Forward thinking has McManus delivering for Monaghan
Donegal will bid to limit the influence of Farney’s free-scoring captain fantastic
Further confirmation of where Conor McManus resides in the pantheon of marquee forwards came earlier this week from no less a judge than Tomás Ó Sé who described the Monaghan sharpshooter as the 'best forward in the game now'.
That kind of praise has been knocking about a bit among his Farney team-mates, who frequently challenge scribes to name one better. But when the praise comes untainted with local prejudice, it means more.
Oisín McConville believes it too, subtly pointing out that when Bernard Brogan left the familiar confines of Croke Park for the first time in his career a few weeks back, he was substituted by Jim Gavin, scoreless after 51 minutes.
In last year's Ulster final, McManus had not touched the ball in the first 25 minutes. Three minutes later, he and his marker Neil McGee were awarded a yellow card. McGee is a fearsome marker and two stone heavier than McManus but by half-time, the Monaghan captain had four points and stuck his head in the jaws of the lion by playfully tapping McGee's chest after one point when he won the physical stakes.
On Tuesday, the 28-year-old Clontibret man was in Croke Park for an Electric Ireland launch, promoting minor football. The irony wasn't lost on him that he was omitted from Paddy Bates' minor squad in 2005. Two years later, he was playing in an Ulster senior final.
"When you are that age, all you can see is being a county minor and your sole ambition is to get on the team. Whenever you don't make it, it can set you back," he concedes.
Back at the club, they made it to a league final. In 2006 he was wing-forward as they beat Scotstown. As luck would have it, they were drawn against Crossmaglen in the Ulster Club Championship. He played wing-back with the explicit instruction to keep Oisín McConville in his own half.
Frustrated to the point that McConville was sent off on two yellow cards, he came back on the field to have a word with this pale and skinny youth.
"I went back onto the pitch to speak to him. I knew he was a young lad and I just said, 'Keep at it, it will happen for you,'" McConville recalls. "I am not sure it was his dad or somebody, but someone said to me that they appreciated me doing that.
"I knew he was pretty special, he put me on the back foot and he scored a point that day too. But he was nine or ten stone wet through. He wouldn't have been physical, but he had the ability to go on."
On the back of those performances, Seamus McEnaney called him into the county U-21 training panel. Before long, he had leapfrogged that level and into the world of senior football.
McEnaney recalls tracking him as a youngster coming through underage.
"Myself and Adrian Trappe, who was my selector in 2007, both of us would have watched him and felt he was the best young fella coming up in Monaghan at 15, 16," he recalls.
"I remember he was injured for a game and I sent him to look at Cavan, who we were coming up to play the next week. He came back with the stats on the opposition and it was brilliant. That's the kind of trust I would have had in him when he was 21 years of age.
"He is, in my opinion, probably the best forward in the country at the minute and probably the most modest footballer I have ever known."
In interview, McManus is like most county captains in the week of a championship game. Courteous, polite and generous with his time, but on red alert against using something that the opposition might latch onto to create a siege mentality.
Asked about Neil McGee's red card keeping him out and he deflects the question. When you come at it from another angle and ask if McGee's absence changes his mental approach, he slips into boilerplate phraseology about 'never getting an easy game in Ulster yet' and 'doing your best for the team'.
When it was he who was dragged down by Sean Cavanagh in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final as he was heading for goal, he gave an honest response and didn't make capital of the fuss; if he had have been in the same situation, he would have done the same thing.
Such is the way. McManus is too clever than to be drawn into anything other than surface conversation about tonight's match against Donegal, but will discuss anything else. He works for the MCR group in Dublin, consulting over the biggest construction jobs in Ireland. He's no slow dozer. And yet, it is as a footballer that he comes alive.
"I think the stand-out forwards in the country is himself and Bernard Brogan. Brogan has only developed into that," McConville reasons.
"It's easier to find space in Croke Park. Try and find it in Clones. Bernard Brogan was taken off with the game played in Nowlan Park against Laois the last day.
"It's a lot easier to operate in large spaces, but when you are operating in small pockets of space, in Clones when you are being double- and treble-marked…"
Tonight, there will be plenty of that. McManus might have Paddy McGrath for company and he is sure to be double-teamed by the positionally-aware Karl Lacey.
And the best thing about all that is that it won't take a fidge out of him.
"The thing I like about him is he is ballsy as anything. You can talk to him, try and intimidate him, but he will keep going and going," McConville agrees.
"The night he scored 12 points against Dublin they were from ridiculous angles. On a sh***y February night! It was just an amazing bit of forward play."
Forward play that Donegal have to stop.