Monaghan’s Conor McManus: ‘We’re lucky to be allowed to go out and do this’

With the county moving up to Level 4, the footballer is not taking anything for granted

Conor McManus of Monaghan. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho

Conor McManus of Monaghan. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho

 

When they go training these nights, when the lights shine down on the pitches in Cloghan and the cold of the autumn adds pep to the warm-up, nobody in the Monaghan panel needs reminding that these are not normal times. Their centre of excellence was built just off the N2, more or less plumb in the midpoint of the county, equidistant from its northern, southern and westernmost borders. It’s their home and their haven.

It’s something else these days too. Everything that makes it a good spot for a GAA centre of excellence also makes it a perfect site for a drive-through Covid testing centre. It’s spacious, it’s central, it’s handy to get in and out of. And so, since March, it has been the main testing location in a county where the case numbers have been rising ominously.

In the four months from the middle of May to the middle of September, there were 100 new positive Covid-19 cases in the whole of Co Monaghan. In the past four weeks alone, there have been just short of 300. When the players arrive for training, the whole HSE infrastructure is there onsite. There’s no ignoring it. No ignoring what it’s there for either.

“Yeah, we can get onto the pitch all right but we can’t go in the dressing-rooms,” says Conor McManus. “It’s all cordoned off. We can’t use our gym or any of that. The physios are set up in a changing room that we wouldn’t normally use. It’s one player at a time going in and out, everybody masked up, no hanging about, no messing. It’s feels somewhat weird all right, but you do what you’re asked.”

Weird, maybe. But in its own peculiar way, it couldn’t be better. The times are heavy for everyone in the country, but it feels especially grim up around the Border. The numbers nearby in Northern Ireland find new ways to stun people every night, and there’s at least a month of Level 4 restrictions ahead. There’s nothing for people to do, and a winter ahead in which to do it.

In the circumstances, McManus drives to training every night feeling grateful at having such an avenue of pleasure open to him. Under those lights, the world melts away. Covid doesn’t cease to exist, not exactly. It’s just that, for a few hours, it can take a number and get in line. Behind Kerry this afternoon, behind Meath next week, behind Cavan in the first round of Ulster in a fortnight.

Escaping

“It’s probably the one place you can be where things are back to how they were seven or eight months ago,” he says. “When we go there, it’s the same as it was. You are escaping from life a little bit. You’re getting away from the first 10 minutes of every conversation being consumed with Covid. There’s no ‘will it go away? Will there be a vaccine? Will we get a Christmas?’ We turn up and we train and the outside world might as well be the same as it always was.

“I was saying to someone the other day that if we weren’t training Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, what would you be doing? Where could you go four nights a week? What could you be doing to change your scenery? I know lots of people who have nothing to be at, everybody does. That’s a massive thing and we’re very lucky to be allowed to do it. We don’t take it for granted.

Monaghan’s Conor McManus. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Monaghan’s Conor McManus. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Every box is being ticked, everything is being done as safely as possible. I don’t feel that we’re being taken advantage of

“It’s young people that you’d feel for. When I was younger and living in Dublin, you could finish up work on a Wednesday night and some lad says come on, we’ll go for a pint and next thing you know it’s two in the morning and you’re in Coppers without ever intending to be. That’s gone and there’s no sign of it coming back anytime soon.”

As the nightly headlines grew ever more shrill this week, the whole idea of county teams suiting up to finish out the league and play the championship came under fire. To some, it seems like a luxury the country can’t afford – if we can’t go to each other’s houses, how can it be right that a load of sports teams can swank around the country playing games?

Others feel the risk is too acute – the Irish soccer team can’t play three games in a week without losing a heap of bodies to Covid, so why would the GAA be any different? Still others make the case that the hurlers and footballers are maybe being pushed into a championship that’s supposed to balm the nation’s mental health without anyone stopping to ask them how they feel about it. Indeed, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) felt the need to survey its members on precisely that subject on Wednesday night.

