Malachy O'Rourke closing on journey's final stop
An oft-used quotation scripted to provide inspiration to individuals or groups on a journey hangs on the wall in the Monaghan GAA gym in their Cloghan-based training centre.
"I may not be there yet but I'm closer than I was yesterday," it reads.
In the context of their step-by-step progress over six years under Malachy O'Rourke, coming from Division Three to become twice Ulster champions and a hardened Division One team, it seems appropriate for them. Reaching a first All-Ireland semi-final in 30 years, after five All-Ireland quarter-final defeats, feeds into the message delivered by those words on that wall.
O'Rourke's stewardship of Monaghan has undoubtedly been the benchmark for counties with similar resources and aims.
But it has not been without bumps along the way. The gradient hasn't always veered steadily upwards as defeats to Longford, Down and Fermanagh in the last three years illustrate.
And when they lost to Dublin in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final by 10 points, the sense that the gap was too great and that there was little more progress for this Monaghan team to make was palpable.
Even the manager was caught by what unfolded that day. But three weeks later, when Dublin dished out an even greater beating to Tyrone, it allowed a little bit of "perspective," according to O'Rourke as they contemplated the next step.
"We just felt that we would put up a better show," recalled O'Rourke. "There was a lot of disappointment after it. But then you have to look at the performance levels Dublin were reaching and, I suppose, that was some comfort when we saw how good they were against Tyrone. Time is a healer and as time went on the loss became a wee bit easier to bear."
O'Rourke's trick has been to keep regenerating elements of a team around a core of established players. They've kept themselves to the forefront since 2013 but each year there's been at least an addition or two. This year, midfielder Niall Kearns has had his passport stamped.
"There would be change but there'd be a core group that would still be there and those boys have given us serious commitment over six years," said O'Rourke.
"The amount of fellas there that have never missed a training session in that time. Every single night when we're here we have 36 on the panel," he emphasised.
Learning to deal with setbacks without losing their footing served them well when it came to dusting themselves down after being caught late by Kerry and held to a draw in their second 'Super 8s' game.
With the hand of history on them, they threw Kerry a lifeline they scarcely deserved. But there was renewed determination going to Galway.
"As a group, we chatted straight away among ourselves and felt we were still very much alive. We were sitting in a great position with three points out of four, we were going into the last game and had to get a point," he said.
"We went down in a very positive frame of mind. We felt it was a massive thing for the supporters and they have waited 30 years to get to an All-Ireland semi-final."
For O'Rourke, playing the county where he resides (he lives close by to Mickey Harte in Ballygawley) in championship games doesn't cost him a second thought. That Tyrone are a 'bogey' team to Monaghan however does elicit a response.
"People say Tyrone are Monaghan's bogey team. I was looking the other night, since we've been here since 2013 on, we've played Tyrone four times in the championship and both of us have won two games each. We've played three times in the National League, we've won twice and they've won once.
"There's been nothing between the teams. It's a stage we haven't been at before as a group, and Tyrone have been there three times in the last five years, so there's a wee bit of an advantage that way," he conceded.
With just eight days between their Salthill win over Galway and a first semi-final since 1988, O'Rourke feels the turnaround isn't ideal in a much more tightly-packed schedule.
"In Monaghan's case, to wait 30 years to get to an All-Ireland semi-final - and you saw the scenes after it - it would be nice for the supporters and the players to sit back and take it all in, to have plenty of time to recover and then plan ahead.
"So a week is very tight, but we are not complaining. We are delighted to be in the position we are in, we would gladly have taken it earlier on in the year so we will just make the best of it."
The journey to where they're getting closer to continues.
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