Vinnie Corey: ‘Conor McManus was exceptional, always has been for Monaghan. When you need a man, he is the man’

NFL Divison 1: MONAGHAN 2-14, MAYO 0-14

Monaghan players celebrate with their manager Vinny Corey after defeating Mayo in Division 1. Photo: Sportsfile

Frank Roche

It’s rare that you get both managers waxing lyrical about the same player after a league contest with so much on the line – for one of the teams – but then Conor McManus is not your average inter-county footballer.

He’s a three-time All-Star. He has been one of the best forwards in the country for at least a decade.

And yesterday, making his first league start of 2023 as the ripe young age of 35, he tallied 1-6 to ensure top-flight survival, yet again, for a Monaghan team that has turned escapology into an art form.

When January rolls around they’ll be back in Division 1 for the 10th consecutive season. This was the fifth time in nine years that they’ve avoided relegation on the last day.

Armagh, losing in Omagh, should have known what was coming.

Watched by 10,686 in Castlebar, Monaghan deservedly won against understrength Mayo opponents who had secured league final progress with a game to spare – but don’t be fooled by that seemingly lopsided two-goal margin.

With the sides level for the fourth time after Bob Tuohy’s 66th-minute equaliser – a result that would have relegated Monaghan – their old guard stormed to the rescue, outscoring Mayo by 1-4 to 0-1.

It all culminated in surreal fashion with referee David Gough holding up play to prevent a pitch invasion from a horde of youngsters. Rory Beggan’s delayed restart then broke beyond midfield with Mayo ’keeper Rob Hennelly stranded, and Jason Doherty didn’t hesitate to halt Karl O’Connell’s beeline for goal.

The inevitable black card followed – and also a 77th-minute penalty because it prevented a clear goalscoring opportunity. Justice delayed only temporarily, as McManus dispatched with aplomb.

Cue the fisted salute, the final whistle – and then Farney Army bedlam when confirmation arrived that Tyrone had beaten Armagh.

“Once word got out, it went a bit mad then,” smiled Vinny Corey, who described the preservation of Division 1 status as “massive” and also a “momentum shift” as they look ahead to their Ulster SFC opener away to Tyrone on April 16.

It wasn’t lost on the Monaghan boss that several evergreen former teammates were pivotal, obviously no one more so than McManus who had kicked a sumptuous 0-4 from play by the 39th minute.

But McManus could also thank O’Connell (34) for 1-2 in late assists – with the final pass for his two converted marks, stretching their lead to three points by the 70th minute, as well as the penalty foul. Likewise, Darren Hughes (36) put in a trojan shift in his midfield/sweeper role, typified by an intercept that led to Stephen O’Hanlon’s 73rd-minute point.

“Those men are unbelievable,” Corey enthused. “Karl O’Connell and Conor McManus had their first starts today – there was a real freshness about them. To last the full 70 minutes down here, Castlebar is a fast pitch.

“Conor McManus was exceptional, always has been for Monaghan. When you need a man, he is the man. And sure Darren Hughes has been doing that a lifetime now.”

Long before that frenetic finale, McManus had been too elusive for Pádraig O’Hora, one of eight players making a first league start under Kevin McStay as the Mayo boss road-tested his panel ahead of Sunday’s final against Galway.

“I’m very happy to talk about Conor McManus – he’s just a brilliant, brilliant player. He must be about 50 now at this stage!” McStay quipped. “And he’s still doing damage to every team he goes out against.

“And yet we kept at it; nobody went home and left him to himself. He’s just a very wily footballer.”

McStay lamented Mayo’s lack of composure at times but praised the “terrific” attitude of a team showing 10 changes from their win in Donegal. “I mean, they fought like hell to beat a very, very good Division 1 team,” he noted.

Mayo’s early looseness was exposed when Ryan O’Toole advanced from defence to fire home a 14th-minute goal, but Monaghan’s 1-6 to 0-8 interval lead looked threadbare as they prepared to face the elements. Corey’s old guard had other ideas, however.

SCORERS – Monaghan: C McManus 1-6 (1-0p, 2m), R O’Toole 1-1, J McCarron 0-3 (1m, 1f), S O’Hanlon 0-2, K O’Connell, C McCarthy 0-1. Mayo: P Towey 0-6f; J Flynn, B Tuohy 0-2 each; S Coen, M Ruane, D McHale, R O’Donoghue (f) 0-1 each.

MONAGHAN – R Beggan 6; R O’Toole 8, K Duffy 7, T McPhillips 6; K O’Connell 7, R Wylie 6, C McCarthy 7; D Hughes 8, K Lavelle 6; S O’Hanlon 7, M Bannigan 6, S Carey 5; K Gallagher 5, C McManus 9, J McCarron 6. Subs: G Mohan 7 for Carey (h-t), K Hughes 6 for McCarron (59), S Jones for Gallagher (68), J Irwin for O’Hanlon (74).

MAYO – R Hennelly 6; D McHugh 5, P O’Hora 5, S Callinan 7; M Plunkett 6, J Doherty 6, S Coen 7; B Tuohy 7, M Ruane 7; K McLoughlin 6, F Irwin 5, J Flynn 7; C McStay 6, A O’Shea 6, P Towey 7. Subs: D McBrien 6 for McHugh (h-t), D McHale 6 for McLoughlin (inj, 37), J Coyne 6 for O’Hora (48), J Carney 6 for Irwin (57), R O’Donoghue 6 for Towey (64).

REF – D Gough (Meath)