Monaghan still making the most of what they’ve got
Painstaking husbandry ensures the small county remain at football’s top table
Conor McManus and his team-mates celebrate the Ulster final victory over Donegal last year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
This weekend the Ulster championship semi-final brings together the two counties who have shared the last five provincial titles.
Donegal are well-known as All-Ireland champions from 2012 but their opponents Monaghan occupy a more curious space.
Widely characterised as based on an ultra-organised defence and the everyday miracles of Conor McManus, arguably the best forward in the game, how does a county with such a small population continue to compete at the top level of football?
Monaghan has the fourth smallest population in the country. You could add Fermanagh where the numbers have to be halved for reasons of cultural demography but that’s it.
At most four counties have fewer than 60,000 people for GAA purposes: Fermanagh, Carlow, Longford and Leitrim.
One generation of Longford players won a league title 50 years ago and shortly afterwards a Leinster championship. Apart from that, Monaghan are the only county with a population that size or smaller to have won an elite national title, the 1985 football league.
If not permanent members of the top table, well, they haven’t been rotated off it for long during the past 10 years.
The county’s influence doesn’t stop there.
Seán McCague, who managed the county to Ulster titles in the 1970s and ’80s, recently served as a top-class president and Páraic Duffy, a selector with McCague’s teams, is the GAA’s director general.
Speaking about his county, Duffy says: “It’s very small and very rural and the GAA is the major sports interest. There are other sports – rugby in Monaghan town and soccer. Monaghan United were in the League of Ireland but the footballers are the one team everyone rallies around.”
Add to that, committed blue-chip sponsors Investec and the FKM Group and the county is well resourced.
On Saturday evening Monaghan defend their title against predecessors Donegal in a repeat of the last three Ulster finals.
As the poster county for getting the best from what they’ve got, Monaghan are also regular contenders in the Being Patronised Olympics.
“I wouldn’t be into this business of ‘punching above our weight,’” says former player Hugo Clerkin, father of current county footballer Dick.
“These players feel privileged to play for the county.”
It can be irritating for serious competitors to be told that they’re great to be there at all. But in a way, that’s unavoidable.
Even the current team with its athleticism and the defensive system and the tactical acuity of manager Malachy O’Rourke places its scoring chips on Conor McManus, who somehow returns outlandish totals while half the opposing defence hangs out of him.
To date the pay-out has been steady.
Behind the historical power base of Cavan and its almost perennial Ulster successes over the best part of 40 years between the 1920s and 1960s, Monaghan are in second place on the provincial roll of honour.
The current concerns that counties with big populations will gradually become a self-perpetuating elite can be allayed by pointing at the example of Monaghan and their painstaking husbandry.
Clerkin was a formidable centrefielder in McCague’s teams of 30 years ago, winning Ulster medals and the national league.
He can’t explain the inability of bigger counties to take it all more seriously.
“One of the things that annoyed me was watching Cork and Tipperary and there were 2,000 at it.
“For a county the size of Cork to only be able to bring a crowd like that – Fermanagh would bring two and three times that and Monaghan five or six times.
“We’ve been very lucky with this team. They’re a group of players who have set a very high standard of leadership and provided role models. There’s a really good feeling about Gaelic games in Monaghan and everyone wants to play.”
Duffy outlined how the system worked in Monaghan and he says the harmony between clubs and county is another of the reasons why Monaghan has managed to maximise its resources.
“There are 30 exclusively football clubs and the top tier is very competitive. Competition structure is three divisions of 10 teams, senior, intermediate and junior. League is important because it determines championship status.
“Of the 18 league matches, county players are available for all but four starred games. For instance, 15 days before playing Donegal all the county players were available to their clubs.”
The club scene is very strong with different teams in contention at senior level – Scotstown lost to Crossmaglen only in extra time in last year’s provincial championship – whereas at intermediate and junior there have been All-Irelands in the former case and Ulster titles in the latter.
At underage there have been Ulster minor and under-21 successes in the past three years and schools in the county have stepped up a challenge that used to be mostly be about the big diocesan college St Macartan’s.
This requires diligent talent identification and development work, which goes beyond preparation and coaching to ensure that everyone makes it to senior level and that the county gets the widest possible options from which to put together the senior team.
In other words you can identify and coach talent all you like but if you’re running it through Irish Water pipes the senior taps won’t flow as desired.
Waste is kept to a minimum, according to Paul Curran the former county chair, who currently heads the county’s development committee.
“There are no adult players who should be on the team but who aren’t making themselves available,” he says.
“Everyone is involved. No juvenile player goes missing and later the few who go to soccer wouldn’t be more than one every two or three years.
“There are full-time staff who are very passionate about what they do working in schools and in development. We changed juvenile structures and doubled the length of the season because up until then we’d been handing back youngsters to rugby and soccer.
“The county board have played a big role too,” says Curran.
“There’s been a big emphasis on coaching and development when I was chairman and before me, John Connolly. Pádraig Sherry who’s chairman now, sits on the development committee.
“One thing about being a small county is that it’s a big advantage in administration. Very little gets through the net.”
Managers have been important in this. In his time Séamus McEnaney administered a few thousand volts to a senior team that had become lifeless as well as driving fund raising initiatives that have helped with such valuable projects as the Cloghan training centre where all the county sides train.
During Malachy O’Rourke’s four years he has been – as well as being a top-class manager with two Ulster titles – very good with the county board.
There aren’t the complaints and resentments about the county team that can be heard in some counties.
Can the senior team progress?
With provincial winners no longer automatically in the All-Ireland semi-finals it’s become more difficult. No county as small as Monaghan has ever won an All-Ireland.
Is it a realistic ambition?
“Realistic or not, all counties aspire to winning an All-Ireland,” says Curran.
“I have confidence because I know we have the structures to put ourselves in a position to win by getting to the last eight. Donegal have won an All-Ireland and Monaghan would feel every bit as good as Donegal.
“Is it realistic? If you don’t believe it’s realistic, you’re certainly not going to do it.”