Tuesday 12 December 2017

Colm O'Rourke: I used to go to Mass twice and check out the life insurance policy before matches in Monaghan

A general view of Clones
A general view of Clones
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Everyone has a particular impression of certain counties. It is very easy then to hold a view when thinking of Monaghan and Down in football terms. Very close in terms of distance but miles apart in perception.

Down have always had a special image - one of style and substance - dating back to the teams of the 1960s, men before their time. Paddy Doherty, Seán O'Neill, James McCartan. It was similar when I played. It was still about forwards, Greg Blaney, James McCartan Jnr and the prince of corner-forwards, Mickey Linden. They played swashbuckling football and even if they always had a quota of hard men, the image remained. It was attack, attack, attack.

In many ways it is strange for Down to have made such an impression on the consciousness of the nation. They have had just two really great eras, but that only reinforces the quality of those times. Those teams had absolutely exceptional players.

And even on mucky days in the marshes of Newry where the sun was low in winter league football, there was always the threat of a moment of magic from some of these great forwards. They hunted for goals. A few quick passes and then bang. The crowd went home happy. Down people talked about goals, it was part of what they were about.

Monaghan never had any such illusions of grandeur. Their football was of rock and moor and the stony grey soil of Kavanagh. Tough, bony competitors, men who wore flat caps, ate sandwiches out of newspapers and drank tea in the fields from bottles wrapped in paper to keep them warm, with corks stuffed in the top. Monaghan were proper hard men and their image in my eye is always one of backs. When I was playing against Gene Sherry, Gerry McCarville and Fergus Caulfield, I went to two Masses, checked out the life insurance policy and pointed the car for home before the game. Sometimes you hoped for a hamstring but they had not been invented back then.

A league match in Ballybay, Castleblayney or Clones was a trip to the lion's den and you needed to be hard in mind and body. Monaghan were honest and hard working, and in the mid-'80s were boxing close to the top. Their football was a reflection of place, there was a bit of raw hardness about it. Survival perhaps. People of ingenuity who lived on their wits and if you asked them what they worked at, it was 'a bit of this and a bit of that'. I never knew exactly what they meant by that wonderful phrase, but I assume it was anything they could turn their hands to.

Anyway, they had a fierce passion for football which I have always admired but their football was functional. It was like the Italian soccer team of the '70s, look after defence first and second and third and then worry about getting scores. The bolted-door philosophy.

Things have not changed much. Monaghan people are an example of getting on with things, no complaining as the general view among their people seems to be that in life or football hard work will yield the required results. On they go now with Division 1 league status and a couple of recent Ulster titles, with Malachy O'Rourke drawing the best out of them and an under 21 team coming along with a few new recruits. And yet, and yet . . . the big cup continues to elude them. In the 1980s there was not much between Meath and Monaghan but they could not jump the last fence and we got up their inside.

'Now there is an octopus waiting to engulf Kevin McKernan when he comes at speed to take a ball off the shoulder' Photo: Sportsfile
'Now there is an octopus waiting to engulf Kevin McKernan when he comes at speed to take a ball off the shoulder' Photo: Sportsfile

A similar scenario presents itself now. Close but no cigar. The team is built on graft and Conor McManus and how often have you read or heard how good Monaghan could be if they had another forward in the McManus class. It must grate with some of their forwards like Paul Finlay who has been kicking great points off his left foot for what seems like 20 years. Yet the image remains.

The problems emerge in Croke Park. In the Ulster derbies Monaghan have got the number of everyone except Tyrone, but in Croke Park things unravel. Often in a spiteful way too. That big field in Dublin has not been their friend too often and some of their players seem to blow a fuse easier when they get to Croke Park. Last year's game against Tyrone being one example and who started what does not really matter. Bottom line, Monaghan just sank. Now they start all over again.

Down on current form are going nowhere fast. Their league form was dreadful and there is a struggle to marry the inherited desire for flat-out attack with the massed defence which is required now. So forwards like Donal O'Hare and Conor Laverty must regret not being born in another era, one where an inside forward could get the ball, beat his man and see the whites of the goalkeeper's eyes. Now there is an octopus waiting to engulf Kevin McKernan when he comes at speed to take a ball off the shoulder.

Anyway Down have to live with the past and make more music in the present. It is not going to happen this year or any year soon either because they do not have the individual quality. The league results don't lie and league form now fairly well transfers to the championship. Down were a poor Division 1 team and they won't be much better next year in the second tier. So no matter what system Eamon Burns employs, there is not the personnel to carry it out. A bit like 25 other counties.

The factory that has produced legendary Down forwards has dried up but that particular factory was a bit unique as the talent produced matched anything, anywhere. So the ghosts of the past will continue to haunt the present Down group but it is not just forwards that they lack. Burns has attempted to put in place a defensive structure to basically copy what others are doing. It may not be the Down way but if their supporters want to see them destroyed they should go man on man. It would not be pretty. So needs must. Yet even allowing for that this is a poor Down team and it does not appear to be going anywhere quickly.

Monaghan are a model of good practice; they win more than they are entitled to with the resources at their disposal and there seems to be a good balance between club and county. It is always a rocky road in Ulster but anything less than an All-Ireland quarter-final would now seem a bad year and that barrier must be broken eventually. Like the Chinese proverb says, the longest journey begins with a single step. That should start with a clear-cut Monaghan win today.

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