A much bigger deal would be made about the Monaghan football revolution had it not coincided with the dazzling comet of the Dublin football team. You might say that that is unfortunate except it almost certainly suits Malachy O’Rourke, the Monaghan manager, just fine.
Monaghan are the stealth missile of modern Gaelic football. They were at it again last Sunday, looking destined to finish as losers in a typically scrappy, unpolished encounter with Donegal in Ballyshannon. Three points down as the match entered injury time and held to 0-2 for the entire half; rather than accepting their fate, Monaghan ratcheted up the intensity over the closing two or three minutes and manufactured a penalty out off pure stubbornness and belief. Conor McManus added the embroidery with the goal.
“It is a massive quality to have, that when things are looking bad you don’t give up and you keep going and you never know, the thing can always turn around and you can get a lucky break– which we did get,” O’Rourke said afterwards.
GAA history will rightly record that the Dublin football team edged into a unique place last Sunday and that Jim Gavin will join the ranks of great managers. People can complain about the wealth of personnel and $$$$ available to the Dublin manager but that wilfully ignores the skill it takes to coach and convince a highly successful group of athletes into staying hungry for excellence for four years and counting.
But think of how far Monaghan have travelled in those same years. Gavin and O'Rourke were appointed managers of their respective teams in the same season. Suffice to say that Gavin's was the higher profile appointment. In 2013, Monaghan were regarded as a brave team in decline, having pushed with exceptional honesty and charisma under Seamus McEnaney for an Ulster title. Their spiritual high point seemed to have arrived in the All-Ireland quarter final of 2007 when they ran a storied Kerry team all the way and lost by a point.
McManus, Vinnie Corey, Dessie Mone, and Stephen Gollogly, all still playing for Monaghan, were on duty that day too. The defeat felt like "my heart has been ripped out without an anaesthetic," McEnaney confided afterwards, which is not the kind of admission you are likely to hear from Gavin any time soon.
He was succeeded in 2010 by Eamon McEneaney who had enjoyed considerable success in Louth. But Monaghan's fortunes seemed to be travelling irreversibly south when O'Rourke took over. They were a Division Three side team by then and looked every inch of it. Early in that 2013 league season, for instance, they lost a derby game to Cavan by 0-10 to 0-5.
Had you told anyone from Monaghan then – players or supporters – that by July, they would be Ulster champions for the first time in 25 years against All-Ireland champions Donegal; that they would win two of the next three Ulster finals and that they would progress smoothly back through to Division One, what would they have said?
"You wouldn't have believed it, first off," says Paul Finlay, who retired last November as the county's all-time leading scorer on 5-554. "I remember it clearly. It was a dirty night and I think Conor McManus might have been sent off. And different things were happening and you were thinking we aren't going far. I am not sure if there was a turning point. We just went on a bit of a run and got ourselves promoted but just thinking about it: Malachy and the management team have to take serious credit.
"He's just a really good manager. He has the team playing well and anyone who is good enough to play intercounty football is in the squad. There is a good team environment and everyone is pushing the same way. So it was vital that Monaghan held on to him for a further term. And then it was a shrewd move by Malachy bringing in Owen Lennon and Colm McAree just to give it that wee bit of freshness. I know having played with Owen that he is a massive presence in the dressing-room."
Over the 14 years he played for his county, Finlay seemed to personify Monaghan's football predicament. He was a stylist who would have walked onto any team in Ulster playing for a county that was simply too small to compete against Armagh or Tyrone, who had become the dominant teams of the era.
Monaghan were never anyone’s idea of a pushover but they weren’t truly feared either. That’s how it went, summer after summer. Under Seamus McEnaney, their great days seemed charged by a collective sense of abandon; a defiant refusal to accept their lot. They retained that under O’Rourke but also came equipped with a defensive set-up similar to Donegal and a flinty opportunistic belief that one team had to crack first and it wasn’t going to be them.
Monaghan have lost Finlay, Dick Clerkin and Owen Lennon to retirement over the past two seasons. In a memorable piece in the Irish Examiner on his football life, Clerkin wrote last November: "Sometimes I feel I have been playing for Monaghan for almost 30 years." He caught the wonderful ingloriousness of the beginning – a trial game on a wet evening in Louth – and, 17 years later, the end when he warmed up as a substitute for a qualifier game against Longford but never got the call. His son Cailean had been running alongside him in front of the stand on the other side of the wire.
“’Making way for youth, I watched the final sub being brought on ahead of me. I knew there and then I was unlikely to be togged out for Monaghan again. Before walking back to the stand, I motioned for Cailean to go one last length of the stand together. He won’t remember it but I will. One last memory to treasure, from an already bulging collection.”
