Friday profile: Malachy O'Rourke - Up on the high-wire getting the job done
The first time Malachy O'Rourke encountered some of the current Monaghan players, they appeared to be in a really good place.
They had been to the previous year's Ulster final. They should have beaten Kerry in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final. Monaghan were one of the favourites for the '08 Ulster title. They were certainly fancied to get to the final. And then they ran into O'Rourke.
He was in his first year as Fermanagh manager. Fermanagh had been in Division 3 that spring and Monaghan were expected to roll them over.
To steel the Fermanagh players' mindset, O'Rourke told them the story of the Zulu warriors, and the chant the South African nation adopted in the lead up to the 1995 rugby World Cup clash with New Zealand.
In the story, one of the warriors asks, "Niya besaba na?" - Are you afraid of them? "Hayi!" they roar. "Asiba Sabi!" - No! We are not afraid! "Siya bafuna!" - We want them! In the hotel before the match, O'Rourke smiled with intent as he recounted that tale. "Lads," he said, "we want these boys."
Fermanagh turned Monaghan over. A few weeks later, they met a Derry side who were then second-favourites for the All-Ireland. They had beaten Kerry in the League final, and had taken Donegal out in Ballybofey.
Fermanagh scalped them to reach the Ulster final for only the second time in 63 years.
In that decider, Fermanagh were within touching distance of delivering their first Ulster title. Armagh still had a lot of class and experience in that team but Fermanagh reeled off seven of the game's last nine scores to force a draw. Armagh regrouped to grind out the replay but Fermanagh had been one of the stories of the summer.
In an understated and underrated way, so had O'Rourke. It has been the story of his managerial career.
When O'Rourke took over the Monaghan team in 2013, they were in a similar position to where Fermanagh were in 2008. Somewhere along the way, Monaghan had forgotten how to win. In the previous two seasons, they had won just five of 19 League and Championship matches.
Successive League relegations did more than just dent their confidence. It drained enthusiasm. It got at their self-esteem. It diminished their status as a team the opposition often preferred to avoid.
Winning an Ulster title became an obsessive mission under Seamus McEnaney but when the window closed for that team in 2010, it didn't look like it would reopen any time soon.
And then O'Rourke smashed his way right through it, delivering Monaghan their first Anglo Celt Cup in 25 years.
That win enriched his standing as one of the best sudden impact managers in football, but what O'Rourke has done in the meantime has inflated his status as one of the best, yet undervalued, managers in the game.
After taking Monaghan from Division 3 to Division 1 in successive seasons, he guided them to within one point of Dublin in this year's League semi-final. On Sunday, he leads them into a third Ulster final in a row for the first time in 92 years.
"The job Malachy has done has been unbelievable," says Anthony Forde, coach to the Cavan side who narrowly lost to Monaghan back in May. "He knows how to get the best out of players. You can see that in how he has managed great servants like Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay.
"Look at Conor McManus now, their marquee player, to what he was when we played them in 2013. He's a totally different player: tougher, stronger, cuter, shrewder. Okay, he's older but he married that toughness with a clinical edge. Malachy O'Rourke has been able to mould Conor in that way."
O'Rourke has achieved as a manager what he could never hope to do as a player. He played for Fermanagh for over the bones of a decade, but won just two Championship games, both against Antrim.
He was a decent footballer, hard-working and solid, compensating for his lack of pace with his efficiency as a free-taker.
When he moved to Ballygawley in Tyrone in the early '90s, he transferred from his native Derrylin to Errigal Ciarán. His wife was teaching in Eglish, O'Rourke was teaching in St Joseph's Enniskillen, and Ballygawley was a halfway house for both of them. O'Rourke won a couple of championships with Errigal Ciarán.
"As a player, Malachy was honest, hard-working and very unselfish," says Peter Canavan. "His style as a player is very similar to the way he manages: unassuming, keeps the head down, works hard, does his job and does it well. There was never any fanfare with Malachy."
As soon as O'Rourke got on the club coaching circuit, he began making an impact wherever he went, especially in his first season.
He started out with Tyholland in '01 and instantly guided the Monaghan club into the senior grade for the first time in their history. Two years later he took over The Loup and led them to a first Derry title in 68 years, and a first Ulster title.
It was inevitable that Errigal would come calling and they did in '06. Once again, O'Rourke delivered a county title.
"Malachy is a good man-manager," says Canavan. "He will get to know players and what makes them tick. That's a crucial part of his style. He has got the best out of these Monaghan players."
When O'Rourke went to Cavan Gaels in '07, they had won three of the previous four championships but were coming off the back of a defeat to Mullahoran in '06. The Gaels have been the dominant club in the county since '01 but O'Rourke's influence in '07 was a big factor in the continuation of that dominance.
"We were at a crossroads in '07 and we could have gone either way at that stage," says Forde. "Malachy turned us around. He was brilliant that year but what I admired most about him was his ability to connect to the club, to get into the spirit of the club and how it's run.
"Town clubs are different, there's a different breed there to country clubs but Malachy gelled everyone together.
"He got everyone involved in some way. There was a great spirit and willingness there because Malachy had harnessed everyone around the club to promote a good positivity. He set up good practices that are still being used to this day."
The turning point that season was Cavan Gaels' opening championship game against Gowna. They were eight points down at half-time, but that situation drew the best out of O'Rourke.
"It was the first time we saw him mix his ruthless streak with great tactical awareness," says Forde. "That's the part of him that people don't see."
O'Rourke's time with Fermanagh ended in disappointment with relegation to Division 4, but he had changed the whole culture in the county.
"We were going into games confident," recalls former Fermanagh player Marty McGrath, "because we knew we were better prepared than whoever we were playing."
O'Rourke was always tactically astute and he has developed that side even further in recent years. His analytical mind always gave him an edge but his man-management skills help sharpen that edge.
"Malachy was always able to make players want to play for him and to play for each other," says Peter Leonard, a selector with O'Rourke in Fermanagh. "He is brilliant on that whole psychology of getting the most out of people but his modesty as a person reflects on his teams.
"Malachy is also a very patient fella. You could talk to him about some problem and he'd never be in a panic about it. He'd think about it but you'd never see a knee-jerk reaction out of him.
"He expects professionalism and a high level of commitment but he is very realistic and fair with players too.
"He's just a really decent fella. I would say that Malachy O'Rourke has very few enemies. Some managers are just that not well liked but nobody has a bad word to say about him.
"A lot of that is down to the fact that Malachy has time for everyone."
Canavan first noticed those traits at St Mary's Belfast. O'Rourke had been part of the historic St Mary's team which won their first and only Sigerson Cup title in 1989. That team included some big names: Benny Tierney, Pascal Canavan, Danny Quinn, Jarlath Burns, Seamus Downey.
Canavan only played one year with O'Rourke but he was regarded as a real leader amongst that group.
"Even back then, Malachy had a really good way about him," says Canavan. "He was popular amongst his team-mates. He had a good sense of wit about him. He enjoyed the craic and was easy company. There was never any airs or graces about Malachy."
While O'Rourke was studying to be a PE teacher in St Mary's, he did his thesis on the V02 capacity of Gaelic footballers and how it could be maximised. That might seem standard now but going to that level of research in 1989 showed just how hungry for knowledge O'Rourke always was.
Monaghan have kept going and kept crossing new thresholds under O'Rourke. When they beat Kerry in the League in March, it was Monaghan's first victory in the Kingdom for 27 years.
They were the first team to puncture a hole in the Donegal aura in the 2013 Ulster final. After the disappointment of last year's defeat, they have another chance now to derail the Donegal machine again.
It's a big ask with everything on the line but that's the way O'Rourke has always liked it. One time before a big game with Fermanagh in 2008, O'Rourke told the players the story about the man on the wire in the Manhattan skyline. Up there with everything literally on the line was what real living was about.
"Everything else," he said, "is just hanging about."
O'Rourke has never hung about. He has always been up on the high-wire getting the job done.