Monaghan masters of Houdini act need greatest of escapes

Tyrone's Peter Harte and Monaghan's Francie Hughes battle for possession during their Allianz FL Division 1 tie at St Tiernach's Park, Clones. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

Bear Grylls. Ed Stafford. The Monaghan footballers.

Survival experts.

To see the essential Monaghan, drop them in a desert with nothing but a compass and a pair of flip flops and tell them to find their way back to Carrickmacross.

Or put them in a strait jacket, lock them in chains and submerge them in a shark tank ... and they are likely to do a Harry Houdini on it.

A spell in Division 1 only Kerry can match has, to this perilous point, featured all manner of last-day, death-defying feats.

There was Jack McCarron’s late, late free in St Tiernach’s Park, Clones that spared them and relegated mighty Dublin last March and his last-second-of-extra-time saving grace against Galway the previous season.

In 2020, Monaghan finished one point and one place above, and relegated, Mayo. A season before that, they evaded the trap door again by a single place and a single point.

In 2017 and ’18, they finished fourth and third respectively; the experience of comfort entering the last day at odds to their usual thrill-seeking.

​In 2016, they were again sixth, one place above the relegation zone, on six points, surviving on score difference, with Cork relegated.

But this year, should they go and pull it off, might well constitute Monaghan’s finest work. If nothing else, they go to MacHale Park, Castlebar next Sunday well-briefed.

An hour after the final whistle on Sunday, there was still no peep from the Monaghan dressing-room.

Their team bus sat empty, perched on a kerb outside St Tiernach’s Park well after the car park adjacent to the ground had cleared.

By then, the only thing that had come out was word, via a county board official, that Vinny Corey would not be speaking to the media.

Exactly what Corey said to his players, only they know. But the two soft first-half goals they conceded and their two sendings-off in the second half were likely central themes. Their one point from play all afternoon probably got a mention too.

But there was enough negativity in the day, an eight-point home defeat to Tyrone, without Monaghan bringing it all with them to the bus or carrying it with them into MacHale Park next week.

Brass tacks: Monaghan still have a chance of playing Division 1 for a ninth consecutive year in 2024. An outside one, yes. But a chance nonetheless. It requires an unlikely, but not impossible, confluence of events.

Firstly, they have to beat unbeaten Mayo (four wins, two draws to date). Then they must hope Tyrone beat Armagh in Omagh. In that scenario, Kieran McGeeney’s team will take the plunge. Form holding, a win in Mayo seems unlikely but the pitch has been skewed by Kevin McStay’s prompt qualification for this year’s Division 1 final.

After they won in Ballybofey for what, remarkably, was Mayo’s first victory on Donegal soil, Kevin McStay looked forward – not to Monaghan’s visit, but beyond.

“We’re in the final now and are there on merit. The league has been really good to us and we got an awful lot out of it.”

It might be nothing. But McStay’s use of past tense could suggest a job already done.

How strong a heavily rotated Mayo might be is open to interpretation.

Tommy Conroy, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLaughlin and Pádraig O’Hora were on the bench for Mayo on Sunday in Ballybofey and would, in the circumstances, seem strong candidates for a start.

It’s unlikely that Cillian O’Connor or Robbie Hennelly will be fit but but is a chance that some, or all, of Eoghan McLaughlin, Enda Hession, Bryan Walsh and Darren McHale may return.

​Mayo have earned their right to rotate or rest or experiment and that may well suit Monaghan.

What they can’t affect is the result of the Tyrone/Armagh game, but to listen to Brian Dooher on Sunday was to understand that Tyrone’s aims for the league didn’t end with achieving their own Division 1 buoyancy last Sunday.

Sunday was the first time Tyrone had won two consecutive matches since rounds six and seven of last year’s Division 1 programme and the prospect of making it three on the spin was clearly something to play for.

Stacked though the odds clearly are against them, that may help Corey’s team in their last chance.

With Monaghan, there’s always a chance.