Though stretched and chastened, Monaghan could finish down year on a high

Hints of an upturn in recent weeks give Monaghan hope of springing a surprise on Saturday against Galway, who have been enduring their own woes this season

Monaghan have got the most out of their modest resources in recent seasons but have found that a tough trick to sustain this season. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Reality dictates that a season like this was probably always in the post for Monaghan. This was generally the unspoken insinuation over the years when people talked about the county extracting the very best from its limited resources. A decade in Division One and trips to All-Ireland semi-finals are very admirable but let nobody pretend it’s sustainable. Gravity always wins.

They have always been aware that this is how they are seen. When they beat Dublin in Croke Park in the opening league game of the season back in January, Vinny Corey shrugged when it was put to him that most people still fancied them to be relegated.

“We’re probably just used to that, you know?” he said. “It’s another year, it’s the same as always. The boys pass no remarks on it, to be honest with you. There’s boys there with a lot of experience of Division One and there’s new players that are not afraid of Division One. You saw that out there. They didn’t crumble coming up against the All-Ireland champions.

“We don’t know what the rest of the league will bring or what way results will go. But we’re very focused on what we want to do. Whatever happens with results will happen. But we are very focused on what we want to do for later on in the year.”


Well, here we are. Later on in the year – five months later to be exact – and it took until last weekend against Meath for them to register their second win of 2024. Even at that, they were hanging on grimly towards the end of a game where Meath scored seven of the last eight points. A down year may well have been coming but nobody expected it to land this heavily.

“It’s been the sort of year,” says Kieran Hughes, “that if it ended now, you could nearly just draw a blank slate across it and say, ‘Look, we’ll go again here in November’. There’s been so many excuses, so many men missing, that you could nearly just write it off. But then again, I look at the matchups with Galway this weekend and I go, ‘There’s not that much to be afraid of, really’.”

Hughes finished up with Monaghan in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, 15 seasons after his debut. He walked away like many Monaghan players do – hobbling, exhausted, prepping for surgery. He played the club championship for Scotstown deep into the winter but as soon as the year turned, he went under the knife to fix long-standing hamstring and cartilage problems. He emptied every bit of himself into his intercounty career.

He’d say himself that he was only keeping up tradition by doing so. His brother Darren started life in the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2006. Conor McManus is in his 18th season. Karl O’Connell will be 36 in August. They came up in teams that had Eoin Lennon, Dick Clerkin, Tommy and Damien Freeman, all of them having stayed long beyond what would be deemed acceptable in normie world.

More than anything, that’s what has made 2024 such a slog for Corey’s team. Relying on a small core of experienced players works until it doesn’t. A slew of retirements and defections over the winter left Monaghan without a buffer zone. Conor Boyle stepped away from the panel to build a house, Shane Carey and Fintan Kelly melted back into society, Karl Gallagher was spirited away by the AFL. It all meant that once injuries started to hit, the impact couldn’t be absorbed.

Compare and contrast Monaghan’s line-up for last weekend’s Meath match to the one that matched strides with Dublin for the first hour of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Corey used 20 players in Croke Park last July – seven of them were unavailable to him last Sunday. An eighth, centre back Ryan O’Toole, got poleaxed during the game and looks likely to miss Saturday’s encounter in Salthill.

Some of these were core players, too. Whatever about those not on the panel, they were without their captain Kieran Duffy and an All-Star wing back in O’Connell. Neither of the latter two have been named in the squad for the Galway game and Darren Hughes most likely ended his incredible career being stretchered off with a medial ligament tear against Cavan. Dessie Ward hasn’t played for a month but has made the 26 this weekend.

“You can’t look past the injuries,” says Kieran Hughes. “You’re talking about a county here that doesn’t have the numbers, simple as that. We don’t have the numbers to compete with the top teams once there’s a load of injuries. The top teams are able to bring on a similar player to fill in, we have never been able to do that.

“When you’re in the dressingroom, you never think that way because you’re in the bubble. But when you get on the outside, you see the damage done by losing a slew of key players at the same time. Like, during the league, Monaghan lost Stephen O’Hanlon and Micheál Bannigan for a run of games. They’re your strike runners, the line-breakers who are the key to how Monaghan play, cutting in at pace off the wings.

“So if you take it that during the league, Vinny didn’t have those guys, he didn’t have Rory Beggan, he didn’t have Ryan McAnespie for a while as well – we cannot afford to be missing them. We just don’t have the players to come in and do what they do. So suddenly you’re asking young players at the start of their career to come in and do what boys who have been around for a long time are fit and conditioned to do. Next thing you know, results are starting to go against you.”

In and of itself, relegation in the league wasn’t such a desperate outcome. Monaghan are the fifth county in the past five seasons to fall through the trapdoor in the league campaign immediately following a championship where they’d been to an All-Ireland semi-final. It happened to Dublin in 2022, to Cavan and Tipperary in 2021 and to Mayo in 2020. Past performance has never been a guarantee of future returns.

It was more the manner of it that stung. They conceded the most of any team in the four divisions. They gave up 14 goals – equal to the total they had conceded in the previous two league campaigns combined. They lost four games by seven points or more – again, you’d need to add the 2022 and 2023 leagues together to come up with that amount of league hammerings. It was a very unMonaghan way to go down.

“The big problem has been the unforced errors,” Hughes says. “Some of them have been inexcusable. You wouldn’t see a Division Three or Four team making them. For Meath’s first goal the other day, it was the sort of kick-pass giveaway you don’t see the top teams making. That’s the thing that has to be cut out – those unforced errors, those turnovers.

“The teams that are left now are so ruthless. They’re ready to go the second a ball is turned over. And that was what Monaghan always prided ourselves on – if you can keep hold of the ball, you can always contain any team, no matter who you’re up against.

“But you have to hold possession, you have to be so hard on yourself if you give it away. Your handling has to be clinical. I would be all in for the need to bring the ball into danger, as long as you are aware of when you’re about to be closed down and get it away to a team-mate and start again. Because otherwise, you’re going to be chasing the game all day.”

All that said, Hughes will still pack the car this weekend and head west in hope. It has been a chastening year for Monaghan but they’re unbeaten in two games and they know Galway have had their own injury woes to wallow in.

“Themselves and Monaghan must be the two counties that have had the most soft-tissue injuries over the year,” he says. “I just know if I was in the Monaghan dressingroom this week, I’d be looking at the matchups and getting confidence straight away.

“I think the fixtures have fallen nicely Monaghan – if the Kerry match was last, we’d be coming in here in much worse shape. But we won our last game, whereas Galway are coming off a draw that would have felt like a loss. It’s no simple task but I would be excited, probably for the first time this year. I really hope there’s a big performance in them.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times