Sunday 17 December 2017

Final kick hurts most when dreams remain unfulfilled

Tommy Conlon

The Monaghan manager said afterwards that glorious defeats are no good to anybody.

But sometimes you have to hang onto them when it's all you've got.

His side led by nine points in the Athletic Grounds last Sunday. Down hit four in the final five minutes to win by one. "All teams have these days," Eamonn McEneaney added, "but Monaghan seem to have more of them."

It is never pleasant to see a bunch of players suffer too much. The prize on offer was an Ulster final. Monaghan would've been nobody's favourites had they got there. But that didn't matter. They'd still have had a chance.

More immediately, they'd have had, for an hour or two, the special joy that is only to be found in a winning dressing room. Instead they returned to an empty room and filled it with their own emptiness. And after they'd departed, it would still have been haunted by the silence and numbness they'd left behind.

It doesn't last as long with a young team. With an old team it hangs heavy in the air, like an invisible shroud. The core of that Monaghan team has been together a long time. They were never trying to conquer the world. All they wanted was an Ulster title. To bridge the gap back to 1988 and claim their own permanent place in the record books.

In the early years of the last decade they were a basement team. They inhabited the same province as Tyrone and Armagh but weren't on the same planet. In 2004, they shipped 2-19 as Armagh beat them by 15 points in the first round. Then they shipped 4-15 as Longford -- Longford -- beat them by seven in the qualifiers. And both games were in Clones.

Seamus McEnaney took over. Banty didn't lack for self-importance, which was no bad thing in the circumstances. And as a long-suffering Monaghan supporter he was fed up with the defeatism. In fact, he was mad as hell; he wasn't going to take it any more. In '05, they got promoted and beat Meath in the Division 2 final. They didn't do anything in Ulster that year, or in '06 either. But they were on the road. They had taken a quantum leap forward.

In '07, they beat Down and Derry to finally make it to an Ulster final. Tyrone kept them at bay, just about, to win by two. But they chased Kerry all the way to the wire in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The champions nicked it by a point. By then a starved county had erupted in support behind them.

They had one electric forward in Tommy Freeman. They had an elegant kicker of points in Paul Finlay. The team in general was a rugged, hard-grafting outfit. The fear was that they might always be touched off by a bit of class from more polished opponents. The hope was that they might find the extra few inches to get them over the line on a day when everything came together.

But in a province peppered with booby traps they were ambushed by Fermanagh in '08. They went on to take a few sizeable scalps in the qualifiers: Derry, by a point, in a cracking match in Clones; Donegal, by a point, in Ballybofey. In 2010, they dished out a 12-point drubbing to Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final. They were a powered-up unit by now; they looked ready to go the distance. Tyrone were their opponents in the final. They collapsed; they probably choked.

Last year they were relegated from Division 1. Tyrone beat them in the Ulster quarter-final and Offaly dumped them in the first round of qualifiers. This year they were relegated to Division 3.

Their first-half display last Sunday was a blast from their best years: the intensity and tempo and movement and support play were all top class. Finlay kicked a sumptuous point off that cultured left foot. Freeman in the second half pounced for one of his opportunist goals.

Dick Clerkin ran the show in the first half. He covered the ground between defence and attack superbly all afternoon. His midfield partner Eoin Lennon had a big first half. Dessie Mone and Vincent Corey commanded the spine of the defence in that period too.

The thing is, all those players were there in 2004, and most of

them for a couple of years before it too. The truly honourable thing about this team is that they stuck together. They stayed the distance. They kept trying to improve. They kept striving and straining against their own limitations.

Their style of play wasn't easy on the eye. But the palpable honesty and willpower and work ethic spoke of a team that had set its heart on a shared goal. They poured their guts into the pursuit of an Ulster title and they were still doing it last Sunday.

They had a window of time in which to do it. Maybe five seasons. In the last two years it started to close. Last Sunday's performance smacked of one final kick from a team that didn't want to let go of its dream. Clerkin described it as the "worst defeat of (my) career".

It's a hard station. They were a good team, at times formidable. They tried to be the best they could be. It wasn't quite enough. The wheel has turned, the window has closed.

thecouch@independent.ie

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