Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 Monaghan Freeman 520x280

When you think of modern football, you realise that Ulster men were the pioneers.

First there was Joe Kernan and his heavy hitting defence and those diagonal balls into the corner-forwards that reaped havoc with so many sides across the early years of the century.

They’d barely hit full stride when along came Tyrone with their frantic tackling, their massed defence and midfield, their willingness to let opponents win ball from kickouts because they knew well that when the opponent came down the ball would be turned over.

Now we’ve Donegal taking it to a new level with their tireless basketball-style game where they defend together and attack together, end-to-end GAA that requires the pace of a sprinter, the endurance of a marathon runner and the discipline of a monk.

But it was against this backdrop of trendsetting that Monaghan on Sunday robbed a tactic belonging to a southern team. It had been suggested here before that Down just couldn’t live with the Cork-style of football and that’s what cost them in the 2011 championship and 2012 league.

James McCartan’s front six, even with Benny Coulter there, aren’t suited to raw and brutal physicality. That’s what Monaghan brought to the Athletic Grounds and it worked for 34 minutes. Indeed there was a play a minute before the break that put Monaghan 0-10 to 0-2 up and surmised everything they had done so well.

With Down looking to press ahead from midfield, Dessie Mone ripped the ball clean from an opponent’s hands, fed Paul Finlay and he scored. It was that simple.

What made Monaghan so good was the sort of controlled aggression we hadn’t seen from them since 2007. Down can criticise referee Michael Duffy for the goal he gave against them late in the game but they cannot criticise him for allowing Monaghan to get tough. They broke no rules, were brilliantly focused and there wasn’t one lazy tackle until injury time Conor Laverty was felled for a needless penalty.

But as much as that was a turning point, we aren’t so sure Down wouldn’t have surged after the restart anyway. Robbing Cork’s style of play is all well and good if you have the athletes the All-Ireland favourites have and can maintain that intensity throughout a game.

It’s been a handful of years since we’ve seen Monaghan even attempt such a gameplan and for that very reason they weren’t able to maintain it. They squeezed into their old shorts, gave it a lash but found the fitness just wasn't there.

In fact by the early stages of the second half, the half-back line of Darren Hughes, Dessie Mone and Karl O’Connell was no longer a brick wall across the 40 and a springboard for so many counter attacks, it was a liability with Down suddenly picking holes and Conor Laverty in particular weaving a path through those gaps.

Monaghan showed what they could be, but they cannot be yet because that is a style that Cork have been working on in training for three years. It takes massive endurance and while Monaghan might well get there, they’ll need commitment away from summer that right now only the very top counties are giving as they strive to outdo each other while leaving the rest behind.

Playing Division 3 next year won’t help them as the wins may come easy and give the panel a false sense of themselves and an excuse not to push their bodies to breaking point. Without that, they cannot play as they did on Sunday for an entire championship match.

If Monaghan know what they need to do though, we don’t know what Down are going to do. Even though Ambrose Rogers tried to stand up and fight back in the opening half at the weekend, others didn’t and couldn’t. Without Dan Gordon their defence can be bullied and Cork in particular have shown it’s better to go through them and not take the Kildare approach from the All-Ireland final in 2010 when the Leinster side tried to go around them.

And up front they were never going to be the same side without Marty Clarke, Paul McComiskey and Caolan Mooney. Few counties could recover from losing that kind of talent.

Based on tactics, James McCartan should be praying it’s Tyrone and not Donegal that emerge from this Saturday’s clash in Ulster. It shouldn’t be, Donegal should win with two or three to spare and Tyrone just shouldn’t be able to keep pace with their counter-attacking game.

Granted, it’s the first test of Jimmy McGuinness’s modified system and we wonder if things don’t go well early, will they revert to type, play their ponderous 2011 game and hand pass the ball laterally rather than kick and carry it positively. If Mickey Harte with a team in transition can make them do that, then it’ll be another great moment in the career of the Tyrone manager.

Styles make fights and here we have pioneer against pioneer. Only in Ulster could you get such a match up.