I was talking to Brian McEniff a few years ago about Ulster football and the teams Donegal would come up against on a regular basis.
McEniff’s thing was that his teams were never afraid of anybody in Ulster. They had forwards who’d be dangerous against anybody and once you had Anthony Molloy in midfield, you weren’t going to get horsed around by anyone.
“But,” he said, “the one crowd you’d always have to watch out for is Monaghan. They don’t care who you are, they show no respect to anyone.”
I always liked that about Monaghan teams. I know the game changes as the years go by and players come and go but you can’t tell me that certain counties don’t have certain characteristics about them that get passed down through the generations.
McEniff was talking about Monaghan teams in the 1990s. I had enough experience of them in the 2000s to testify that those teams were, let’s say, happy to keep the spirit alive. And you saw on Sunday that their days of bowing the head and praying for Tyrone’s blessing are long gone. Monaghan are Monaghan – what are you going to do about it?
When we played them in 2007 they had hitmen all over the place. They had assassins going after the Gooch, going after Paul Galvin, going after Declan O’Sullivan. They even had some going after me!
I was supposed to be the one going around protecting all our lads and I found myself having three or four of them lining up to poleaxe me. There must have been some confusion, I thought. These boys are so irreverent, they know not what they do.
My worry for them this time around is that the championship has changed at just the wrong time. If this was the old-style All-Ireland and they had to play Fermanagh plus three more teams in the next three months to make an All-Ireland final, I would seriously fancy them to do so. Who would you worry for them against in an All-Ireland semi-final? Dublin, yes. Who else though? They'd back themselves having a cut off anyone, in the shape they were in last Sunday.
That’s the problem, though. Of all the counties, they can’t be guaranteed to arrive there in that shape come the middle of August. They look to me like a team that is going to get killed by the Super 8s. I don’t think they have the depth of panel to be still firing on all cylinders when it comes to the business end of things.
I could be wrong – and it wouldn’t be the first or last time – but they don’t look to me like they have the 22, 23 players you are going to need in the new structure. It looks more like they’re picking from a realistic squad of 18 or 19. Before now, that might even have been enough, especially given the form of their main players. But the new structure is going to stretch them to breaking point.
The Super-8s are going to be helter-skelter. There will be injuries, red cards, black cards, suspensions. You’re playing three games in four weeks and you’re going to be in survival mode by the end of it. Players are going to find themselves in positions they’re not used to, doing jobs they were never asked to before. On top of that, they’re going to be asked to do it against the best teams in the country. I’ll be surprised if Monaghan can still compete under those conditions.
Look at all the men who played 80 minutes for them against Tyrone. Vinny Corey, Darren Hughes, Conor McManus, Drew Wylie, Karl O'Connell, Kieran Hughes. Dessie Mone played over an hour. These are the oldest players on the panel and they were all needed, too. You would have to wonder how likely it is going to be that they'll all be still standing come the last week of the Super 8s.
They’re some bunch of men, all the same. Vinny Corey is around long enough for me to have played against him. How could you not love a fella like that, who keeps plugging away and taking the game to the opposition regardless of who they are?
Mattie Donnelly left him for dead at the end of the first half on Sunday to score a point but Donnelly is a fine player and a real athlete. He's going to take his pound of flesh from you at some stage in most games.
Corey didn’t give it a second thought. He didn’t worry about how bad he was going to look on television or beat himself up over the roasting he might get at half-time. He’s around long enough to know you just keep going. Less than a minute later, he was on the ball on the Tyrone 45, driving at the middle of their defence. The TV pictures didn’t show us where Donnelly was at this stage – maybe he was happy enough with his work for the first half and just let Corey go.
Wherever he was, Corey wasn’t thinking about him. He laid off a pass to McManus and got clocked by one of the Tyrone defenders for his trouble. When three of them went to McManus, he bounced to his feet and took the return. From there, it was a handy one-two with Darren Hughes and all of a sudden, he had an open goal. That’s what you want in your team, fellas with no end to them.
