Donegal v Monaghan: The needle has become part of the fabric

The sides don’t hate each other, but the temperature never drops below simmering point

The first thing to say about the rivalry between Donegal and Monaghan is that we're not talking Israel and Palestine here. The bit of push-me, pull-you that greeted the final whistle in Breffni Park last Saturday night probably didn't look great but given that the two teams could be seen breezily mingling in the car park behind the stand 45 minutes later as they waited out the traffic, we can take it that swords were sheathed readily enough once they left the pitch.

Jim McGuinness wrote in these pages on Tuesday, the two sides “really, really don’t like each other”. But there’s not an overwhelming amount of hatred between them either. It’s more that a low hum of irritation with each other exists just barely below the surface of their relationship, like sparring in-laws who keep ending up being sat near each other at family gatherings.

Truth be told, both of them would probably harbour far more ill-feeling towards Tyrone than anything they could muster up for each other. But as they suit up to go again tonight in Cavan for their seventh championship encounter in nine years, there’s no ignoring the fact that the temperature hasn’t – and won’t – drop below simmering point. Nor that it will frequently go higher than that.

In the gloriously petty way of these things, both sides put full blame on the other – if not for starting it than at least for carrying it on. There has never been a big row, no one incident that anyone can point to. This is, in general, pea-shooters across a school desk rather than nukes across the DMZ. Indeed, it’s fair to say that nobody looks especially big or clever when the various picayune incidents are detailed.



Take last Saturday night, for instance. Donegal were furious when Conor McManus only saw yellow for a fairly straight-forward black card body-check just before half-time. Joe McQuillan decided it was a late tackle and kept McManus on the pitch. Whatever about Donegal having to play some of the second half with only 14 men after Martin McElhinney’s red card, we can safely say a Monaghan team without McManus for 43 minutes would not have got out of Breffni unscathed.

After the usual bump and grind going down the tunnel at the break, Monaghan pulled the age-old stroke of sitting in their dressing-room long after Donegal had reappeared. It all fed into a steadily rising sense of annoyance on the Donegal sideline as the second half progressed.

By the end, they were in a lawless mood. When Christy Toye fisted Donegal into the lead in injury-time, one member of their management team pushed a substitute onto the pitch without calling for anyone to come off. It brought howls of uproar from the Monaghan bench and Maurice Deegan, who was one sideline duty, had to radio in to McQuillan to get the game stopped and get the numbers right. Deegan, incidentally, will referee this evening's bunfight.

Meanwhile, both sides had some Maor Foirne issues. One kept running past the other’s freetaker roaring to distract him as he was lining up place kicks. Another was copped squirting water at an opposition player who was kicking a sideline ball. Childish stuff, on the whole. But combined with the series of tornadoes twisting away inside the lines, it was more than enough to leave everyone’s dudgeon high by the time McQuillan blew up after 76 minutes.

This is the thing with Monaghan and Donegal. In their six meetings since 2007, they have both developed an effortless knack for getting under the other’s skin. It is a clear and obvious strategy on both sides. Because they are similar teams with similar style of play, they understand that their games will usually go the way of whoever best holds their discipline. And because they know each other so well, they can press each other’s buttons through sheer instinct.

For a case in point, look no further than Rory Kavanagh's red card in the 2014 Division Two final. He got in a tangle with Darren Hughes, after which the Monaghan man threw his boot away. Kavanagh went to retrieve the stray Puma but before putting it back on his foot, he used it to jab Hughes in the unjabables. Hughes went down in a heap, Kavanagh saw a straight red. Nobody looked good at the end of it all.

Of course, all the petty skirmishing has its root in broader psychological concerns. For such a keen rivalry, the head-to-head stats are actually quite lopsided in Monaghan’s favour. Donegal have beaten Monaghan only once since 1983. Their shared modern history goes back to 2007, during which time Monaghan have won four, lost one and drawn one.

If that sounds like a long time ago in the context of modern careers, it’s worth noting that the current Monaghan panel has seven survivors from their qualifier win in Omagh nine years ago, while Donegal have nine. Between league and championship, this will be their 12th meeting across those years. They have long since passed the point where they had anything new to say to each other, yet the jawing won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Superiority complexes

This, then, is a rivalry of competing superiority complexes. Donegal might not beat Monaghan very often but they all have All-Ireland medals at home. They’ve been to two All-Ireland finals, three semi-finals. None of the Monaghan players have ever been beyond a quarter-final.

And yet, regardless of what heights Donegal reach, it is always an article of faith in Monaghan football that they can and should be beaten. When they ended a 41-year stretch without an Ulster title in 1979, it was Donegal they skittled in the final. Same again in 2013 when they were scratching a 25-year itch.

Even in the 1990s, when Monaghan tumbled down the divisions and managed only two championship wins across the decade, one of them still came in 1995 in Ballybofey. The Donegal side they beat on that broiling afternoon had ended the reign of All-Ireland champions Down in the preliminary round and even went into the game as favourites for Sam Maguire. Yet the 6/1 outsiders carried the day, 1-14 to 0-8.

Mental block

This stuff matters. Especially in a small county like Monaghan who can’t claim too many rivals over whom they have an ongoing upper-hand. Just as they have a mental block that causes them to shrivel in the face of Tyrone, they go into Donegal matches full of themselves and expecting to be well in the shake-up come the final whistle.

It feeds into the general sense of waspishness around the fixture. As does the amount of mouthy players on either side. Anyone who has seen the David Coldrick episode of Loosehorse TV's Men In Black series – in which Coldrick is miked up during the 2013 Ulster final between the pair – will be familiar with the amount of yapping a referee has to deal with during games between them.

Neither side have been conspicuously gracious winners, it has to be said. Going back to Rory Woods laughing in Colm McFadden's face in Omagh in 2007, there has always been plenty of chat to go around. During that 2012 Division two final, one Monaghan player bent Eamon McGee's ear as the clock ran down near the end.

“The gist of it was that we couldn’t get near them in the last few years,” McGee said in the run-up to that year’s Ulster final. “And right he was. You don’t want that hanging over you when you finish football. It’s something I never noticed but unfortunately the stats are there.”

The untrammelled Donegal joy upon the final whistle of that final was, therefore, little surprise. Monaghan were owed – and not just for the fact of defeat in the previous year’s final. For the manner of it too. McGuinness held firm to his belief that Stephen Gollogly’s challenge on Mark McHugh early in the 2013 final was reckless and it was clear from his address at the homecoming in Donegal town that there was more than just a reclaimed title to be celebrated.

“Today was the day we wanted,” he said from the stage. “We wanted to be in Clones today and we wanted the opposition we played today. There was a lot of pain from last year. Those questions had to be answered.”

The nature of the beast though is that you get to come back and ask them anew the following year. And this pair rarely ask them delicately. Michael Murphy's hit on Drew Wylie was the stand-out moment of the game last week, the one snippet guaranteed to make it into the highlight reel. Indeed, for all the derision sent the way of Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley after his play-acting, Rory Gallagher could be seen shaking his head on the sideline at the time and is said to have taken a particularly dim view of it afterwards.

No TV coverage

At seven o'clock this evening, they will go again. There's no TV coverage so the crowd is likely to outstrip last week. Yet nobody turning up will be expecting any surprises. Vinny Corey will still be stuck to Murphy's side. Paddy McGrath will be attached to McManus. Darren Hughes and Ryan McHugh will ships-in-the-night each other all evening between the 20s. Whoever scores the goal and/or kicks the frees will win.

However it ends, chances are they’ll see each other again this time next year. Snarling and sniping, driving each other demented.

Lucky us.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times