Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Lennon rising to occasion for Monaghan

Owen Lennon lead the way for Monaghan as they held off the challenge of Sean McVeigh and Antrim

At the ripe age of 30, Owen Lennon had waited a long time to finally lead Monaghan out as captain for an Ulster Championship game.

As it happened it was just as he might have dreamt, with a firm sod underfoot, a sun high in the sky, a win and a man-of-the-match performance to top it all off.

Standing at an imposing 6ft 3in, the Latton man underplayed his role as captain as he stood in the bowels of Casement Park, glowing with victory.

"It's a great honour of being captain of the boys this year but over the years I have been captain of the club. I am not really fazed by it. I don't really care who is captain of the team, but it is a great honour."

Being marked by Martin Johnston for Sunday's encounter, Lennon ruled the skies in a way not seen all that often in the Ulster Championship. His leaps were unaccompanied by another jumper seeking to break the ball and it made for an outstanding display.

As Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr looked to pick out a team-mate for his short kickouts, Monaghan pushed up, forcing him to kick long. In nine first half kickouts, the Saffrons only claimed possession twice, when Kerr went short to Ricky Johnston and Justin Crozier.

When he put the ball long, and despite often jumping against two opponents, Owen Lennon produced three clean catches. That's 33% of first half kickouts and it demoralised Antrim while convincing Monaghan of their tactically superiority.

"I think I was lucky enough," said Lennon of his airborne feats.

"Whatever way Casement is lined up you weren't really looking into the sun. Some days you could be jumping in Clones and you can't see anything. There was a good clear flight of the ball."

This game has already been rubbished by the usual lineup of judges, but it will serve Monaghan in good stead. They have never played Donegal in the modern era but in the past had always been able to beat them.

Now that Donegal have 'the system', a host of tribute acts have sprung up around Ulster. It could be said that Antrim were a particularly watery version, and that either Cavan or Fermanagh might be more polished in the forthcoming Ulster semi-final.

Either way, Monaghan now know what it is like to face a wall of defenders on championship day and can improve on their 17 wides on Sunday.

It's something Darren Hughes was keen to emphasise when he explained, "We knew what we were going to come up against, that they would get men back and make it hard for us. We struggled in games this year against blanket defences and it makes sense that they would play that against us. We have worked on it at training a lot and thankfully we got over that line."

Elaborating further, the Ulster interprovincial captain outlined the difficulties in playing against a formation of this kind.

"It's difficult, Christopher McGuinness and Conor McManus is the inside forward line and you can't get them on the ball much. We gave the ball away a lot in the middle third when you hit a wall.

"You can train it all you like, it's only when you come up against it in a match that you actually meet it. I suppose it showed there (against Antrim) and we were disappointed in the overall performance. It wasn't great but I suppose we defended with enough quality to get the win."

"After Donegal winning the All-Ireland last year, every team is going to play like that," explained Lennon.

"It is going to be hard to play against, they were putting us under pressure in kicking, I don't know how many wides, it must have been 20, but that was down to their pressure. It is very hard to play against, but you have to be patient."

With Hughes moved to midfield, his days of being the defensive sweeper appear to be almost over at this stage, but he was happy with how team-mate Dessie Mone adopted the role.

"Dessie was driving on in both halves, we needed it, needed a bit of penetration. We started off well in the first 15 minutes and went 0-5 to 0-1 up. It was disappointing to be only a point up at half-time after such a strong start.

"We regrouped at half-time and knew we had to win the second half. After the sending off we had to tweak the system a bit. Thankfully we had the quality to get the scores."

In the meantime, another return to Brewster Park for the Cavan and Fermanagh game awaits manager Malachy O'Rourke this Sunday, as he checks out the semi-final opposition on June 29.

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