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Monaghan skipper Lennon's vision is to fly the flag

By Declan Bogue

The McKenna Cup final is often a footnote at the end of the year. Usually, counties are reluctant to include it in their hail of silverware but Tyrone in the Mickey Harte era have always seen it as a worthwhile endeavour.

Last January they went to the Athletic Grounds and saw off Monaghan on a freezing cold night with a win that was almost played out through muscle memory.

Just before half-time, Malachy O'Rourke's men were just a couple of points adrift when first Mark Donnelly, and then Stephen O'Neill hit the net. Soon after, Peter Harte fouled Ronan McNally and McNally's retaliation earned him a red card.

If Monaghan were in the business of learning lessons, that night was a worthwhile exercise.

Malachy O'Rourke spoke afterwards of where he felt the game hinged upon, saying, "We made a few mistakes that Tyrone exploited ruthlessly. That's what you are going to get at this level. Getting the man sent off just before half-time was a body blow.

"That was hard against a team of Tyrone's experience who keep possession well and don't really mind playing against the wind."

Still, on a rotten January night, Monaghan were a side that looked like they meant business. It has taken them all the way to August football in Croke Park, a stage they have not been to since 2008.

Captain Owen Lennon reflected on the journey they have taken since, with the latest journey another meeting with Tyrone on Saturday. Since the McKenna Cup, an awful lot has changed.

Tyrone made a league final and went in hotly-fancied to take Donegal's crown in the Ulster Championship, but instead it was Monaghan who tamed the beast.

"We only lost three matches out of our 17 this year, we hadn't lost one in Clones," comments the Latton man.

"We kicked on from the McKenna Cup and took it league match by league match. It was a good build-on from match to match."

In order to achieve that upward graph, a lot of honesty had to go alongside the mandatory hard work.

"In fairness to the boys they worked really hard," continued Lennon.

"I know every team is working really hard but this year there was a different sense to it. We were in the gym and there was a vision, it was no great secret that there was a possibility of getting to an Ulster final looking at the draw from the very start and we knew that if we could get there, we never knew what might happen."

It's an odd-thing, especially in this week of wall-to-wall trash talk, but when you ask Lennon if the Monaghan trainer Ryan Porter used his knowledge of Donegal – earned as their trainer during Brian McIver's time in charge – in order to counter Donegal's strengths, he answers, "Funny, Ryan never mentioned anything like that.

"It shows the type of the man that he just judged every man on their merits, on what they were good at and target those things. He never mentioned anything that went on in the Donegal camp."

The last time these two met in championship football it was a day of torrential rain in Healy Park. Dick Clerkin was sent off in the first half and despite a rally helped along by a Darren Hughes penalty, the Monaghan of 2011 were too raw, back then, for an experienced Tyrone.

Now the roles have reversed and Tyrone are coming with more youth in their ranks, while Monaghan have been able to season the likes of Kieran Hughes and Colin Walshe with years of experience.

However, there is another statistic lurking in the background that Monaghan would like to banish. They have never won a championship game in Croke Park.

Lennon has played there in those two bruising encounters of 2007 and 2008 alongside Dick Clerkin in midfield. He knows the ultimately worthless value of moral victories.

"There's stuff that we can use to motivate ourselves. We have been in Croke Park, played pretty well and unfortunately came out on the wrong side.

"We will be targeting getting a win in Croke Park. The Division Three league was one of the first wins since '05."

In order to beat Tyrone, they know they will have to turn in a performance every bit as good as the one that secured the Ulster title.

"Obviously, it's going to be very hard to reach those heights again," Lennon acknowledges.

"Everything fitted into place but it just shows you at the end of the day, with the players that we have and the quality in Conor (McManus) and Kieran Hughes, when they do click they will be hard to stop."

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