Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 21 August 2018

How Monaghan have turned the tide and proved themselves to be top contenders

Monaghan’s Conor McManus takes on Galway’s Gary O’Donnell during their league clash back in March at Pearse Stadium. Photo by Aaron Greene/Sportsfile
Monaghan’s Conor McManus takes on Galway’s Gary O’Donnell during their league clash back in March at Pearse Stadium. Photo by Aaron Greene/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Malachy O'Rourke passed a curious comment while venting his frustration over Monaghan's one-point defeat by Mayo in the opening round of the National Football League last January.

He was annoyed over a decision in stoppage time by referee David Gough, who ignored Monaghan appeals for a close-in free. Mayo won possession, worked the ball upfield and Paddy Durcan kicked the winning point.

A different interpretation by Gough would have probably resulted in a Monaghan win as, according to O'Rourke, "everyone else could see it (was a free) apart from the referee."

Then came the follow-up. "Sometimes, the top teams get them (decisions) and other teams don't," he said.

It's an argument put forward across all sports, but the interesting aspect of O'Rourke's remark was that he appeared to differentiate between Mayo and Monaghan on the pecking order.

Mayo, serial All-Ireland final losers, were, apparently, a 'top team' while Monaghan, twice Ulster champions and four-time All-Ireland quarter-finalists in the previous five seasons, were not.

It wasn't a case that would stand up to scrutiny, but obviously it suited O'Rourke's argument that counties like Monaghan have to fight harder than others for recognition.

At the same time as O'Rourke was bemoaning Monaghan's bad luck in Clones, Kevin Walsh had the hoses out in Tuam Stadium, damping down a new-found sense of excitement after Galway marked their return to Division 1 with a win over Tyrone.

"The big thing was that we were competitive. There are a lot of lads here who hadn't played in Division 1 before. It's a start," he said.

Galway may not have been in Division 1 for the previous six seasons, but they had lots of championship experience against top teams, so they weren't quite innocents abroad.

Just over six months later, Galway and Monaghan meet in an All-Ireland clash that almost wasn't necessary in terms of deciding the semi-finalists.

Their first championship clash since 1938 would have been no more than a box-ticking exercise if Monaghan had beaten Kerry last Sunday week.

Both would have been in the last four, instead of which Galway are already there, while Monaghan are within touching distance, but by no means certain of making it.

If they win or draw this evening, they will be in the semi-finals for the first time in 30 years, but if they lose their fate will depend on whether Kerry beat Kildare in Killarney.

If they do, scoring difference will become the first means of deciding which of them meet Dublin in the semi-final.

Purely on the basis of results this year, it would be wholly appropriate if Monaghan joined Dublin, Galway and Donegal or Tyrone in the semi-finals.

Indeed, the Farney men's overall returns in league and championship are superior to both Tyrone and Donegal.

Monaghan have won ten, drawn one and lost three games this year, a return surpassed only by Dublin and Galway, both of whom have won 11, drawn one and lost one of 13 games.

MONAGHAN: MAXIMUM VALUE

Only Leitrim, Longford, Carlow and Fermanagh have smaller populations than Monaghan (62,000), underlining how successful they are at squeezing the very maximum from their resources.

They have long since grown tired of being acknowledged for that, but it's still important to point it out as an illustration of what can be achieved off relatively low numbers.

The frustration for Monaghan has been that unlike the last major surge in the 1970-80s, which took them to three All-Ireland semi-finals (one replay) and Allianz League glory, this one has not.

They won Ulster titles in 2013 and 2015, only to lose to Tyrone in both All-Ireland quarter-finals. And when they reached the quarter-finals via the qualifiers in 2014 and 2017, Dublin were waiting to crush them.

Now, it's Galway's turn to stand between them and the next stage of their ambitions.

Mayo, Galway (both in the league) and Fermanagh (Ulster semi-final) are the only teams to beat Monaghan in a season where they even managed to trump Dublin. And in Croke Park too. Okay, so Dublin had already qualified for the league final, but it was still hugely important psychologically for Monaghan.

Indeed, if they had even squeezed a draw against Mayo in the first round, the win over Dublin would have booked a place in the final against Galway. That was disappointing, but nothing compared to the setback against Fermanagh when they lost to a late Eoin Donnelly goal.

It's beyond comprehension how a team that scored 1-18 against Tyrone in the quarter-final could be restricted to ten points by Fermanagh, who were subsequently hit for 2-18 by Donegal and 3-20 by Kildare.

61ORourke.png
Malachy and the Monaghan team took a lot of criticism after their shock defeat to Fermanagh earlier this summer. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

In what sounded like the ultimate understatement, O'Rourke remarked after the Fermanagh defeat: "It's going to be hard to lift them."

That he managed it and has now steered them to a place where their All-Ireland semi-final destiny is in their own hands, speaks volumes for his managerial skills.

It's also testament to the will and resolve of his squad, whose performance against Kerry for all except the last minute was among the best every produced by the county.

Unfortunately for them, it didn't ensure a semi-final place and with Kerry still poised if Monaghan are beaten this evening, a summer of huge promise could end with nothing.

It makes this game one of the most important Monaghan have faced for quite some time as it would be heart-breaking for them if they were to be nudged out by Kerry on scoring difference. They need to win this evening, whereas Galway don't. Surely, they can make that count.

GALWAY: NO MORE NICE GUYS

From conceding a total of 3-33 against Roscommon and Kerry last summer to giving away an average of just over 13 points in league and championship this year - that's the remarkable turnaround completed by Galway.

How was it achieved? The popular explanation puts it down to Paddy Tally's influence. It's as if the Tyrone man rewired Galway overnight, making it much more difficult to break the circuits.

That's an insult to Kevin Walsh and the players. Yes, Tally may have refined certain aspect of the defensive structure, but the underlying philosophy is in its fourth season.

Walsh set about changing Galway's approach from the start of his term, as evidenced in his second championship game in 2015. Galway beating Leitrim comfortably was no surprise but their set-up was.

"At one stage they had 15 men behind their own '45. Everyone is talking about the negativity of Ulster football, but the questions have to go a lot further afield after that," said Leitrim manager Shane Ward, who was obviously surprised to see a county of Galway's pedigree playing so deep against opposition that had finished fourth in Division 4.

Galway's reputation as a county that played classy, free-flowing football earned them plaudits rather than titles since their last All-Ireland success in 2001.

For better or worse, most probably the latter, the game had changed, but Galway stuck largely with their 'pure football' philosophy.

It ensured they were involved in some great contests, most of which they lost.

Joe Kernan, who managed Galway in 2010, recalled an incident which typified the county's view of how football should be played.

After Kerry had beaten them in a high-scoring league final in 2004, a Galway supporter remarked to Kernan, who was then managing Armagh: "That's how football should be played, Joe."

To which Kernan replied: "Yeah, but ye lost, didn't ye?"

Galway's approach remained much the same until Walsh's arrival and while the transformation to a meaner, more defensive unit has taken four seasons, it has happened this year.

It's all about the result now, just as it has been for a long time for all the top counties, including Dublin. Playing pretty football doesn't matter to them unless they are in a commanding position.

And if you doubt that, check back on the closing seconds of last year's All-Ireland final when several Mayo players were wrestled to the ground as they awaited a kick-out.

Dublin did whatever it took to win. Galway were slow to that party but are there now.

And, by all appearances, they intend to stay.

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