Tuesday 19 November 2019

Monaghan and Rossies continue to punch above their weight

Conor McManus in action for Monaghan. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Conor McManus in action for Monaghan. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

If population alone dictated championship football results then we'd have a clear picture of what's likely to transpire in at least two of the games over the two days in Croke Park this weekend.

With a head count of 531,665 Down, even allowing for the obvious demographic divide, couldn't expect too much opposition from a county like Monaghan which, according to last year's Census, had just 61,273 residents.

And Mayo's 130,425 people should be able to generate sufficient muscle and class to dispense with the champions of their own province hewn from 64,436.

Actually, make that somewhere around 62,000 and add another 2,600 or so to the Mayo count to more accurately reflect the GAA population with Ballaghdereen retaining its Mayo GAA links despite its status as Roscommon's second largest town.

That remains a contentious issue that sparks every so often and especially in a week when the counties are due to meet in a match of importance. An All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park is, arguably, as important as it has got between them.

But no other counties disguise their population deficit better than Monaghan and Roscommon.

They are currently the fourth and sixth least-populated counties in Ireland respectively yet this year found themselves in Division One of the Allianz Football League and are both involved in the shake up as 10 counties become six.

In the greater scheme of things, of course population matters. Offaly remains the only county to win an All-Ireland football title in modern times with a population of less than 100,000 (the 2016 figure is 78,003).

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That it followed an All-Ireland hurling title a year earlier stands out, for many, as the GAA's greatest success story at inter-county level.

At provincial level the other four teams occupying the bottom six places along with Monaghan and Roscommon on the population table - Fermanagh, Carlow, Longford and Leitrim, have enjoyed limited success with just four titles between them.

Historically Monaghan remain second on Ulster's provincial roll of honour with 16 titles, five since they bridged a 41-year gap in 1979, pointing to a deep tradition.

Roscommon has just 26 GAA clubs but penetration throughout the county is quite even, despite the presence of club powerhouses, St Brigid's and Clan na Gael, in the south of the county. From a 36-man squad that manager Kevin McStay has brought together, 16 clubs are represented.

Monaghan too can point to an even spread but with just six different winners of the senior championship in 69 years their power points are much more concentrated.

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That said, it is recognised as having one of the best club football structures of any county with 30 clubs spread evenly between senior, intermediate and junior.

Because league competition determines championship status county players are obliged to feature in 14 of the 18 league games they play annually, ensuring a high standard and level of interest throughout the year.

Monaghan players will regularly feature for their clubs two weeks from an important championship match, not something prevalent in just about any county at this stage.

Their achievement in remaining a Division One team for a fourth successive year last April has to be respected in the context of their sparse resources, having come from Division Three in 2013.

This year's championship has witnessed setbacks and a reliance on defenders to get forward and score important goals but the odds on them making a fourth All-Ireland quarter-final in five years are in their favour.

Of course, the Farney men are operating in an era when the county has produced its best-ever forward, Conor McManus (left), which significantly helps. As does the fact that they have mastered a style of play that has made them very difficult to beat, but the makeover the team has experienced since their 2013 Ulster final win against Donegal has come with little impact on the altitude they continue to fly at, despite their recent setbacks in Ulster.

At underage level Roscommon and Monaghan continue to keep pace with counties that have far greater bases.

Roscommon have taken four of the provincial U-21 titles on offer this decade, helping to fuel their current surge, Monaghan have dipped in for Ulster minor and U-21 titles over the last four years to help top up an already competitive team.

Dominant football clubs leave both counties with small hurling footprints which is a relevant factor to their ongoing prominence as top-10 football teams, maximising their resources.

But as other counties play the population and resource record to soothe their shortcomings in an environment where the strong appear to be getting stronger, Monaghan and Roscommon are the template for others to follow as their presence at this stage of the competition reflects.

Irish Independent

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