Tuesday 26 September 2017

An Ulster title eight years in the making

We knew Donegal wouldn't like playing against their own system, Monaghan veteran Dick Clerkin tells Colm Keys

The Monagahan squad celebrate after claiming their first Ulster title in 25 years at Clones on Sunday
The Monagahan squad celebrate after claiming their first Ulster title in 25 years at Clones on Sunday
Dick Clerkin with his son Caolan after Monaghan's victory in the Division 3 NFL final, a result that helped rebuild Monaghan's confidence
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Dick Clerkin made sure not to forget some old faces and names. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Seamus McEnaney in the stand and made his way over to him to embrace him.

McEnaney had created much impetus for Monaghan football when he took charge in 2005 and even though Clerkin had visited him and suggested after 2010, when he sought an extra three years in charge after already serving six, that it was possibly time for change, he still felt compelled to acknowledge his role in the journey.

"I gave him a big hug and told him his name was on the trophy as much as anyone else," recalled Clerkin.

There were others to remember too. "You talk about Damien Freeman, Gary McQuaid, JP Mone, Dermot McArdle – great men, all deserved to get an Ulster title, but they didn't.

"They know and the players in there (dressing-room) know, this didn't just happen today. This took maybe eight years to get Monaghan from where they were up to a level that year-on-year you could build that little bit extra."

Yet it felt like it had in fact, happened overnight. When Clerkin, who had missed a gilt-edged last-minute chance to force a replay, walked off the Athletic Grounds in Armagh after an agonising one-point defeat to Down 13 months ago, the sense that it was all over for them was all too apparent.

Momentum

"After that Down defeat last year the way things had tailspinned from the momentum we had up to 2010, it was very difficult to see this day. I honestly thought it was gone," he said.

"But then Malachy (O'Rourke) came in with a fresh team, new young lads came in and brought a bit of impetus with them. It was a bit of momentum and motivation to us older fellas and gave us the appetite to come back, the likes of Owen (Lennon), Tommy (Freeman) and myself.

"Bit by bit, starting with the McKenna Cup, we started winning games. We were in Division 3, we were winning games and that was something that we had not been doing in the previous few years and that gradually erodes your confidence.

"That is 16 competitive games that we have played this year and we have won 13 of them. There is only three finals we could have been in this year and we have been in the three of them and won two of them."

Yet to meet the greatest challenge of all they had to have ultimate faith and stick rigidly to a plan their new manager had laid out for them.

O'Rourke's record as a manager is quite extraordinary. County titles with four clubs in four different counties (Loup in Derry, Errigal Ciaran in Tyrone, Cavan Gaels and Latton in Monaghan – he joined their managed team in the middle of 2011 when they won), an Ulster club title with Loup in 2003 and guiding Fermanagh to an Ulster final replay in his first year in charge in 2008 represents quite a CV.

There may not be the evangelism of Jim McGuinness in him but there is hard pragmatism in what he does.

For the last two weeks, Monaghan researched every facet of Donegal's play and came to the conclusion a mirror image of themselves was the best way to discommode them. Donegal's semi-final win over Down ultimately provided the key.

"I spent the last two weeks watching Donegal in their previous two games. We all did, bar the pundits and the journalists who did not see weaknesses. We saw them and knew that," observed Clerkin.

"If we had a chance to beat them we had to target those weaknesses. They didn't like and they don't like playing against their own system and we knew that going in. Now would we be able to get enough scores playing that type of system? We didn't know, but we knew that our defence would be sound.

"All of us knew going into the game that Vinny (Corey) would do the job he did on Michael Murphy, Drew (Wylie) would do the job on Colm McFadden and Colin (Walshe) would do the job on McBrearty. Whether we would get the scores at the other end was the question, and the way we did it probably surprised ourselves."

It was Clerkin's 150th appearance for Monaghan at senior level, a milestone he chose to keep quiet beforehand just in case it didn't work out for them.

Paul Finlay is another Monaghan player who has given over a decade of service now and admitted the temptation to walk away has been strong in recent years.

"You think, are you ever going to get back to that level again (Ulster final appearances)," admitted Finlay.

"Time is a healer and you get a few months off. You start to gather your thoughts and when the team starts to gather again you see the panel that's there and you get a good feeling.

"You know the fellas you've been training with and you know they're good footballers. That was a great incentive not to walk away. I felt there was a brave pool of players there.

"It would have been easy for a lot of fellas to walk away after giving such long service. It just shows that if you stick at it and give a lot of hard work something good can come from it."

Finlay also poignantly remembered his late father Kieran, a Monaghan devotee and former player who died in early 2012. 'Jap', as he was fondly known, held the Ulster final scoring record with 1-9 in 1979 when Monaghan beat Donegal until Oisin McConville beat it in 1999.

"I experienced this with my club nine months ago, Ballybay won our first championship in 25 years as well, and this year Monaghan has won a first Ulster title in 25 years. Sometimes it's your destiny," Finlay acknowledged.

"Hopefully my father, wherever he is, is looking down somewhere and enjoying this with us. He's an awful miss here."

Finlay admitted the lift the team got on hearing that the minor team had claimed an Ulster title for the first time since 1945 was significant.

"When we were coming into the ground they were six down, I think, and the next thing we were hearing they were only a point down and then they got a penalty to go ahead.

"Then we heard they had won it so it was a great lift just before we came out. We were thinking that the minors were after doing something they hadn't done in a long time. That set it up and from the get-go we were able to execute what we wanted to do. It was unbelievable the way the day panned out."

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