McManus gets all the concerns and the last thing he wants it to come across as if he’s blind to any of them. But he’d make a few arguments in response, all the same. For one, county teams are going to massive lengths to be safe – he has huge sympathy for the Kerry players who are driving their own cars five hours to play in Inniskeen today rather than travel together on a bus. For another, the games themselves haven’t yet been shown to be a problem, despite a massive bank of evidence.

Hesitation

“I suppose this might be a selfish view but I honestly don’t feel any hesitation or unease about playing. To me, there are more benefits to playing this championship than not playing. Yes, there is a risk to everything with Covid but, to my knowledge so far, there has been very little evidence of transmission on the field. The aftermath of games and finals is obviously where there has been a problem but look, that boils down to personal responsibility.

“As I see it, we’re lucky to be allowed to go out and do this. Everything is being done in as controlled and as safe a manner as possible. Every box is being ticked, everything is being done as safely as possible. I don’t feel that we’re being taken advantage of or anything like that. I’m only speaking for myself. But I haven’t got that sense off any other players. The opposite would be the case – players are mad to get out playing.”

Everyone’s circumstances are their own, of course. McManus doesn’t live with his parents but knows there are plenty of players in plenty of counties who do. If any of them are antsy about togging out, he wouldn’t dream of making them feel bad about choosing not to. He doesn’t know anybody who would, for that matter.

“God no, I wouldn’t judge anybody who feels differently to me. If someone is not comfortable playing, we are all grown individuals and we all know that this is a different situation to anything we’ve experienced before. I know in the Monaghan set-up, if some man didn’t feel like this was for him at this particular time, if he didn’t think it was worth the risk given his home situation or that, then absolutely nobody would have a problem with it.

“It’s up to each individual to decide whether they will or won’t get involved. There would be nobody in our dressing-room would hold it against anybody who chose not to. We’ve all been in dressing-rooms down the years where a lad might decide he has an injury or he wants to go away travelling and there could be resentment of him making that choice. But this is totally different. There’d be none of that.”

Flying blind

As for what they’re facing on the pitch, he accepts that everyone is flying blind to some extent. Kerry arrive today for the penultimate round of the league, with Monaghan still not clear of relegation bother despite a generally decent spring.

Both counties finished their club championships at the end of September and so they’ve really only had about half a dozen full-panel training sessions each so far. They could be hopping off the ground or they could be in trouble. They won’t know until they know.

“We’ve been doing championship training,” says McManus. “You’re trying to pack in an awful lot of stuff into a very short space of time. Normally, you have a long run-in to championship – this is condensed but it’s enjoyable. Obviously we have new management and you were keen to get in and see what sort of ideas they had, what their approach to championship was going to be. And you’re probably not getting the full picture just yet.

As my manager keeps reminding me, I’m in the autumn – no, actually, winter, he says – of my career

“But it’s very enjoyable. You’re trying to brace the body for what is to come. And what’s around the corner for every player in the country more or less is three straight weeks of football on the trot, with the biggest game of the year coming in the third week. So you’re trying to brace yourself for that.

“Obviously the league has a major importance as well, there’s a lot of moving and shaking to be done there yet. So it’s not as if you can cast the two league games aside. That makes it a very different dynamic than what we’re used to. Normally, it’s complete tunnel vision on the first game of the championship and, look, obviously it’s still the most important aspect of the next few weeks.”

Presuming it happens, it will be McManus’s 14th championship. Go around the country and there aren’t many on the team lists who have been going longer. Methuselah between the Dublin sticks obviously has everyone covered, but after that you’re looking at David Clarke and Keith Higgins in Mayo, Ross Munnelly and Colm Begley in Laois. Neil McGee in Donegal started a year before him but after that, it’s slim pickings.

“Yeah, as my manager keeps reminding me, I’m in the autumn – no, actually, winter, he says – of my career,” he laughs. “Charming, isn’t he? But look, you never know how many of them you have left. You have to go out and grab each one you can. Especially now, with so much uncertainty around.”

You take your victories where you can. Seven and a half months after they last played, just coming together for a game feels like one of the sweetest all year.

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