English soccer academy saved my career – Lennon
FOUR years ago, Monaghan's Owen Lennon gave his inter-county future one last throw of the dice.
At just 28, his Farney future rested on a visit to Lilleshall in Shropshire, the former home of the FA's academy and still the base for a number of England's sporting bodies.
Paul Grimley convinced him there was enough expertise there to help him overcome a debilitating back problem. Oisin McConville vouched for their effectiveness. The Latton man gave it a final shot, with a view to first improving his quality of life.
"I was nearly retiring at that point, with all my injuries. That was the last straw and I just said I would go over and try this, and after a couple of months I felt completely at ease," he recalls.
"Even going and standing at matches... I had serious back pain just standing up straight. People wouldn't realise that. Then when you go out and play a match and maybe play poorly, you have people saying 'Jesus, what's wrong with him? You'd think he'd finish up' or whatever.
"I cracked a disc in my back. I had a lot of injuries down the years but thankfully this last three or four years I have stayed injury-free and it has extended my career a wee bit longer.
"I went over to Lilleshall and they put me on a flexibility programme with stuff like posture and all that craic. That made a massive difference.
"I still have to continue it on. If I didn't I would have serious back pain again."
He has been given a second lease of life, and while some other senior players are used less these days, Lennon (left) remains a key figure in the Farney set-up.
Malachy O'Rourke's first move when he was appointed Monaghan manager was to install Lennon as county captain.
O'Rourke and Lennon had previously worked together at Latton. And as one of a handful of survivors from the 2007 Ulster final appearance, Lennon had the ideal credentials.
A Division 3 title halted a slide from the top flight, and championship wins over Antrim and Cavan have Monaghan back on the right road. At one stage, Monaghan were seen as one of the hardest nuts to crack, an accolade that has now been taken by Sunday's Ulster final opponents and All-Ireland champions, Donegal.
"The thing you have to admire about Donegal is how consistent they are," Lennon says. "There hasn't been one blip ... they were beaten in an All-Ireland semi-final by Dublin (in 2011) and they actually played well that day.
"It's just hard to believe how consistent they are, and whatever way Jimmy McGuinness has them set up, it is a credit to them. That's all you can say about them."
It is unlikely the Ulster final will be as open as last Sunday's absorbing Leinster final. At 32, Lennon doesn't care how Monaghan get over the line, while Sunday's decider holds another significance.
With Casement Park in line for a multi-million euro redevelopment, time appears to be running out on Clones as host of the Ulster finals. And on Monaghan's chance to win another on home soil.
"Being 32 I know there aren't too many years left, and every player would like to win an Ulster Championship. We are definitely targeting this one and giving it the best shot we can," says Lennon.
"We are happy with the results against Antrim and Cavan but if you broke the matches down and looked at it as a neutral spectator, it would be terrible stuff to watch.
"But the game is just based on results and we got over the line, but we wouldn't be that happy with how we were playing in the first couple of matches.
"Some people are writing (Donegal) off after the match against Down but I think that the weather had a massive effect on that match. It was a wet and slippery ball and I don't think Donegal will be happy with that performance.
"They will be looking to get it back up where it has been the last three years in the championship, so it is going to be a very difficult task for us."