Monaghan must get ready to deal with Tyrone cynicism
'I hope you go on and win it now," shouted a broad Kerry accent from across the street, as I strolled around Killarney yesterday morning, smug about Monaghan's current place in the grand order of things.
Saluting back, I grew another few inches with pride as the reality of Monaghan's position further hit home.
On duty with Sky Sports for Kerry's anti-climactic contest with Kildare, I sadly didn't get to enjoy the celebrations in Galway after Monaghan's convincing victory, although Killarney, and a few post-match pints among the fiercely passionate football people of Kerry, wasn't a bad alternative.
I wrote in these pages a few months back that Monaghan had finally earned the right to be in the All-Ireland conversation.
Outsiders looking in would have likely dismissed it as biased, misguided hype. Insiders would have preferred if I hadn't brought a burden of expectation to a county with humble traditions.
Wherever you stand, like it or not, Monaghan are exactly in that place now, and on merit.
Thankfully, lessons have been learned following the defeat to Fermanagh in Omagh.
Since that forgettable day, Malachy O'Rourke has managed to lock the players into a high level of intensity they know must be maintained to perform.
Directed by quarter-back Rory Beggan, players across every line are driving forward with purpose, pace and energy, creating scoring opportunities and keeping their opponents on the back foot.
As a consequence, Conor McManus is getting on the ball more, and the scoreboard is kept ticking over.
Compared to other sides, Monaghan don't have the most naturally creative ball strikers throughout the team, so they generally have to work that bit harder for their scores.
If they can continue to secure the amount of possession they do from their own and opponent's kick-outs, and turnovers, this isn't a major problem, but it is something O'Rourke needs to be guarded about.
Monaghan simply must dominate in possession and intensity around the middle third. Do that and everything else falls into place; not only a win against Tyrone, but an All-Ireland is well within their capabilities.
In the aftermath of the Kerry game in Clones, I was a nostalgic and emotional, driven by what that game meant in the overall context of Monaghan football.
O'Rourke spoke in Salthill after the Galway win about not wanting that missed opportunity in Clones to define their season. Thankfully it hasn't, but there is no question that next Sunday's game against Tyrone will.
For all the excitement surrounding Monaghan's achievements over the past few weeks, it will count for nothing if Mickey Harte is again allowed to hold the Croke Park Indian sign over O'Rourke.
The manager and the players will know this. Losing to Tyrone again in Croke Park will leave a bitter taste in the winter mouths that will overpower any sweetness acquired from the journey to get there.
That is the pressure that comes with competing at this level, and which feeds into the test that many still feel Monaghan have yet to pass before they can be genuinely considered as All-Ireland contenders.
Beating Kildare, drawing with a disjointed Kerry team at home, and a win over a mentally distracted Galway garners only so much credit.
More is still needed to win over the blue bloods regarding Monaghan's genuine All-Ireland credentials - beat a top team in Croke Park's white heat of Championship. Nothing less will convince.
There is no getting away from the fact that, following their defeat by Fermanagh, the cards fell remarkably kindly for Monaghan. Yet for a county that has been dealt rags at this stage of the competition in previous years, few would argue that the dealer owed us a few aces.
Crucially, they have grasped that opportunity, and set themselves up for a mouthwatering All-Ireland semi-final - and you can bet the county's support will go into overdrive.
Next Sunday, O'Rourke will lead his Monaghan players back to the capital, with expectations and reputations on a high.
It is another opportunity for them to face down those Croke Park demons of recent and distant past.
Those demons have taken form in Red Hand jerseys on too many of those occasions: Sean Cavanagh's infamous rugby tackle on Conor McManus, Tiernan McCann's dive after Darren Hughes ruffled his quiff.
Based on yesterday's viewing, Tyrone have lost none of their cynical instincts so Monaghan have to be ready for their willingness to do whatever it takes to get over the line.
As a player, you insulate yourself from the outside world to the extent that you don't always appreciate your potential.
Leaving Killarney yesterday morning, I looked around the old train station building imagining the scenes over the decades when Sam Maguire was brought back from Dublin.
While deflated after the way their season ended, the Kerry supporters firmly believe those scenes will return.
This year, they believe Monaghan can be the ones to take Sam home. Next weekend is just another step in affirming that belief.
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