Conor McManus lights way forward for Monaghan

Clontibret clubman hoping to propel his county to a first semi-final since 1988

Clontibret is a parish rather than a village, a stretch of the Dublin road with little nests of houses tucked behind the hedgerows down rocky ampersand lanes. This, be in no doubt, is Conor McManus country. It's about five miles outside Monaghan town and as you drive through it, there's barely a naked lamppost to be seen. The club has four players on the county panel, three in the team. But there's only one Mansy.

Here’s his face, nailed to a tractor tyre. Here’s a cardboard cut-out of him, reinforced to withstand a hurricane. Here’s a banner, calling on him to Hit The Diff (don’t ask). This wall of mirrors is what he sees of a morning when he comes out of his house and points the car towards Dublin where he’s just started a new job.

Think about that. You grow up in a place. It’s small but spread out, disjointed because of the main road that scythes through it but fiercely connected too because along the side of a hill are a football pitch, a school and a church. Your people are GAA people. Your dad wrote the club history. For most of your life, you were just another one of the local kids. Nothing special, nothing to get mad excited about.

And now you’re . . . what, exactly? The best forward in Ulster? Arguable, but plausible. One of the top three or four in the country? Likewise. Your county’s main threat? Definitely. Carrier of dreams, vessel for all manner of unlikely aching in a place that doesn’t rightly know how high to hope? All of the above. So they hang your face up everywhere and you don’t even get a say in it.


“Aye, you could do without it alright,” he says, half-laughing, half-grimacing. “It’s a bit strange to look up and see it all. But the whole thing has settled down a bit, or it did almost straight away after the [Donegal] game. For us it did anyway. We can’t really control what happened outside of the camp.

Proud football county

“But you saw it in the emotions of normal, regular Monaghan people. It meant an awful lot, it definitely did. This is a massively proud football county. There’s nothing else in Monaghan only football really. For them to go a generation without winning an Ulster championship and then to turn around and win two in three years – you have to enjoy it.”

His team go to Croke Park today as favourites in an All-Ireland quarter-final. In the Monaghan in which he grew up, that sentence was unthinkable and unwriteable. They played an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork in 1988, a couple of months before his first birthday, and then didn't play another championship match in Croke Park until 2005, just shy of his 18th. He had plenty of love to give but had to find other avenues for it.

“Growing up watching Monaghan, you spent a lot of years running into block walls. I was born in ’87 and I spent my time supporting the Downs and Donegals and Derrys in All-Ireland finals. I used to know the commentary of the All-Irelands from ’91 to ’94 off by heart because Ulster teams were going to Dublin and winning Sam.

“That’s the reality of it. Monaghan were gone every year so you fell in with whoever won the Ulster final. That’s probably hard to say now in a way but that’s how it was. It’s good to see the tide has turned a wee bit.

“To play for Monaghan back in the mid-Nineties or early 2000s, it just wasn’t the thing to do. Supporters’ attitudes towards the team was different to what it is now. A lot of that came from the players and from within the squads themselves and a lot of the older boys that I would have got to know when I came in, they would admit that themselves.

“So from that point of view, purely an attitude thing, that has changed dramatically. Now the difference is that young people want to play for Monaghan. There’s a will to get involved with Monaghan GAA that wasn’t there.”

The past decade has changed everything, beginning with a Division Two final win thanks to a fluke goal against Meath in 2005. McManus was a supporter that day and if you’d told him – or anyone – that the next wave of success in the county would be borne by his shoulders, you’d have been pointed to the ambulance in the far-corner of the stadium.

That was his minor year but he didn’t make the Monaghan panel and if anyone was outraged at his exclusion, they kept it to themselves. The following year, he popped up to grab a decisive goal in the county final and Séamus McEnaney called him in to train with the county’s under-21s.

During Clontibret’s Ulster campaign, a couple of injuries pressed him into service as a wing-back marking Oisín McConville. Though the Cross wizard ended the day with 0-4 against his name, McManus got up the pitch for 0-3 of his own. He didn’t know it then, but McEnaney was watching on and came away with a job in mind for him.

