Wednesday 22 November 2017

Monaghan's stony grey soil at its most fertile since 1980s

Hugo Clerkin hoping son Dick will follow in his footsteps

Dick Clerkin has real ambitions for success with Monaghan
Dick Clerkin has real ambitions for success with Monaghan
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Thirty years ago tomorrow - the first Sunday in April 1985 - Monaghan enjoyed an achievement that had eluded them in the previous 101-year history of the GAA.

Their League final win over Armagh (1-11 to 0-9) delivered their first national senior title - a success which still stands as Monaghan's biggest triumph.

Later in the year, they won the Ulster title and held the great Kerry team of the era to a draw in the All-Ireland semi-final, before losing the replay.

In an interview for the Monaghan GAA yearbook, team manager Seán McCague, who became GAA president 15 years later, was asked to rate on a one to 10 scale the League win against an All-Ireland success.

"Five. Winning a national senior title for the first time is important. It's important only in so far as it proves to players, officials and supporters that it is possible for Monaghan to compete against - and defeat - the so-called strong counties," he said.


There's a view that the Monaghan team of 1985 would have won an All-Ireland in another era. Unfortunately for them, their attempt coincided with a period when Kerry were the dominant force, followed by Dublin.

Midfielder Hugo Clerkin, who was then in the 13th year of a 16-season inter-county career, says that, while it's interesting to surmise on how that Monaghan team might have done in an easier era, it will always remain an unanswered question.

"I'm sure there were some All-Ireland winners we could have matched, but who knows? The big thing for us in 1985 was that apart from winning the League, we showed we could compete against the very best in Croke Park."

Unfortunately for Monaghan, that was as good as it got. They won another Ulster title in 1988, but lost the All-Ireland semi-final heavily to Cork and didn't win their next provincial title until 2013.

Now, there's a mid-Eighties feel in Monaghan again, a belief that the squad have the potential to deliver something special.

It's ironic that the 30th anniversary of the famous NFL win coincides with a visit to Clones by Dublin for a high-stakes game.

If Monaghan win or draw, it will ensure a return to Croke Park a week later for a League semi-final. Not bad for a county that was in Division 3 two years ago and which were rated as favourites to be relegated from Division 1 this season.

Hugo Clerkin's interest in Monaghan's fortunes extends beyond the normal supportive role of an ex-player as his son Dick is still aboard the panel.

Similar to his father in 1987, Dick is in his 16th season, making him one of the longest-serving inter-county players on the circuit.

Hugo sees certainly similarities between the Monaghan teams of the two eras, albeit with the hope that the current crop reaches the ultimate destination as All-Ireland champions.

"This squad has a nice blend of experience, youth and some players with exceptional talents. Kerry and Dublin might be out front but there's a group just behind them and Monaghan are right in there," he says.

As a member of the Monaghan teams that won the Ulster title for the first time in 1979, the 1985 Ulster and NFL titles, Hugo knows exactly what it means to a county like Monaghan to assert itself at the highest level.


Apart from those successes, Monaghan were very consistent for more than a decade - they also reached the Centenary Cup final in 1984 and the 1986 League final - before slipping back.

"There was a really good feeling in the county for many of those years. It's the same now. People believe in this squad and what they can achieve. That means a lot in a county like Monaghan," he says.

Midfield play has changed a lot between the Clerkins father-and-son eras in a game that has evolved across several strands.

Hugo's career coincided with many of the great midfielders in GAA history - a time when the ability to soar into the air and fetch the ball was vital .

"Most midfielders played between the two '45s' back then. And if you didn't, you were told fairly quickly to get back into your position. Things have changed since then but that's the way with every game. Nothing stands still," he says.

Clerkin sees the current controversies over the state of Gaelic football as a sign of how the game has evolved. He warns against a knee jerk reaction believing that things tend to sort themselves out in their own way.

"It's easy enough set up a defence but much harder to break it down. I suppose what everyone is looking for is to have a cohesive defence and an attacking strategy that breaks it down.

"Fear of losing is the big thing. When teams lose, players fear they will lose their places and managers fear they will lose their position.

"That's just the way it is so whatever system it takes to avoid losing will be used. Players or managers don't want to be involved in a high-scoring game which they lost. It's all about winning in the end. Supporters never complain when their team wins," says Clerkin.

Monaghan's progression over recent seasons under Malachy O'Rourke has been very impressive.

In addition to rising from Divisions 3 to Division 1 in successive seasons, they reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the last two years, one as Ulster champions, the other as runners-up.

If they win tomorrow, they will, over the last two months, have beaten Kerry, Dublin, Donegal and Tyrone who, between them, have won 11 of the last 12 All-Ireland titles while losing by a single point to Cork, the 2010 champions.

"I don't think this Monaghan team is far away. The blend is good and they all know what they are about," adds Clerkin.

Are they better than the squad he played with, which peaked in 1985?

"It's impossible to say. Times are different and the game is different. You can't make a real comparison," he said.

Perhaps not, but it won't stop the Monaghan supporters from trying. The big difference, for now at least, is that everyone knows how the 1980s story ended, whereas O'Rourke's crew are still a work-in-progress.

Playing Dublin in Clones in an important League game will certainly add to the information base especially since Jim Gavin's men beat Monaghan by 17 points in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

Monaghan were hit for 2-22 after conceding an average of 15 points in their previous five games. It was a chastening experience.

"As the game wore on, Dublin overpowered us," said Malachy O'Rourke afterwards.

The degree to which Monaghan have moved on from that unfortunate experience will become apparent tomorrow.

"Monaghan players may have learned as much from their own colleagues - in what they did and what they failed to do - as from the opposition," said Seán McCague after Monaghan's All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat by Kerry in 1985.

Substitute Dublin for Kerry and the same applies 30 years.

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