'I don't think we are as far off the mark as a lot of people say'
Expectations may be low, but Monaghan have never been afraid of lofty reputations, writes Dermot Crowe
IN late November 2005, on a miserably wet Wednesday afternoon, a parish priest stepped into the principal's office in St Mary's secondary school in Irvinestown carrying a plastic bag. Those already in the room included the school principal Eugene McCullough, the former Tyrone GAA chairman Cuthbert Donnelly, and one other notable presence, the focus of everyone's attention, Sam Maguire.
Tyrone were All-Ireland champions and had the famous cup in daily circulation, with Donnelly the appointed guardian, seeing that it got to all the destinations marked in his diary and came to no harm.
On the day it arrived in Irvinestown, the Ederney parish priest, Fr Larry Duffy, came to pay his dues. He was a Farney man and in those few minutes his passion for Monaghan football shone like a beacon. Seeing his arrival, the principal jested: "Come here Father and we will get ye immortalised, the first Monaghan man to hold the Sam Maguire."
As he left the school, Fr Duffy confessed that a Monaghan All-Ireland would make him blissfully happy. Earlier he had whipped a Monaghan jersey from the bag he was carrying, pulled it over his head and posed for a picture beside inter-county football's greatest prize. He is fuzzy on the details eight years later, now working as the parish priest in Clones. "I don't remember the jersey," he admits, "but it is like a thing I would do."
At one point during that tour of schools and homes and hospitals, Cuthbert Donnelly, who had seen plenty of bad times in Tyrone, offered a message to those envious of his county. "A lot of people – whenever they get it (Sam) in areas like that – they turn around and say, 'we'll never win it'. But with 30 people, a good management system, total commitment, you can win like anybody else. We thought it was never going to happen. That's what I'd say to the Monaghans and the Cavans and the Fermanaghs, don't youse worry, we wore that T-shirt as well."
Now, when it is put to Fr Duffy if he ever dreams of the day Monaghan will lift the Sam Maguire, he says "one lives in hope" and adds that if it materialises he will want for nothing. Today he will say Mass in Clones at 9.30 and again at 11.0 and pay some reference to the big game in the town, cognisant that there may be some members of the "opposition" in the congregation. Other priests with a football interest will call to see him, they'll lunch, and he'll offer the use of the parish house's parking facilities. There may be some clergy from Donegal there as well, he expects.
The other reason Fr Duffy's intervention is remembered from that day in Enniskillen is because of the story he told of his Monaghan jersey being robbed while he served in Kenya. When he was leaving Ireland for a four-year term in 1998 friends gave him the county jersey as a parting gift. He received a Man Utd shirt as well but his connection there is nowhere near as visceral as his attachment to Monaghan.
The white and blue jersey was stolen in Kenya in 2002 while he was saying Mass by a tree in the open air, one of a number of items taken from his car. He came back some time later with a Monaghan GAA yearbook to show the locals what the missing object looked like and asked them to help in the search.
The same evening he spotted a Kenyan lady on a bicycle wearing a Monaghan shirt. Rarely has two and two made four with such alacrity. "We had an interesting meeting. She said her husband had got it for her; turns out she had no husband. Maybe her son had taken it from the car, I don't know."
No matter. Priest and shirt were reunited.
The year he came to Clones parish from Ederney, Monaghan reached the Ulster final, their first since 1988, and lost to Tyrone. This is their second provincial final since then but expectations are restrained given the calibre of opposition and unremarkable form of Monaghan in league and championship. The minors are in the final as well, a Monaghan double act not witnessed since 1930. Monaghan haven't won an Ulster minor since 1945, and long stretches of anonymity are a feature of their footballing history, although this is their second minor final in succession.
Fr Duffy is a Magheracloone man and theirs is the first result he'll always look for even though his family are out of the place for decades. He stopped playing senior club football at the time of his ordination in 1976. Football was tough as nails in Ulster and tougher still in Monaghan. "I played the one game after ordination in Inniskeen. It was a fairly physical encounter, and I remember one of our mentors said, 'We better take off the wee priest before they kill him'. So I was substituted."
