Monaghan enjoying rare days in sun as they prepare for Donegal

County that has a habit of going into hibernation will contest third Ulster final in row


The 1979 Ulster final between Monaghan and Donegal started twice. When the ball was thrown in, Séamus Bonner took possession and thumped a point straight down the centre of the pitch to give Donegal a perfect start. There followed a few seconds of confusion.

The referee, Hugh Duggan, was made aware the brass band was still on the field, assembled and waiting patiently in front of the Arthurs Stand so they could play the national anthem. In the tension of the afternoon, the anthem had somehow been forgotten.

Minutes earlier, as Cardinal Ó Fiaich was being introduced to the athletes, Donegal’s Sandy Harper and Ciarán Finlay became embroiled in an impromptu struggle which might have required immediate absolution. Now, it was decided to cancel out the start, hear the anthem out and start the final again.

Observers from Cavan or Down who had been bred on the protocol of these days must have regarded the fiasco with a contemptuous eye. The heightened anxiety was understandable. Donegal hadn’t won the Anglo- Celt since 1974 and were hoping to lift it for just the third time. But Monaghan had gone a staggering 41 years without winning it and hadn’t disturbed a final for 27 years.

In this championship, they had defied all reasonable expectations in beating Down, the reigning champions and Armagh, the 1977 All-Ireland finalists, in the previous rounds. “Donegal would have appeared to be the easiest task, in comparison,” recalls Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes, who that day was beginning the opening stanza of an electrifying turn in blue and white.

Starved of success

The lightning start created by Séamus Bonner in the abandoned few seconds served to gave spectators a misleading preview of what would happen over the course of the match. Monaghan dominated from the beginning, winning 1-15 to 0-11. Finlay gave a masterclass in economy and place-ball kicking. “The false start probably suited us because it gave us a chance to settle down. But it was a day when we made all the right moves,” Hughes says.

The win provoked unfettered celebration across the county. Monaghan had not been champions of Ulster since the year before the second World War broke out. A few days before the final, Gerry McCarville’s boss Jim Sherry told him he could have a week off work if Monaghan won.

“He phoned me then on the Monday afterwards around 12. He just wanted to chat about football. Then he told me to go off and enjoy myself for the week – with pay.”

In retrospect, the gap is hard to fathom. The importance of football in Monaghan did not dim during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. The failure to make an impression is, of course, partly explained by the unassailable position of Cavan football. Hughes and his peers grew up hearing about the exploits of Down and Cavan. Nobody seemed to consider the possibility Monaghan could win championships.

“That was why the Down game was so significant,” says Hughes.

“A lot of Monaghan people saw Down as the Manchester United of Ulster football. I will never forget Seán McCague saying: I don’t mind what kind of game it is as long as we win. And it was ferocious. We were extremely wary of what Down could do. Monaghan struggled to score goals but Down could just snap a goal from nothing and wipe out a five-point lead.”

McCarville and the players who came emerged to win two more Ulster titles for Monaghan over the following 10 years are convinced two events helped to shape that team. The first was the appointment of McCague in 1978 – and the decision to do away with the cumbersome five-man selection committee.

“You could be taken off and the five different people would say it wasn’t me,” remembers Hughes.

Buck stopped

McCarville had heard reports of Monaghan dressing-rooms in which the Scotstown crowd congregated on one side of the room and the Clontribet players on the other. “There was a big emphasis on the club game, maybe sometimes too much,” he says. “But Seán changed that. He convinced us it didn’t matter where we came from and that began to show through in our play.”

Ironically, it was the emergence of Scotstown’s exceptional club team, which won three Ulster titles in a row from 1978 to 1980, that gave Monaghan football some kind of beacon. Monaghan football was teak tough but once Scotstown began to conquer Ulster, they became everyone’s team. The first championship was regarded as a triumph for the entire county.

“The reception we got after winning in 1978 was like nothing we could have imagined,” McCarville says. “I still find it hard to believe it happened because it was like something you would dream about. The entire county got behind us in a way that was very special.”

It made the county players regard their potential in a new light. The transformation was not immediate. McCague had to endure the setback of a 4-6 to 2-4 defeat by Antrim in Casement Park during his debut season of 1978, a loss which did nothing to convince the elders of the wisdom of allowing one man to wield so much control.

“Antrim, we were 1/6 on and PJ O’Hehir scored three goals and the rest is history,” Hughes recalls. “But we learnt the following year. The fact is Monaghan would give a good run for 40 minutes but it was based on individuals. McCague brought in a united team element. The club was most important in Monaghan and you might see a ball not being passed to a man in a better position because it wasn’t one of their own.

“We did see some of that in the minor ranks as well. And fortunately we had players who got on well together. We got the Ulster under-21 semi-final in 1978 against Tyrone – Eugene McKenna and that crew. We were just six minutes from beating them in Omagh and then Eugene decided to turn it on and score 1-3. Still, we had good young players and they needed guidance.”

By the end of July, they were Ulster champions. After a week of full-throttle celebrations in all the towns, a Monaghan football team stepped out into the sunlight of Croke Park. Kerry were there waiting, blithely.

McCague had visited Billy Morgan in Cork prior to the match to see if he had any advice. The Nemo man was regretful but clear. He felt there was nothing anyone could do against Kerry at that time. The final score was faintly notorious: 5-14 to 0-7.

It took Monaghan another six years to break out of Ulster again. This time, still under McCague’s stewardship, they were deeply unfortunate to lose to Kerry after a replay. The Kingdom team was in a state of cooling embers then but they still wrung another two All-Irelands titles out of themselves. Whether Monaghan’s talent during that period should have been reflected in more than the ’85 National League title they won alongside their three Ulster titles (the last in ’88), remains a matter for debate. After a quarter-final loss to Down in the 1989 quarter-final, they went quiet until the recent resurgence under Malachy O’Rourke.

Tomorrow, a Monaghan football team will makes its third consecutive Ulster final appearance for the first time since the poet Kavanagh was a regular attendee at county board meetings in the 1920s. Donegal appear in their fifth consecutive final. When the counties met that day in 1979, such a feast of big days out would have been a fanciful idea – greedy even.

One of the least observed facts about Monaghan is that they are second only to regal Cavan in Ulster successes with 15 titles to their name. It is an impressive haul given the county’s pattern of going into retreat for decades on end. The names of Clerkin and Finlay will feature on the match programme tomorrow and the durability of the senior players for Monaghan has been central to the transformation from a team on the way down to one of the most stubborn presences in the game.

Great belief

Just like McCague did in 1979, O’Rourke has convinced the current Monaghan team of the value of the collective. Nobody in Donegal or Monaghan can call tomorrow’s final with any real conviction. “You’ll not hear any news out of our camp anyhow,” says McCarville. “They are tight.”

The only certainty for Monaghan is, if they win, there will be no touring the county for a week, paid leave or not.

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