When Monaghan were making shapes at a breakthrough back in 2007 and 2008, I had a good enough relationship with them – even if it might not have always looked that way. I got on well with Banty McEnaney who, in fairness, always had a great sense of humour and was always up for some sort of mischief.
One winter around then, Banty rang me up saying he had a proposal for me. Monaghan had a big fund-raising drive on the go and one of the events they had lined up was a white-collar boxing night. Myself and Dick Clerkin had had a couple of run-ins over the course of those games and Banty's big idea was that the main event of the evening would be Dick and I going at it for three rounds.
Well now, I have to say I was disappointed in Banty. I thought he was a more intelligent fella than that. Did he really think I was going to leave Dick train away for six weeks before toddling up there to Monaghan to be absolutely decorated inside in the ring? Give me some bit of credit. I’d be thick enough the odd time but there was no way I was putting my hand up for that one. I laughed it out of town.
Monaghan were always one of those teams you had to steel yourself for. When we played them in Croke Park those two years back-to-back, there was no mystery as to what we were going to face. We knew they were going to be very physical, we knew we were going to take a battering.
Pat O'Shea had us well ready that first year. Don't get involved, don't overreact. This had to be rope-a-dope stuff. We had to keep our discipline and remember that there was 70 minutes to play. It was always going to be squeaky-bum time coming near the end and that's when we'd have that bit more experience and patience going for us.
We knew as well that even if they’d had somebody sent off, it wouldn’t really have knocked too much out of them. They had a seriously hard edge and every one of their players were committed to it. It’s wasn’t as if they were carrying a few lads as luxuries – right the way up to Tommy Freeman in the corner, they had players who would run and tackle and fight all day.
They were an impressive bunch. They reminded me a bit of the Meath team of the 1980s – you’d hate playing against them but it wasn’t as if they were just a band of hitmen going out and causing havoc.
They were well able to play football as well and the way they mixed physicality with ability made them so hard to beat. We knew that once we got over them in 2007, we were meeting Dublin seriously battle-hardened.
Monaghan’s one real weakness back then was a lack of depth. Because they had such a committed bunch of players, with every man throwing the kitchen sink at it from the first minute, they were always going to need players off the bench near the end. And they just didn’t have the quality to bring on. That isn’t the case this time around.
Now they’re keeping Clerkin and Freeman back for the end of the game. That’s a luxury they never had.
I always thought when Banty was over them that the fact that he was the brother of a referee and had umpired an All-Ireland final himself meant he knew how close to the edge his players should go. They tested the limits of the rules but managed to stay within them most of the time.
Take somebody like Rory Woods, who I met recently over in New York. Rory was a fine, strong-set player, a real brute of a man. And when Rory hit you a shoulder, you knew all about it. But he had a brilliant football brain as well and a really classy strike of a ball.
They knew as well that because they were a new team on the block and a bit of a fairytale, most people would just see them doing well and be happy for them. It would take a couple of seasons before people really looked at them properly to see how they were playing. I would never have said they were dirty but by God they were physical.
Monaghan were a 48-hour team for me. Some counties you played against, you felt it the next morning. But after a Monaghan game, I'd be sore on the Tuesday. You'd have bruises that you didn't remember picking up, you'd be finding stud marks on your back, aches and pains all over the place.
And the gas thing was, if you were to try and have a vendetta against any of them, you'd be hard pushed to pick any one out. I know a good five or six of them got their pound of flesh off me in 2007 and 2008. But you wouldn't bear a grudge against them.
They played a tough brand of football, simple as that. It was a given. They shook hands afterwards and they never cribbed or moaned about anybody having a cut off them. I’ll be honest – I gave it back to them on the pitch just as much as they gave me. And there was no rolling around, no crying to the referee. They got on with it. That was the joy of it.
Physicality is just the culture of football in the county. It was then, it is now and it will be in the future. They even have Jim McGuinness on the run now. I thought his comments over the weekend were off the mark and actually I was surprised at him.
I don't think any of the managers left in the championship can really be cribbing about physicality – not Jim, not Mickey Harte, not Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
The idea that Stephen Gollogly went out to target Mark McHugh in the Ulster final just doesn't stand up. It was a full-blooded tackle, it was seriously physical, no doubt. And I don't think there's any question but that Gollogly would have known that he was going to crash into McHugh.
But the ball was there to be challenged for. He didn’t lift an elbow, he didn’t lift a knee or a foot or a fist. He went in bald-headed and came out of it badly himself. To my mind, it was a very brave tackle and it just showed the commitment of that Monaghan team that day.
Imagine you were in their dressing room at half-time and you were trying to regroup for the second half. You're tired and sore after killing yourself for 38 minutes. You're gathering yourself to go again in the second half. All you have to do is look over at Gollogly whose eye is totally closed due the impact of the tackle he put in. There was no way Monaghan were going to take the foot off the pedal for anyone after that.
Was it a physical challenge? Of course it was. Could he have slowed down and waited for McHugh to collect the ball? Of course he could. But wouldn't McHugh have loved that? Wouldn't Donegal have loved that? Gollogly's tackle was fair, it was within the rules and it told Donegal what was going to be expected of them.
Tyrone have been well warned. They will want to stretch Monaghan in Croke Park on Saturday and try to use the size of the pitch to play around them.
But I must say I fancy Monaghan for that game. Tyrone haven’t been playing well and Meath pushed them all the way last weekend. Monaghan have their tails up and they’ll go at them hammer and tongs. I know Tyrone are favourites but I think Monaghan have a great chance.
I would fully expect Dublin and Kerry to get over Cork and Cavan. Cork just aren’t going well enough to put it up to Dublin and they’ve struggled to get to this stage. And although Cavan won’t fear Kerry, I do feel Kerry are coming together quite nicely. There’s a cautiousness in Kerry at the minute but I think that’s because people are comparing it to the Down game in 2010. They should have enough about them to come through.
As for the big game of the weekend, it’s Mayo for me. They’ve gone about everything the right way, they’ve kept everything low-key, they’ve addressed everything that was going wrong for them before. They’re more disciplined in their tackling than they were last year, they’re kicking the ball more and they look comfortable in themselves.
All in all, it will give them the edge over Donegal.