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Carrying weight of favourites tag invites no added pressure: Hughes

By Declan Bogue

The crown of Ulster champions can weigh heavily on those that wear it.

So far this year, Monaghan looked to have it all under control. They ticked all the boxes expected of them and they posted a typically energetic performance in the Division Two league final to blow Donegal away.

In the Championship, they have all the bolt-ons that champions tend to display. They beat Tyrone for the first time in 26 years, a victory that now in the context of last year's Ulster title, might have been beyond them.

Last Saturday they played well below their best, yet they still headed into the last 10 minutes three points up, even without their standout forward Conor McManus for the last 25 minutes of the game.

That's the sort of self-assurance that winning a title gives you.

Look through pessimistic eyes and you will note they have their concerns too.

They were in a similarly comfortable position against Tyrone –four points up with less than 10 minutes left – and yet it was only a rare miscued Niall Morgan free that had the Oriel men in the hat for the semi-final.

Call it white-line fever or fadeouts, either way, Monaghan have been a little bit jittery.

It was something that was playing on the mind of full-forward Kieran Hughes when he emerged from the dressing room in Clones into the Saturday evening sunshine.

"It's early on in the Ulster Championship, but no doubt Malachy (O'Rourke) is going to look at that. I think we are sitting back a wee bit in the last 10 minutes.

"But we will have the whole week to see what the story is and we will try and get our act together and we are looking forward already."

Being champions comes with the extra burden of being favourite for most of the games you will play and some would make the case this does not suit Monaghan, who prefer instead to be aggressive underdogs.

"After the 18 months that Monaghan are after having, there is no reason we shouldn't have the favourites tag," explains the 22-year-old Scotsman man.

"I have no problem with it. I come from a good stature of a club and we go in as favourites in most games. If you have the favourites tag and you lose, automatically you are going to be put down for being too confident."

With McManus off the pitch for the last quarter it was noticeable how midfield duo Dick Clerkin and Darren Hughes wrung another few percent out of themselves to open up a gap.

Armagh had drawn level at 0-11 each with 10 minutes left of normal time, before Hughes made the most of a dirty ball in to fist over the bar to kick-start their final assault.

What happened then forms the prologue to this game. Ruairi Grugan's jersey was tugged by Ryan Wylie, Grugan himself looped it over and Armagh earned another day.

While referee Joe McQuillan was quick to spot that jersey tug, he wasn't so observant when Hughes was manhandled in the square a couple of times, but Hughes remained philosophical afterwards.

"Joe can't really see everything and it's probably up to his umpires. There were a couple of times I was dragged down. But defenders are going to try and get away with it, it happens the whole time and I know when I am back there myself you might try it.

"It is frustrating, especially when you think you can get the ball. But it's done now, water under the bridge now so let's regroup."

Belfast Telegraph

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