Conor McManus to shoulder a familiar load for Monaghan
Talented forward is crucial to his county’s cause in Ulster semi-final against Donegal
Monaghan’s Conor McManus celebrates scoring a point against Donegal in last year’s Ulster final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
One hopes that this Saturday morning, as Monaghan prepare to face Donegal in the second of the Ulster championship semi-finals, Conor McManus is roused from his slumber by bird-song and the far-off chimes of church bells in the countryside. Because the rest of his day is not shaping up to be a carefree one of wild abandon and free expression for the best forward in the game.
For guys like Vinny Corey, or Dessie Mone or Frank McGlynn for Donegal, they can at least say to themselves that if they empty the tank, and force a few turnovers, and maybe sally forward a couple of times throughout, they can steadily exert an influence.
For McManus, the comfort-blanket of continuous involvement in the game doesn’t exist. There may only be two or three clear looks at goal given to him on Saturday, but that doesn’t really matter.
Everyone knows how good he is, everyone knows he’s done it before under the most extreme pressure, so everyone has now accepted that as par. His Ulster final performance against Donegal last year shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of par though. He barely touched the ball for the first 25 minutes, and yet when chances presented themselves he was dead-eyed.
He finished the game with 0-6, and in a game that finished 11 points to 10, that tells you all you need to know.
He is both part of a long-standing Ulster tradition and a new chapter in that tradition. Malachy Clerkin of this parish once called it ‘the Benny Coulter syndrome’; when you are your team’s marquee forward, as Coulter was for years with Down, be prepared for all-out war.
The exact methods may have changed slightly, but Oisín McConville once told me what it consisted of when he played for Armagh (and finished his career as the top scorer in the history of the Ulster championship). Unbelievable physicality, at a time when most defenders could get away with it, as well as your toes being stood on, your testicles being pinched, some spitting, loads of verbals - “but at least you knew what was coming down the tracks” - as if that made it any more enjoyable. Given how easily you could do almost all of that without being seen, there were substantial upsides, and negligible downsides, to letting your least scrupulous defender off the leash. Often, Oisín and Benny’s pre-match preparation would be whittled down to one man – one name that would be the focus of your entire week.
That name might be Conor Gormley, or it might be Sean Marty Lockhart. With Conor McManus, he will have a laundry list of opponents to contend with. He might shake hands at the start of the game on Saturday with Eamon McGee, but Ryan McHugh, McGlynn, Rory Kavanagh, Anthony Thompson and others will all have their say at various stages. None of those names might hit him twice, but the one time they do, they’ll try and make it count.
The raw-boned physicality of turn-of-the-century Ulster football may have been refined somewhat – persistent fouling is no longer good defending. But it’s still a cauldron. And what draws me and many others to root for guys like McManus is that this is a test of character before it’s a test of skill.
There is the internal pressure he puts on himself, as Monaghan’s captain and best player. But there is also the external pressure of being the team’s talisman.
Being in Castlebar last Saturday brought home to me the idea that a wide or a turnover of Aidan O’Shea or Cillian O’Connor counts double when you’re playing Mayo. It’s not just a loss of possession, it’s a win for the opposition. That’s what comes with being a national figure. With McManus he has to face down that pressure, face down his markers, face down a line of Donegal players arranged along the 45 metre line in front of him, and keep his cool under extreme pressure.
After one of those six blood-from-a-stone points in the Ulster final last year, he ran past Neil McGee and jabbed his finger into McGee’s chest. I don’t think we need to worry about McManus’ temperament, or his courage. Of course it barely needs mentioning that Paddy McBrearty will face something similar at the other end.
But Donegal have managed to successfully spread the scoring load around over the last couple of years. Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy shouldered it in tandem for a couple of years, and Odhrán Mac Niallais’ happy knack of scoring goals takes the pressure off somewhat as well. Put it this way – you can see Donegal winning this game even if McBrearty is held to a point. Can you say the same about Monaghan and Conor McManus?