Sunday 22 July 2018

Farney men continue to punch above their weight

Conor McManus and Colin Walshe lift the Anglo-Celt Cup after Monaghan’s victory over Donegal in the 2015 Ulster SFC final at St Tiarnach’s Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McManus and Colin Walshe lift the Anglo-Celt Cup after Monaghan’s victory over Donegal in the 2015 Ulster SFC final at St Tiarnach’s Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Monaghan's win over Kerry on Sunday was that no one passed any remarks about it.

On paper, there should be little doubt about who would come out on top. Kerry are Gaelic football's aristocrats. Monaghan have never won an All-Ireland championship title at any of the three major grades.

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

Still, they continue to bloody the noses of the big boys with a smile on their faces. And in the process, they demonstrate to larger counties, who have much more to work with, what is possible when minds are focused.

So how has it come to this, where Monaghan can expect to survive in the rarefied atmosphere of Division 1 football?

Population isn't the most reliable indicator of where a county should be in terms of football's hierarchy, but when you consider that all of Monaghan - the fourth smallest county in those terms - could descend on Croke Park and it would still be only roughly two-thirds full, it gives an idea of how economical the Farney men are.

Financial resources too are becoming a more integral part of a team's preparations.

Smashed

In these pages a few weeks ago, Colm Keys reported how the expenditure on county teams had smashed past the €25m mark.

And despite working off a smaller membership and fewer clubs than their Division 1 rivals, Monaghan are more than holding their own.

They don't boast the resources or tradition of the likes of Meath and Cork but still out-box them regularly, while they can also claim to have outperformed Kildare over the past few seasons.

Perhaps only Roscommon can claim to be punching above their weight in the way the Farney men have in the last few seasons.

It's not a once-off either. Last Sunday's win was the third time in four seasons that they saw off Kerry in the spring.

In that period they have also beaten Mayo and brought Dublin to the brink on a couple of occasions.

It's not just that they have produced one strong group of players. Just nine of the team that went down in the quarter-final last year started the last-eight clash against Dublin two years previously.

They are routinely referred to as streetwise and tough and Monaghan look comfortable with that identity but there's always been a sprinkling of stardust in the county too.

Conor McManus would find a place in any dressing-room in the country. Before him, Tommy Freeman had a spell as one of the country's leading forwards while Conor McCarthy is a bright prospect.

Admittedly, Monaghan's championship form has slipped over the last couple of seasons. The All-Ireland quarter-final stage has been their downfall in four of the last five seasons. But even that stage remains out of reach for many 'bigger' counties.

During the close season, they hinted at a different approach to 2018. They brought Dublin to the wire in last year's league only to be swatted aside by the same opposition when the last eight rolled around.

Manager Malachy O'Rourke since admitted that they have to try harder than the rest to stay in the top flight.

"I think the one big thing is if we want to survive in the league in Division 1 against the top teams, we have to prepare really well," O'Rourke explained.

"We didn't kill ourselves training by (any) means but you're still sending out the same players week after week even if there's wee bits of injuries and so on.

"If you want to win the games, you have to do that. So it means the boys are playing a lot of football, I suppose there's a physical tiredness, there might be a mental fatigue there as well."

There was an acceptance too from star man McManus that they might have to play more expansively if they are to compete at the business end.

Still, they have delivered meaningful championship silverware. O'Rourke has guided them to two Ulster titles in his spell in charge with their 2013 win the county's first since the 1988.

Off the pitch, things look smart too. This year, they will use three different top-class venues (Inniskeen, Clones and Castleblayney) to host league games while they also have an established training base in Cloughan.

Bigger counties with more tradition and finances continue to struggle for traction but pound for pound, it's hard to make an argument for any county getting more from itself than Monaghan.

Irish Independent

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