Monaghan chomping at bit for season to start - Hughes
The horizons for Monaghan football have been shunted back and back over these last few years.
Years of rubbing shoulders with the big boys and two Ulster titles mean that what was major for Monaghan football is now somewhat mundane. The county expects more now and, as far as Darren Hughes is concerned, they are entitled to.
So it's with that in mind that he dreams of taking another step forward by getting over the line in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Three times now, they have perished on those rocks thanks to defeats to Tyrone (twice) and Dublin.
Getting beyond that marker is the next logical progression for this side. But Hughes stresses that any such ambition comes with the caveat that they've plenty to do to get back to that point. Last year's surprise defeat to Longford in Clones in the back door serves as a reminder of that.
"Ultimately, we went to Croke Park to three All-Ireland quarter-finals and failed," Hughes said. "So if you were willing to look that far ahead, winning an All-Ireland quarter-final would be an objective but it's a long route for us.
"Ulster is a minefield on its own and you can only look at Croke Park after that. Any of the counties in Ulster can't afford to look by their next match, you take your eye off the ball and you're caught.
"To get to that next horizon would be to win an All-Ireland quarter-final but it's not even in sight at the moment."
Things have changed a little in the Monaghan dressing room this season. Dick Clerkin and Paul 'Jap' Finlay no longer occupy their usual perches. However, Malachy O'Rourke is back for a fifth season, an extended stay for a manager nowadays. And after that defeat to Longford, Hughes was afraid O'Rourke would step away.
"That was imperative for us as players," Hughes replied, when asked about the manager remaining in situ. "We knew after four years and a very disappointing championship loss, it would have been easy for Malachy to walk away but we knew we still had the nucleus of a strong squad too.
"We won the Ulster U-21 championship last year and have good players coming through with winning experience. Them boys are in the senior dressing room with a winning habit.
"Years ago we'd have been coming into the dressing room and the seniors hadn't won anything and the underage boys hadn't won anything and there was no winning mentality in the team. These boys are coming in and they want to win and they know the feeling of winning and the craic you can have after it and everything that goes with winning.
"They want more of that, that's why they are there. For the work Malachy and his backroom team put in this last four years, it would have been too much to throw away."
The immediate future won't include Dessie Mone. The Clontibret man's arm is in a cast and he is expected to miss around eight weeks. But with the defeat to Longford still fresh in their minds, Hughes insist the squad are raring to go for their league opener away to Mayo on Saturday week.
"We could still be there and we wouldn't beat them," Hughes recalled at the announcement that eir Sports are broadcasting 23 live hurling and football matches this spring.
"That day they were kicking them over from everywhere, we had no answer to what they threw at us. It was just one of those days at the office. Some days you just have to take that on the chin and congratulate the better team.
"I suppose it gave us plenty of time to reflect. The one thing was when boys came back, nobody had a prolonged club season so boys came back a bit fresher with a few niggles cleared up. Most of the boys are fully training from January. In previous years maybe we would have been training in January with 18 or 20 boys, with 15 boys getting rehab or going through different programmes. A lot of the boys are chomping at the bit."
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