Thursday 22 March 2018

Malachy O'Rourke blueprint shows less can still yield more

Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke celebrates with Eoin Lennon after beating Donegal
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke celebrates with Eoin Lennon after beating Donegal
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last November Longford launched their '20/20 vision for Longford' plan that focused on improving all aspects of the development of underage footballers in the county.

It covered many angles, from the training of primary school teachers to an elite player development programme to the establishment of five development squads from U-13 to U-17.

One of the contributors to the plan asked a simple question that struck a chord: "Just because we are small does not mean we are weak as is often stated in national media. Why can't we aspire to winning All-Ireland titles?"

It was a refreshing change from the attitudes that prevail in a broken province where the resources and financial muscle of the great behemoth in blue is constantly cited as a convenient excuse for the collective failure of the chasing pack.

For sure Dublin have taken their most ferocious ever grip on Leinster. With 39,000, the second smallest population of the 32 counties at the last census, Longford are a mere dot by comparison and their Championship results reflected that.

But it didn't stop them committing to print an aspiration they believe they can work towards.


And if they wanted evidence that they can succeed, the scenes from the Clones last Sunday should give them all the fuel they require.

Monaghan, a county with just over 21,000 more people, collected a second title in three years in the hardest province of all to add to the two League titles that they have picked up as they recovered from a brief blip in 2011 and 2012.

For aspiring counties who cut their cloth from much the same material as Monaghan it somewhat dilutes the population argument.

Monaghan's underage record as a means of 'feeding' their senior set-up is also worth noting; their last provincial U-21 success was in '99; their only success this century has been the 2013 Ulster Minor Championship win, their first in 68 years.

For over a decade now, with the exception of those two years, they have consistently been a top 12 team and right now are comfortably a top six team.

With just 30 clubs to draw players from, it makes the achievement in Clones last Sunday all the more remarkable - and it is why counties of similar profile should sit up and take notice.

Monaghan have been able to keep adding to their team from year to year without ever having to engage in a clear-out. And of course they have the advantage of having one of the best forwards in the game.

It is strange now to think that Conor McManus began inter-county life as a half-back towards the end of the last decade. He has developed into one of the best finishers under pressure, as he illustrated on Sunday, having also done so in the closing stages of the victory over Cavan in May.

"He is a top-quality player," said Vinny Corey, one of the team's longest-serving players.

"I have seen more of him because he plays with my own club (Clontibret). I have seen him do things that no other player can do.

"You have top-quality players everywhere, but every day he goes out, especially in Ulster football, there are two or three around him."

Corey's own contribution in keeping Michael Murphy scoreless from play in three consecutive Ulster finals has to be acknowledged too.

That said, Murphy hasn't been deployed close enough to goals for long enough to hurt the Farney men on the scoreboard, and that's a big question for Donegal.

Corey has typified Monaghan's spirit over the last three years by his willingness to sacrifice his game for the greater cause.

It is clearly the first principle of Malachy O'Rourke's management doctrine that is largely based on containment.

"When you are marking a player like Michael Murphy you have to be prepared for anything," said Corey.

"He could come into full-forward for the whole half, he could come out. You have to be adaptable. He dictates it, wherever he goes you have to go with him yourself. You can't let him get off the hook if he goes out the field."

O'Rourke's pragmatism is reflected in his team through players like Corey. That he has found roles for his former captain Owen Lennon, who came close to retiring two years ago, Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay shows an ability to maximise resources.

The motivation to win a second Ulster title, especially for some of those older players who had lost three previous finals in their careers, was strong.

"For the older players, it has been a long hard road with a lot of disappointments. For some of us it is our fifth final," Corey outlined.

"We didn't want to just win one out of five, we wanted to get another.

"People could always level it at you if you just won the one that it was a flash in the pan, so it's nice to tag another one on."

This Monaghan team has achieved many of the goals they have set for themselves; an Ulster title, Division 1 status, a Championship win in Croke Park, a second Ulster title.

They rode their luck with Donegal's profligacy but motivation for an All-Ireland quarter-final win, after two successive failures, will be just as high as any second Ulster title.

The road map for the rest has been set.

Irish Independent

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