConville (45 mins), C Laverty for D Turley (45), D McKibben for Wylie (49), C Gough for King (55), P McComiskey for O’Hare (62).
Yellow cards: King (5 mins), McCartan (35). Red card: Quinn (49 mins).
Monaghan: M Keogh; R McNally, D Wylie, O Coyle; K Duffy, D Hughes (0-2), K O’Connell; O Lennon, D Clerkin (0-1); K Hughes, P Donaghy, N McAdam; D Malone, C McManus (1-7, 0-4 frees) O Duffy (0-1). Subs: F Kelly for Wylie (25 mins), P Finlay (0-1) for Clerkin (49), M McElroy for Coyle (51), G Doogan for Donaghy (68). Yellow cards: K Hughes (49), O’Connell (49), Lennon (56), Malone (70). Red card: O’Connell (66).
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan).