Make or break for McEnaney as Lilywhites test beckons
Published 24/07/2010 | 05:00
As the cars of the Monaghan players and management began sweeping into their training ground hard by the new bypass connecting Castleblayney and Monaghan on Thursday night, they might have been lifted by the sight of 20 or so children, some clad in the county colours, waving them in.
At least the faith of everyone has not dissipated in the wave of dejection that streamed down the hill from St Tiernach's Park last Sunday afternoon after the most disappointing result and performance the team have produced since Seamus McEnaney took charge in late 2004 and began pumping the county with energy and optimism.
It felt like a slow, painful death for this Monaghan team. Everything they laid on the line over the past six years, every level they got themselves up to, has been geared towards this one goal -- winning an Ulster title.
Last Sunday felt like their best chance, but the life was squeezed out of them with ruthless efficiency.
You could feel the enthusiasm draining away from Clones as early as the latter stages of the first half, as Tyrone asserted themselves.
Two weeks ago, the bookies had Monaghan pencilled in as fourth favourites for the All-Ireland title. That's right, fourth favourites.
The best of the rest in their eyes behind one of the trio of counties -- Kerry, Cork and Tyrone -- that the All-Ireland champions in 2010 will come from.
That itself was a measure of the journey they had travelled, however fleeting the status was.
This morning Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Down have all jumped ahead of them and in those figures the rise and sharp fall of Monaghan football can be calculated.
McEnaney's language of reflection has grown sharper as the week has progressed.
From "unacceptable" in the immediate aftermath in Clones, and the declaration that there would be no hiding place from it, to the communal feeling of "disgust" later in the week.
In his six years, last Sunday's defeat only matched their 2005 qualifier loss to the same opponents in Croke Park when they were then only in the embryonic stage of their development. Every other afternoon or evening in combat has at least brought their competitive instincts to the fore.
You have to think that a county which has maximised its limited resources and has gradually built themselves up to be one of the few teams that no one wants to meet over the last six years would not want that Ulster final malaise to be their epitaph. Right now, it is.
The history and tradition of rebound in these situations is both with them and against them.
Few teams, if any, over the last decade have been able to pick it up and win after losing a provincial final six days earlier. Admittedly, most provincial final losers have been afforded more time in these situations.
But, as Marty McElkennon pointed out earlier this week, Monaghan -- under their watch -- have never lost two successive championship games.
After losing to Tyrone in the 2007 Ulster final, they dusted themselves down 13 days later and beat Donegal in Omagh. A year later their early exit to Fermanagh was the preface for subsequent victories over Derry and Donegal before Kerry brought them to heel for a second successive season.
Last year they turned league dominance over Armagh into championship dominance, after losing to Derry in the Ulster quarter-final.
Analysing why it went so badly wrong won't have been easy for the Monaghan think tank this week ahead of their Round 4 clash with Kildare.
The notion that they froze or anything like that can be dismissed by the opening 20 minutes last Sunday.
It was fluent, it was inventive and both sides made compelling cases with the football they played.
But for Monaghan it left them as quickly as someone flicking a switch or pulling a plug from a socket.
What is certain is that Monaghan don't deal with expectation easily.
There were no shortage of takers for them up until 2.0 last Sunday afternoon.
Evidently, no player took a drink on Sunday evening, more out of embarrassment at what had happened than any foresight to the following weekend.
That itself is a good starting point on the quick road to redemption for a team that has thrived in the past in adversity.
For McEnaney this game will be his 'make or break' call to the future.
He's the second-longest serving inter-county football manager, with six championships to Mickey Harte's eight, but lose here and it will have him thinking long and hard about the future.
He's put Monaghan back on the map, kept them there and battling it out with Division 1 teams next spring could provide more adventure.
But, really, an Ulster title has been their currency, their priority. The feeling that it has passed them by is hard to displace.
New players have filtered through in the last 12 months but older legs could conversely start to unwind.
McEnaney has been able to pull rabbits from the hat in the past.
In 2007, he cleared the decks and took in a new management, treading on well-heeled reputations in the process. Last August, he pinched Paul Grimley from under Armagh's nose and that too was a brave and ambitious statement of intent.
But, unless they can cook up a serious reaction today and channel the disgust they have felt all week into something much more positive, the whole structure -- finely tuned over the last six years -- could well unravel.