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Monaghan have no problem embracing favourites tag

By Declan Bogue

For years, Monaghan amused Tyrone. They were Scrappy Doo in white and blue, always charging and barking "Let me at 'em".

Tyrone were the top dogs, calmly placing a palm on their forehead, keeping their neighbours out of range.

But for the first time in decades, Monaghan now enter a Championship game against the Red Hands as favourites, albeit marginal ones.

We can trace it all back to Seamus McEnaney. When he took over as manager, he demanded a return to traditional values.

He brought the Farney to the 2007 Ulster final. They tried a few things to spook Tyrone - they refused to wear their second kit and took the dressing room earmarked for the Red Hands. They recovered in the second-half to lead a spirited comeback but John Devine denied them with a wonderful save in the end as Tyrone won by two points.

The 2010 final was an altogether different story as Tyrone triumphed by 10 points. This weekend's game represents the fifth Championship clash since that landmark and the balance has shifted significantly, according to former Tyrone defender Conor Gormley.

"It's a fairly fierce rivalry," said the three-time All-Star. "It's full contact, all go and it's good to see it at the same time.

"It's an opportunity for Monaghan to show the country what they are made of, that they are not just a flash in the pan, they are well capable of competing with the best teams in Ireland."

For years, just getting a win over Tyrone was all that mattered. Along the way, they identified certain moments and slights, storing them away for future reference.

In 2011, they played a first-round Ulster Championship game in a Healy Park downpour. Dick Clerkin made a tackle with slight force on Sean Cavanagh and the latter ended up in a puddle. Referee Cormac Reilly lined Clerkin, who felt that Cavanagh had 'codded' the official.

In 2013, they met again in the All-Ireland quarter-final, the day of the infamous rugby tackle performed by Cavanagh on Conor McManus as he sped towards goal. His intervention was enough to chisel a win for Tyrone.

Funny how that incident has gone down in history. Joe Brolly's over-reaction to it seems to have clouded the clarity that existed around the introduction of the black card.

Even a thinker such as Jim McGuinness said this week that the Cavanagh tackle resulted in legislation being rushed through Congress to introduce the black card, although it had been voted in several months previously.

Either way, Monaghan were sick to the pits of their stomach about it. It would have been easy for McManus to be outraged about it, but he himself said the week after: "From a team point of view, if somebody went through on your own defence and he was not stopped you would be disappointed. It is what it is."

McManus' predecessor as Monaghan predator, Tommy Freeman, felt that a provincial title might have been the limit of their ambitions in any event.

He recalled: "You have to be realistic. We won our Ulster and that was it. That's all the boys were focusing on up to that day.

"People were downcast when you got Tyrone in a draw. I'm not saying it was the players, but more so the supporters in general. But it was another scalp they got and boys would have taken satisfaction out of it. There is no point saying any different and it builds confidence."

Last year in the Ulster first round tie, Darren McCurry, Dermot Malone and Darren Hughes were all sidelined with black cards.

Monaghan ended up winning by a point and as Mickey Harte remonstrated with referee Eddie Kinsella at the final whistle, Hughes ran back onto the pitch and barged into Tyrone selector Gavin Devlin. Some verbals continued afterwards.

What that tells us is that this rivalry is almost exclusively player-driven, rather than circumstantial. Where it becomes interesting is the fact that Monaghan's backroom - Malachy O'Rourke, Leo McBride and Ryan Porter - are all Tyrone-based. They have only one Monaghan man in Finbarr Fitzpatrick in their management team.

As for the football, Gormley believes that Harte's transformation of the Tyrone team is taking shape.

"They have changed their style this year, it's a more defensive style and they're looking to hit teams on the counter-attack. But it suits them well, they have the players to do that," he said.

"They are getting back but also have the energy to get up in support of the attack and cause damage with runs from deep. I think they are going well, their transition game is getting better. The space of Croke Park will suit them."

Freeman believes that the lessons learned in previous years will have pushed Monaghan's ambitions further than a provincial title.

He said: "If they get the match-ups right and they get the ball in fast to the full-forward line and keep a high intensity, I expect Monaghan to get over this one."

We will see.

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