Saturday 17 August 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'It's downright insulting to Malachy's legacy to suggest that he has overachieved'

Malachy O'Rourke. Photo: Sportsfile
Malachy O'Rourke. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Late in the summer of 2012, following two successive seasons of disappointment, a group of players, both young and old, congregated in Paul Finlay's kitchen to reflect on the direction Monaghan football was headed.

Eamonn McEneaney had resigned as manager after two luckless campaigns that had seen us fall from Division 1 to Division 3. Having spent the previous 10 years fighting for a place at the top table - and elusive silverware - time was against many of us.

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Word was emanating from within county board circles that rebuilding would be the primary focus of the next management. It was felt that the central cohort of 30-something senior players were past their best and it was time to invest in youth.

Players like myself, Eoin Lennon, Tommy Freeman, Vinnie Corey and Paul Finlay were headed out for pasture. Seemingly, short-term expectations were low, and a manager of similar ambition was all that would be sought.

It didn't take a second cup of tea that evening for a consensus to be arrived at between the players.

As a group, we weren't for stepping back. Donegal, a team we held sway over for most of our careers, had just come from nowhere to win successive Ulster titles and an All-Ireland. While it left a bitter taste of envy, it equally replenished our hunger.

With the right man in place to guide a strengthening panel mixed with youth and experience, we felt we could challenge once again.

Younger players like Colin Walshe, Kieran Hughes, Rory Beggan and Conor McManus were coming through, but we all needed to stick together. Larger counties can survive on higher turnover rates - Monaghan cannot.

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A few evenings after that pivotal meeting in Ballybay, a few of us met with the county board to outline our ambitions.

In a frank and honest exchange, we outlined our thoughts and requested that they would seek a new management team with a similar ambition to ourselves.

To their enduring credit, they listened to what we had to say, and after a diligent selection process, a few months later Malachy O'Rourke was appointed. The rest, as they say, is history.

From humble beginnings as a Fermanagh footballer, Malachy immediately struck a chord with the panel. A visible ambition tempered with humility, he set realistic short-term targets. 'Win successive league fixtures', 'defeat an Ulster team away from home' and 'secure promotion from Division 3' were among the early objectives.

One by one those boxes were ticked. And as confidence increased, the bar was raised for our ambitions. Fast forward to July 2013, when after only a few months we found ourselves facing Donegal in an Ulster final. Against the reigning All-Ireland champions, who had a seemingly impenetrable defence, we were considered lambs to the slaughter.

'Run to the roar' was a favourite mantra of Malachy's, and that day he implored us to fearlessly attack from the throw-in.

Not only did we run to the Donegal roar, we chased them back up to Ballybofey, with a performance that still stands as the greatest during his tenure.

A follow-up title was secured against the same opponents in 2015, and with Division 1 status secured, the bar was raised again.

Croke Park was the next hurdle, but, regrettably, after all Malachy's achievements and of the players beneath him, the Jones Road venue will be looked upon with regret.

Quarter-final defeats to Tyrone in 2013, 2015 and most painfully in last year's semi-final will forever sour what otherwise was a remarkable story.

Patronising platitudes about over-achieving are routinely directed at Malachy and the players he mentored. In short, it is downright insulting to his legacy to suggest that he overachieved.

Going into 2020, Monaghan will be a Division 1 team for the fifth year running. Only Dublin, Kerry and Mayo can claim similar levels of consistency during this time. Make no mistake, Monaghan underachieved by not beating Tyrone on any of those occasions. To say otherwise undermines the unquestionable calibre of the teams O'Rourke developed.

Predictably, everyone is assuming we will slip back into our seemingly rightful place in mid-table mediocrity. I have been listening to the same rubbish for the past 10 years- yet we're still here.

There is no good reason why the next manager cannot build on the excellent work done by Malachy and continue to operate at the top level for the foreseeable future.

He will be missed though. A gentleman inside and outside the dressing room, he walked away from Clones last Saturday evening as one of our own.

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