You need the class players as well, obviously. I got to see McManus at close quarters in Australia during the International Rules tour. He was rooming with Michael Murphy over there and the thing that struck me about them both is that they were mad to outdo each other. They both wanted to be the match-winner. They wanted that responsibility.
I'd say they're a dream to manage. They clearly buy in to everything Malachy O'Rourke is telling them and they play to a plan
McManus’s mentality is so impressive. The bigger the occasion, the more he wants it. He wasn’t in that game on Sunday for most of the day but when it came down to the last 10 minutes and very little between the teams, it was his time. It was nearly just pure ignorance – was he going to let this game pass him by? Not a hope.
That score at the end was outrageous but that’s the quality he has. A couple of times in those games against Australia, I remember us watching him take those sideline kicks. The stop-start nature of International Rules means that when there’s a break in play like that, Joe Kernan and Dermot Earley and Padraic Joyce and myself would be trying to organise everyone and getting our shape back.
But when McManus would be stepping up to those kicks away out on the sideline, we’d stop talking and just watch him.
“He’ll hardly make another one, will he?”
“He’s going for it anyway.”
“Never in doubt.”
“Christ he’s some player, lads.”
With him and Corey and the Hughes brothers and the Wylies, now Rory Beggan as well, they have some massive weapons and lads they can depend on without giving it a second thought. I'd say they're a dream to manage. They clearly buy in to everything Malachy O'Rourke is telling them and they play to a plan. They manage the game so well as a result.
So Monaghan look to be a serious prospect, no doubt about it. And I think the difference with them this year is that they have a belief that they can do better than in other years. They’ve won their Ulster titles, so that box is ticked. They’ve stayed in Division One repeatedly, so that box is ticked too. Now they have to do themselves justice in the All-Ireland series, which they haven’t managed at any stage.
They’ve come up against Dublin and not given themselves a chance. They’ve lost to Tyrone as well – once after celebrating their first Ulster title in however many years and the other time after just not really turning up. They look to me like those days are behind them and that they would be close enough to being favourites in a once-off All-Ireland quarter-final this year against almost anyone outside Dublin.
But in a round-robin format, I just keep coming back to this question of depth. It’s fairly obvious that it’s going to matter this year more than ever. When you’re playing so many games in a tight space of time, you’re going to be showing your hand every day.
There’s going to be no room for shadow-boxing or holding anything back for a later date. Once the Super 8s kick in, it’s going to be all the chips in the middle of the table for every game. Nobody is going to have a surprise factor up their sleeve.
Take Rory Beggan, for instance. He’s been around for a few years now and everyone knows that he is nearly flawless from place kicks. But the string he has added to his bow this year is coming out with the ball and playing as a 15th outfield player at times. They obviously trust him big time with the ball and they have no worries that he’s going to get caught out at some stage.
But everyone knows about it now so the next question is what is everyone going to do about it? Does anyone really think Beggan is going through the Super 8s without some opposition hopping off him some day?
I love to see a team coming along that doesn't have a care in the world and couldn't be less bothered by the other team's reputation
Of course his defenders trust him – nobody is coming in to pressure him. What’s he like after somebody arrives a bit late and puts him on his arse? Maybe he’ll go away back into his shell and think twice about it the next time. It’s probably worth some corner forward taking a yellow card some day to find out.
That's just one example. The point is, teams will be analysed to death in between games. Matches will be tight and they will come down to X-factors. How many of those do Monaghan realistically have? In comparison to a Dublin or a Kerry or a Mayo, not enough.
Monaghan got serious impact off the bench from Conor McCarthy and Colin Walshe the last day but you'd have to say it looks slim enough pickings after that. Owen Duffy has had some big games coming on as a sub down the years so he's an option. But after that, I see a lot of good, solid, honest workers like Dermot Malone, Neil McAdam, Shane Carey and these guys. Lads who have been in and around the team for a few years without being match-winners.
I hope I’m wrong about this. I love to see a team coming along that doesn’t have a care in the world and couldn’t be less bothered by the other team’s reputation. And if it came down to who has the best first 15, I’d have them in the top four in the country, probably even top three.
But in the Super 8s era, you need more than that.