Monaghan have remembered how to win again under Malachy O’Rourke
New manager has revived fortunes after two relegations in two years
When Malachy O’Rourke came upon the Monaghan football team last winter, there was a hint of the hobbled dog about them. In just two seasons, they had gone from holding their own in Division One and playing in an Ulster final to summers that barely made it into July and a winter digging in for the joys of Division Three.
They hadn’t been particularly weakened by retirements or injuries but somewhere along the way they had forgotten what it felt like to win. Above all, that feeling needed to be nursed back into them.
How bad had it got? In the two seasons since the end of Seamus McEnaney’s term, Monaghan had played 19 matches in league and championship, losing 14 and winning just five. At the start, they were just unlucky. In the 2011 league, the lost to Armagh and Dublin by a single point when a draw in either game would have kept them up. But relegation begat a two-and-done championship, which begat a terrible Division Two campaign last year.
For the second year in a row they were relegated. For the second year in a row, they conceded the most of anybody in their division. After beating Antrim in the Ulster championship they managed to find a new way to lose next day out against Down – coughing up a nine-point lead despite referee Michael Duffy handing them a goal when he allowed them take a quick free after calling over a Down defender for a booking.
For the second year in a row, they slid quietly out of the qualifiers at the first attempt. Misery was the default setting.
“There were two ways of looking at it when I took them over,” says O’Rourke. “One way is definitely that the only way was up for them. They had gone down to Division Three and were very disappointed to go down. They felt they had a good enough team to go back up. The other way of looking at it was that maybe people would have felt that their confidence was low and that they were on a bit of a downward spiral.
“But to be honest, I always looked at it the first way. I felt that the players were there and that if they had the hunger, there was plenty of talent there to move the thing on again. And we’re just pleased that that has turned out to be the case and that we’ve made progress.
“They had been playing at a higher level and suffering a lot of defeats. That will affect anybody. They had just got into a bit of a rut and maybe weren’t enjoying their football as much as they should. When you don’t win, it can be hard to enjoy the whole thing. So it was just a matter of getting them going again.
“That’s why getting to the McKenna Cup final was important back in January. It was good for them to get a few wins and to get back into that groove again. It built up its own momentum and gave everyone confidence.
“It meant that the boys were looking forward to training and that everybody kept improving a little bit each day. The confidence increased through that.”
O’Rourke is a Fermanagh man but he didn’t need much educating about what sort of panel he was arriving to. He knew the Monaghan club scene well from his time with 2011 county champions Latton. While never actually managing them, he had been involved at the championship end of the past few seasons and was well versed in what was available around the county.
Despite losing the final of the McKenna Cup to Tyrone, Monaghan settled well into their league campaign. They lost a freak game against Cavan early on that finished with five men sent off but otherwise their passage was smooth enough. Having conceded so heavily in their last two league campaigns, there was an obvious wrong for O’Rourke to set about righting. By the end of the campaign, Monaghan had conceded fewer scores than every team in the top three divisions.
Harder to score against
“Funny enough, I didn’t actually realise that until I read it in The Irish Times ,” he says. “I saw it flagged up there and I told the players about it the next day and it wasn’t something they knew either. So we were very happy about that because it was something we targeted at the start of the year. We had gone through a period of conceding scores that were too big and definitely one of the things we aimed to do was make ourselves harder to score against.
“We approached each game in a different way. There were definitely some days when we did try to get more men back behind the ball but it depends sometimes on conditions and sometimes on the opposition you’re playing. We’d have had a few games where we might have been playing into a big wind and in that scenario, we’d have made sure we had a sweeper back there to mop up loose ball. It’s about trying to get everybody working, getting the forwards to work harder and make sure that the ball wasn’t coming easily into our defence.”
Tonight they play a Meath side to whom they gave a tremendous hiding in the first game of the league back in February. Whether Mick O’Dowd’s side are smarting from that 1-18 to 2-3 defeat will reveal itself as the evening wears on.
One thing is clear though, O’Rourke’s Monaghan are a hobbled dog no longer.