Talk to people in Monaghan about what impression they gave the world of themselves before the breakthrough in 1979 and they all chorus similar traits: tough and hard and physical. Fr Duffy remembers coming back to see a county semi-final in 1978, not having set eyes on a Monaghan club game for two years, and being "taken aback" by the physicality and "how committed they were; you had to be a real man to take part in it."
By then Nudie Hughes was playing county football and he recalls a county where club was king until the arrival of Seán McCague as manager the same year. He united the warring factions and in '79 came their first Ulster senior football win in 41 years. That spawned their most glorious decade in the 1980s, the pinnacle being the two matches with Kerry in 1985. Monaghan came out of the shadows and announced itself to the world and added indelible moments to the GAA archive.
"Club football is very tough," says Nudie, even now. "No question, the refs let play go. Monaghan have been known to be hard and fair. Teams always expected a tough game from Monaghan."
Nudie was not a strapping athlete – you would not confuse him with, say, Maurice Fitzgerald – but he thrived as a will-of-the-wisp ball player with nimble feet, a daring solo act blessed with a natural swerve of the hips. If someone like Nudie, not the biggest man playing football, could survive the Monaghan domestic scene where there are only 30 clubs, just a third of them senior, then Croke Park was a kids' playground in comparison. He won the county's first All-Star in '79. He finished with a county record of three. He won them at both ends of the field.
Today the last Monaghan team to win the Anglo-Celt, the team Hughes was a member of in '88, will be paraded at half-time on their silver jubilee. It seems too long and while Monaghan remain competitive and pop up in odd Ulster finals, winning a title has again taken on a look of novelty. "Football was something Monaghan people craved, but Monaghan people would have supported Cavan and Down over the years because they went on to win All-Irelands," says Hughes. "That was why they went to Croke Park. When Monaghan won in '79, it changed the whole outlook."
He'll be there today along with Fr Duffy hoping they can spring a surprise like '79 when they began the season as total outsiders and finished Ulster champions. "They know they are up against it with Donegal. Spectators are going more in hope then expectation."
Fr Duffy says they are limited by a relatively modest playing population. But they are tightly-knit and that has its advantages for performance and character. "Certainly those who represent the county do so with a great honesty and great commitment. Well rarely does a Monaghan team ever lie down; they are certainly used to being beaten but they give a 100 per cent."
Hugo Clerkin, an Ulster medal winner in '79 and '85, says expectations are "realistic" ahead of today's Ulster final against the All-Ireland champions but adds that hope is not absent. "I would imagine that the players, and for a number of years they did play in Division 1 and played very well, don't fear anybody. I am not sure that has got through yet to the younger players.
"I'll be honest with you: I don't think we are as far off the mark as a lot of people say. I have to say we haven't played well this year. We expected to get to the final when the draw was made."
What is our impression of Monaghan? To some it is formed by memories of the 1980s team and those are positive in the main, the county earning a reputation for more than sheer toughness and will to win. They could play a beautiful brand of football too. They have, over the years since, maintained that honourable tradition by turning out some lovely kickers, footballers in the purest sense. On their day, they're capable of beating any team. Putting enough of those days together has been the rub.
Fr Duffy remembers being shocked by fellow college students not knowing if Monaghan was north or south. Presumably that was before the 1980s team gave the unenlightened a geography lesson as well as hours of entertainment and drama. The '80s is too far back for some people. It is only a few years since a Dublin footballer slagged off a Monaghan opponent's allegiance to the Queen. Whether this charge arose out of pure devilment or ignorance, he was put right in no uncertain manner.
Fr Duffy speaks of Monaghan's innate resilience and resourcefulness. "It is a rural area and the farms are much smaller generally than down the country. Consequently people had to rely on other things. Things like mushroom growing . . . people reared rabbits. They had a border mentality as well. Most of the industries were home-spun. By and large, Monaghan people are not afraid to work and work hard."
They face a hard day's work in Clones today, that's for sure. Monaghan will stick their chests out and thunder into them, irrespective of rank or reputation. After that, who knows?