22 June 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A place in Ulster Football’s showpiece offers Eamonn McEneaney’s men a shot at redemption – but injury scares are
casting a shadow. by COLM SHALVEY

A third Ulster Senior Football Championship Final appearance in six years is the prize on offer for Monaghan when they take on Down in Armagh on Sunday. A difficult two years which has seen Monaghan relegated twice and suffer first-round defeats in both the Ulster and All-Ireland championships could be redeemed somewhat by claiming a place in Ulster football’s showpiece on July 22. Monaghan have rarely, if ever, been able to boast a clean bill of health in that time and once again, doubt surrounds the participation of some of Eamon McEneaney’s team’s key players. Paul Finlay is still attempting to shrug off the shoulder injury he suffered in the first-round win over Antrim, while Tommy Freeman had yet another setback when he reportedly pulled up at a recent training session. The Magheracloone man seemed to have put his long-running hamstring troubles behind him, but is once again on the doubtful list. Finlay and Freeman have been Monaghan’s key forwards in the last decade and are the county’s top scorers in championship football with a combined total of 8-121 in 68 appearances and are still vital to the cause. In better news, Darren Hughes played in Scotstown’s last senior league match, when he scored a goal in his club’s narrow defeat in Magheracloone. The potential return of the International Rules star would lift Monaghan, as should the return to full fitness of Conor McManus, who now has a few games under his belt.
The win over Antrim, while far from perfect, did at least give Monaghan a badly-needed boost and it showed that the players still have the heart and desire, as they finished strongly to turn a three-point deficit into a 1-12 to 1-9 victory. Down have failed to hit the heights that saw them reach the 2010 All-Ireland final, but they are still very dangerous opposition for Monaghan. James McCartan’s side defied the odds to squeeze into the Allianz National Football League Division One semi-finals and even though Cork continued their Indian sign in that match, Down’s campaign can still be viewed in a positive light. They were less than impressive in battling past Fermanagh in their Ulster opener in Enniskillen, however, as they won by just five points despite playing most of the match with an extra man after Daryl Keenan’s early red card.
Monaghan need no reminders of Down’s potential after they were on the wrong end of a heavy defeat in Clones in the Dr. McKenna Cup in January, although the Farney men will expect to be much stronger this time around.
Even in the absence of Benny Coulter, who broke his ankle at the start of last month, Down can still on quality all over the pitch. Burren’s Donal O’Hare looks like starting to transfer his prolific club form to the county stage after he top-scored against Fermanagh, while the energetic Danny Hughes, playmaker Mark Poland and accurate free-taker Aidan Carr also provide options up front. Ambrose Rogers and Kalum King make up one of the most formidable midfield duos around, while Kevin McKernan, Conor Garvey and Brendan McArdle are as comfortable going forward as they are defending. The game may come too soon for injury victims Dan Gordon and Niall McParland, but Liam Doyle is pushing for a place.
Monaghan will be encouraged by the performances of experienced players like Dick Clerkin and Dessie Mone against Antrim, while Colin Walshe also put in his best display in the white and blue to date in 2012 and Stephen Gollogly showed in the second half what he has to offer. The impressive substitute role played by Kieran Hughes could see him handed a starting jersey for Sunday and Karl O’Connell will be expected to hold on to his starting berth after his dream debut four weeks ago. If Monaghan can get all their first-choice forwards on the pitch, they have the potential to do damage and if they can get everyone fit in time for Sunday’s showdown, they stand a real chance of causing the first shock of this year’s Ulster championship. So far, this year’s competition has gone to plan and there has to be an upset somewhere along the way, doesn’t there?

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