“I never played in the full-forward line for about the first four years with Monaghan I’d say. It was wing forward or wing back. With Banty, if you could do one, you could do the two! That was very much how it was for a couple of years. In ’07 and ’08, right up until 2010. I played wing-back in plenty of games.

Free rein

“I think it’s probably one of the most enjoyable positions on the field. Yes, you have a man to mark but equally, you can put him on the back foot as well. You have defensive duties but when you have the ball, you have free rein to go. You’re more involved and you’re not dependent on what happens out the field. In fairness, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy my role now. I definitely do. And I don’t see myself as anything else only a forward now.”

By McEnaney's final year, he was in the full-forward line alongside Tommy Freeman. They made an Ulster final that year but got schooled by Tyrone in Clones before the Banty era puttered to a halt in the qualifiers against Kildare. The two-year downward spiral that followed spooked a lot of them.

“It really snowballed on us,” says McManus. “That can happen. Things can just go wrong on you for whatever reason. What it starts to go against you, it can be very hard to turn around. We probably found ourselves in a position where we were as low as we could go because I don’t think we were going to fall much further than Division Three. From our point of view, we had hit rock-bottom. No matter how bad the thing was going to get, I never thought there was a chance that we’d go into Division Four. So the only way was up.

“We always knew we were good enough not to be where we were. Obviously you don’t know what the future holds but we knew we had enough good players not to be where we were. A few of us met after the 2012 championship and we were involved in the selection of the next manager and I think that itself showed that the players cared an awful lot about what was happening. We didn’t want to be where we were.

"Particularly the older guys, Dick [Clerkin] and Vinny [Corey] and Jap [Paul Finlay] and Owen Lennon. They could have all walked away handy enough at that point. To see those boys at that stage saying, 'Jesus, we can't leave things as they are here.' To see them willing to put in the fight for another couple of years, it was fairly inspiring for the rest of us."

Inspiration is one thing. Reality is another. It’s all very well being confident you can’t fall too much further but until your feet find the bottom of the pool, you’re only guessing at the depth. Given the county’s history, the assumption from outside would have been that Division One football was an over-achievement on their part, ditto the regular visits to Ulster finals and Croke Park. McManus politely but visibly bristles at the suggestion.

Above ourselves

“I don’t think it ever crossed our minds that we might have been playing above ourselves. From 2007 to 2010, we had beaten more or less everybody except Tyrone and Kerry. And those were the teams that were winning All-Irelands at the time. We were in two Ulster finals where we lost to Tyrone. We were in Croke Park in August twice where we lost to Kerry.

“We had no silverware to show for it but we knew that we should be playing at that level because we were able to beat whoever else we came up against except those two. So from that point of view, our way of thinking was never that we were playing above ourselves. It was more that we knew we could compete here if we got back up to that level. But first and foremost, we needed to get out of Division Three and get the thing moving again.”

The rest is a graph that’s still rising. They asked the county board to try to get Malachy O’Rourke and from that day to this, it has been forward motion always. Successive promotions, both times as champions. Consolidation in Division One.

Two Ulster titles in three years. A first championship win in Croke Park since 1930. Long-standing hoodoos against Tyrone and Kerry dealt with, albeit only in the league in Kerry’s case. A chance today to set about doing it in an All-Ireland semi-final in a fortnight.

And in front of our eyes, McManus has flowered into an all-but unmarkable forward. One who spends his life double-teamed and ball-starved and is still good for almost 50 per cent of Monaghan’s scores. They’ve chalked up 1-47 in three games this summer, 1-19 of it from his boot. Not bad for a former wing-back who wasn’t mapped at underage.

A serious player on a serious team, it’s a reality so far removed from what he grew up with. But life changes in increments and if you learn to change with it, you can make what you want out of it. Two years ago, they came to Croke Park to meet Tyrone as Ulster champions and left beaten without being distraught. But this is not then, however similar it looks. You never step in the same river twice.

“The last time, we won it after 25 years and the whole county was on a buzz and on a high and you had to share that with them. We went around the towns and whatnot. This time, it was just great to get the job done. It’s not so much that we made the decision to do anything different, it’s just that we’re in a different place than we were two years ago.”

A different place with different horizons. And in McManus, a player with limitless potential to reach them.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times