Nothing on the horizon
Those few lines manage to capture the real point and truth about the GAA: that it’s not really about winning All-Irelands for the vast majority of players and what you take from your intercounty life can’t really be measured in medals or awards. Until the very end, Clerkin’s football life looked likely to include no significant medals to speak of. He was rewarded for sticking around in 2013, when there seemed to be nothing on the horizon except Division Three games played out on the hinterland of Gaelic football relevance.
Monaghan kind of snuck through to that summer’s Ulster final without anyone paying much heed: a perfunctory win over Antrim and then the slenderest of wins in the semi-final against Cavan. The local and national fixation was on the other side of the draw, where Donegal met and defeated Tyrone. Donegal were injury-ridden that summer but still put 2-10 past Tyrone. In the Ulster final, Monaghan held them to 0-7. It was an exceptional shut-out.
Jim McGuinness, the Donegal manager, would later recall standing on the sideline and watching Monaghan fall back into defence after they lost the ball following their first attack. “All 14 Monaghan outfield players simply turned and sprinted back into their half as hard as they could. Something about the way they moved made my stomach sink. They reminded me of ourselves.”
It was a fair compliment. Finlay reckons that the squad were in exceptional shape that summer.
“Yes, the conditioning was there but I can say under Ryan [Porter], he managed to get us into that condition even though it never seemed really punishing. I can remember sand dunes and that when I started out. We never had anything that extreme. It was about using pace and power together and he seemed to get it right without putting players through absolute hell.”
Under O’Rourke, Monaghan have perfected a template of organisation and counter-attacking intelligence. Although they have several superb all-round players – Karl O’Connell, Fintan Kelly, Kieran Hughes and one of the supreme forwards of his time in Conor McManus – Monaghan are a team without egos and radiate a sense of purpose. They need that.
It is worth remembering that they lost that qualifier game to Longford last summer. Spent after a gruelling draw and replay against Donegal, they couldn’t summon their customary energy and were caught. The result was instructive as an insight of just how finely calibrated Monaghan’s squad has to be every day out in order to compete with Division One teams. They have thwarted Donegal, in particular, and last Sunday advertised the problems they will pose to all comers this summer.
McManus was significantly quiet on Sunday for two reasons. One was the diligent marking of Paddy McGrath. But the other was that Monaghan very seldom looked to hit McManus with ball. Instead, everything was channelled through Jack McCarron, a ball-winning, shooting forward in McManus’s mode. If Monaghan have two lethal options on their inside line this summer, they become a very different proposition.
“It’s massive for Monaghan to have Jack in such good form and please God he will have good luck with injury from here on,” says Finlay.
“He has all the skills and the natural ability and he has a good bit of work done now. So I can only imagine from here to the summer he will get that bit stronger and fitter so it could be exciting times for Monaghan between himself and Conor. So all of that is positive but when I look at the squad, you see guys coming in during games and you are thinking: yeah, he could make a difference coming in. But going back to it: we are riding the crest of a wave at the moment but the structure is there too.”
The one gripe directed at Monaghan has been their failure to extend their wonderful reinvention of their place in Ulster on a national scale. They lost All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Their best performance in Croke Park was arguably against Dublin in the league semi-final of 2015, losing by just a point a week after the All-Ireland champions had given an Easter Sunday exhibition in Clones.
On Sunday, they are back in the same place: still thriving against the odds and looking forward to hosting the All-Ireland champions. A win would not just halt the longest unbeaten run in the history of Gaelic football; it would catapult Monaghan into a first national final since they won the league back in 1988. Such occasions are not to be scoffed at. Finlay is among the Monaghan supporters who believe the county team should be gunning for a chance of a league final. “Dublin are an awesome team but what can you do? You can’t shy away from it.”
Quizzed about it last Sunday, Malachy O’Rourke gave his half-smile and gave another masterclass in equivocation. “We said from the start of the league, we weren’t looking at relegation or a league final, we just wanted to take every game on its merits. Next week will be the same; they don’t come any harder than Dublin. It is a really good game, never mind the league final, it will just be a game to test ourselves, see how we measure up against them, if we are good enough to beat Dublin, then so be it, and if we are not, it will be good to test ourselves against them and try to get a performance.”
In a way he said nothing but that has been the Monaghan way: soaring under the radar. From the beginning, O’Rourke or Monaghan have made no claims about themselves, concentrating instead on just improving and winning what they can. It’s a quality Jim Gavin and Dublin would well recognise.