Tuesday 18 June 2019

Ready for start of a new season

Conor McManus: ‘The step up in quality is massive’. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McManus: ‘The step up in quality is massive’. Photo: Sportsfile

Marie Crowe

The World Cup has been centre stage on a balmy Tuesday night in Castleblaney. France and Belgium command the attention of the crowd gathered in front of the tv screens in the Glencarn Hotel. That is until Conor McManus strolls in and suddenly all eyes are on Monaghan's star forward.

Fresh from training, dressed in grey shorts and a blue T-shirt, he looks every inch the prime athlete, hungry for football, ready for battle.

Before his arrival, Gaelic football had seemed a world away, but the focus of those in the bar has changed and McManus's arrival reminds us all that something big is happening this weekend - the Super 8 begins.

McManus is counting down the minutes until the ball is thrown in at Croke Park today. He doesn't say as much, but it's impossible not to feel it. He's on edge - in the positive sense. His mind is filled with football.

But it always has been, ever since he can remember. There were many special days when he was young, following Ulster football. Going to games with his dad who has been at the helm in Clontibret for over 25 years, serving as secretary and treasurer.

The 1993 All-Ireland final between Derry and Cork is the two-time All Star's earliest memory of being in Croke Park. Ulster teams were going well at the time and McManus loved going to watch them play.

Conor McManus. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McManus. Photo: Sportsfile

"I remember Down in 1991, Donegal in 1992, Derry then Down again. There was a tape out shortly after that called Sam goes North. It was for the VCR with 'do not tape over' written on it. I used to watch it every day. I grew up watching all the Ulster teams.

"Monaghan weren't going well at the time but when you're a young lad you always support the teams who are going well. My favourite players come from that era too - the likes of Mickey Linden and Peter Canavan. I still have the tape but I've switched it to a DVD now."

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The Clontibret man's early dreams naturally centred around his club, but from there the idea about one day playing for Monaghan began to take hold. It wasn't always the smooth path you'd expect for the county's biggest star.

"The first real exposure I had to county teams was at minor level, going for trials. I made the panel but then I was dropped off it for the championship in 2005. It was hard. I had been playing for the club minors for a few years and we had won three minor championships in a row and an Ulster minor title too, so I'd been getting exposure and it made me want more.

"When you get to a certain age, you want to make the county minor team. There's a prestige about it, getting the gear and the bag, they are the things that go through your head at the time . . . then not to make it is disappointing and a knock-back. There are a lot of lads who don't make minor and then go on to have senior careers."

McManus was born in November and by his own admission he was on the small side in his age group. He was conscious of his size too.

"As a youngster at under 10 or 12 I was playing most of my football at midfield. As I progressed towards under 16 and 17, I was moved towards the forward line because I wasn't physically developed. Some of the other lads who were in the same age group were bigger and stronger. There would have been bits and pieces of weights but it wasn't a big thing and I always felt I would develop naturally."

The year after his minor disappointment, McManus threw his lot in with the Clontibret senior team and played as much football as he could. Naturally, he wanted to bounce back from the disappointment but that wasn't what motivated him, because ultimately he was just someone who loved to play football.

"I must have played 50 or 60 games that year between senior league, and there was an Ulster league at the start of the year, senior championship, junior 'B' championship and league, junior 'C' championship and league, under 21s. I was just out of minors, living at home. I was in college in Dundalk but I didn't move there, specifically so I could play football and train.

"I just enjoyed playing, I was at an age when there were no injuries . . . nothing holding me back. It was just a case of go and train or play a match, come back and go again. I wasn't talking to the team or the management, I was just sent out to play and enjoy it."

Clontibret won the Monaghan championship in 2006 and McManus played in every game. They advanced to the Ulster championship and as a result of injuries the teenager ended up playing wing-back and marking Oisín McConville.

Somewhere along the way he made an impression on the right people and at the end of the year Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney called him in to be part of the Monaghan senior set-up.

"I started that first league game in 2007 almost by default. It had been John Paul Mone's stag the week before. It was the first stag I was ever on, we were away that weekend, came back on the Monday, trained on the Tuesday. We played an in-house game on the Tuesday, I was marking John Paul, I gave him a bit of a run-around and then I ended up starting on the Sunday off the back of that."

That was the start of his Monaghan career and it coincided with the county beginning to taste success. The more games McManus got under his belt the more confident he became and his game developed and evolved too.

"Banty used me as a wing-back or wing-forward, getting up and down, getting on the end of plays, chipping in with a few scores, trying to link play and deliver ball into the full-forward line. We had a decent full-forward line with the likes of Tommy Freeman, Rory Woods, Raymie Ronaghan . . . Then, as I got bigger, I found myself drifting towards the full-forward line.

"That would have happened with my club first before it did with Monaghan. I haven't really played outside of there since Banty started playing me there in 2010. Being physically bigger and being able to win my own ball helped me to be able to play there."

McManus thrived in the inside line. His favourite footballers played there and he relished emulating his heroes. However, with the position comes responsibility and pressure.

"When I was younger I probably over-thought things and felt I had to do more. Now it's just another game and I go and play. I suppose that comes with more games and more experience. I still get nervous before I play but it's enjoyable."

So far McManus has won two Ulster titles, and two All-Stars. He's also captained Monaghan and is showing no signs of slowing down. Next up is the Super 8 and McManus reckons they will know a lot about themselves at the end of it. It feels like it is the start of a second season.

"It's different, it's exciting and it's new. As a fan of football, some of the games we will get to watch are great. We face Kildare in Croke Park that's where you want to play . . . the only better place is Clones on a sunny day. This is a big challenge for us. Our last three games have been against three Division 4 teams and that in itself was a challenge because everyone was telling us how much we were going to win those games by. You have to stay focused and get through them.

"Now the step up in quality is massive because everyone knows what Kildare have brought to the championship in these last few weeks. They have momentum going in now. A quality team always find a way and Kildare have done that in the last few weeks. These are the games you want to be involved in, the first Super 8 game in Croke Park, what more can you ask for?"

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