Progressive Monaghan must take advantage of kind draw
The work done at underage level is paying huge dividends
The bar has been raised in Monaghan football. After winning back-to-back promotions, and safeguarding their top-flight status in the league this season, the question is: what more is to come from this Monaghan team?
With such league form, allied to the 2013 Ulster Championship, perhaps the challenge now is to at least reach an All-Ireland semi-final.
It's Malachy O'Rourke's third year in charge since taking the reins from Eamonn McEneaney and the team's progress has been incredible in the interim. They have a clear brand identity and are as mentally strong as most teams in the country.
Reaching the Division 1 semi-final - and pushing the Dubs all the way - has left the side in a very solid position ahead of today's Ulster Championship clash with Cavan.
Senior players like Eoin Lennon, Dick Clerkin, Paul Finlay, Stephen Gollogly continue to show huge leadership, while younger players like Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes are providing serious ammunition up front.
An incredible work rate, a powerful-looking attack and the manager's tactical ability and speciality in targeting opponents has taken them this far but what is needed to get to the next step?
Wins away to both Tyrone and Kerry in the league suggest they are stronger this year and more adept at closing games out too. Of course the Ulster Championship can be unpredictable but they should have enough in the tank to see them through this affair. After that it's either Fermanagh or Antrim in the semi-final.
Certainly, the draw has been kind to O'Rourke and his men - they must take advantage of that.
McManus is one of the top forwards in Ireland now. Cavan will more than likely put an extra defender on him but during the league he was able to cope with that pressure.
He will need support from the likes of Hughes, Colin Walshe and Dermot Malone, all of whom, interestingly, were part of the first Monaghan development squads, formed 11 years ago.
That conveyor belt is still in fine working order and while Cavan's underage development has attracted a lot of deserved praise, the Farney's underage programme has also produced gems like Ryan McAnespie, who won an Ulster minor title in 2013 and is now on the senior side.
At underage level, the Monaghan players are developed, technically and tactically. They are also educated in how to look after their lifestyle and nutrition, their rest and rehabilitation.
Players in that academy have also been introduced to speed and mobility systems and functional strength and conditioning programmes.
Because of a lack of in-depth playing resources, their philosophy is to make the most of what they have. They train sensibly too; their juvenile players are only allowed to take two touches before shooting or passing. This speeds up play and gives everyone more access to the ball.
When a player is fouled, he has to take the free himself, encouraging the player to accept responsibility and honing another skill in the process.
O'Rourke's tenure has thus far been a golden one but he won't be in the hot seat forever. There is enough solid work being undertaken behind the scenes, however, to ensure that the county can use his reign as a foundation and not just look back on it as a highlight.
Sunday Indo Sport