Unfinished business beckons for Clontibret as they bid to reach Ulster final
Monaghan champions in bonus territory having almost lost their senior status a year ago
Clontibret’s Conor McManus celebrates at the final whistle after the Ulster quarter-final victory over famed Armagh kingpins Crossmaglen. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
For Clontibret, tonight can be something or it can be nothing. The Monaghan champions play Naomh Conaill of Donegal in Omagh, with the winners through to the Ulster club final.
“So what?” says you. And you might be right.
This is no odyssey. It couldn’t be, not this year anyway. Almost exactly 12 months ago, they were scrapping to remain a senior club, having to win their last two league games away from home to avoid relegation. They survived but it was barely worth celebrating – a points difference for the season of minus34 tells you what kind of year it had been.
“Going into that last game,” says Dessie Mone, “we were down to play ’Blayney and I had a trip to Chicago booked. This was coming into November and normally it would have been a safe enough time to book a trip. I was going out to see my brother out there. And I had to change my flight two or three times because the game was on and then it was off and then it was on again.
“We had to win to stay in senior football. It was funny, even though I had to catch a flight, I was doing the warm-up and I was thinking, ‘You know what? There’s no other place I’d rather be than out here with the club jersey on, ready to go’. Last league match of the year, like!”
So no, when they sat down to imagine what they might aim at in 2019, an Ulster club final wasn’t on the to-do list. It wasn’t near it. Clontibret hadn’t won the Monaghan championship since 2014 but even that was in the background starting off. Instead, job number one was to avoid a similar fate this time around.
“We went all-out to make a good start in the league,” says Conor McManus. “Just to make sure we didn’t have that hanging over our heads come the end of the year. So you weren’t thinking about championship and you definitely weren’t thinking about Ulster.
“The first five games were all five-pointers and we won them all so that was 25 points on the board early on. Last year, we only just stayed up with 28 points. So this meant that by the end of April, we were probably safe in the league.
“That gave us a cushion and it meant that some of the younger lads coming through were playing in a winning team and had a bit of a springboard for the rest of the year. So that’s really where this year has come from. Winning Ulster was never on the radar, that’s just the honest truth of it. That wasn’t what this year was about at all.”
Yet here they are. An hour away from a first Ulster final since 1994. There’s the hard road and then there’s what Clontibret have been on since late August. They got to the Monaghan final having won three games by a total of three points, including a penalty shootout. Once there, they had to overcome a Scotstown side aiming to complete a five-in-a-row. And then, as a reward, the small matter of Crossmaglen.
On the day of the Monaghan county final, the general bookmakers’ odds for the Ulster club championship had them at 33/1. Scotstown were 9/1, with Cross the favourites at 3/1. In the space of 13 days, Clontibret took out two of the top five in the betting. So it’s really only now, having hacked through the jungle and arrived at a clearing, that they can stop and assess what the rest of the way might look like.
“You couldn’t say that at any point we were projecting forward and going, ‘This is where we planned to be,’” says McManus. “You couldn’t have planned to get this far given what you had to overcome to get to this point. But that’s where football can take you, particularly club football. You can go on a run and keep going just by getting out on the right side of tight results.
“Basically, it’s fair enough to say we’re in bonus territory here. Because of where we came from, because of what we set out to achieve this year, you’d be lying if you said it was where we aimed to be.”
All of which is fair enough, as it goes. Every season has its own rhythms and demands and the broad sweep of a generation rarely fits so neatly as to be summed up in a sentence.
Yet the fact remains that if Clontibret don’t win tonight, it will mean that they’ve gathered up seven county titles since the turn of the century without ever once making it to a provincial final.
To put that in a national context, it’s worth digging down into some numbers. Since 2000, 23 clubs have won seven or more senior county football titles nationwide. Of that 23, only five have failed to parlay at least one of them into an appearance in their provincial decider.
For Clontibret in Monaghan, see Derrygonnelly in Fermanagh (who can also right the wrong tomorrow), Éire Óg in Carlow, Newtown Blues in Louth and Tourlestrane in Sligo.
Considering the quality of the players they’ve sent out over the years, it feels like a quirk of some sort that Clontibret have fallen so often in the competition. Those other clubs have been dominant in weaker footballing counties whereas Clontibret have been consistently one of the two best teams in Monaghan during probably the most fruitful period in the county’s history.
When they lost to Slaughtneil in the 2014 Ulster semi-final, they were able to field no fewer than seven current, former or future inter-county players across the afternoon. McManus, Mone, Vinny Corey and Conor Boyle were mainstays of Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan teams and if the middle two wish to keep going, they’ll be in Banty McEnaney’s plans as well come the New Year.
So what gives?
“We have an Ulster minor club medal from 2002,” says Mone, who came off the bench as an 18-year-old that year to play for the seniors against Gowna in Ulster.
“That’s 17 years ago, Jesus! Ever since that, you’re wishing you could capitalise on the senior one to go along with it. It just doesn’t always work out like that. It’s an itch, of course it’s an itch that you’d like to scratch. You have that winning mentality so it’s definitely something you want to achieve for the club.”
There have been good excuses for some years, less so for others. When they won Monaghan in 2002, it was the last sting of a dying wasp for the generation just above them and celebrated as such. Gowna beat them by a point and precisely nobody shed a tear over it.
When the ’02 minors graduated to take the senior title in 2006, it was the same story from a different angle. Most of them were winning their first county title – and celebrated as such. Coming within a point of Crossmaglen was as much of an achievement as a failure.
“Cross went on to win the All-Ireland that year,” McManus points out.
“Then we played them again the following year and they beat us by a point and went on to win Ulster. St Gall’s beat us in 2009 and went on to win the All-Ireland, Slaughtneil beat us in 2014 and went on to win Ulster and weren’t beaten until the All-Ireland final. Glenties beat us comfortably in 2010 but that’s the only year we weren’t beaten by the team that ended up winning Ulster.
“We’ve been beaten by good teams, fair enough. But it’s still not a good record. We haven’t made an Ulster final even though we’ve had good teams. That 2006-07 team was a very good Clontibret team, strong and experienced and all the rest of it. We have had some decent teams in the Ulster club but we haven’t ever really made our mark on it.
“I think if we looked back, running into Crossmaglen in those two years back to back was the hardest draw we could get. They were just better than everybody at the time. It’s all very well me telling you a sad story about losing to Crossmaglen by a point two years in a row – there’s clubs all across the country who have those sad stories to tell from that period.
“They were in four All-Ireland club finals in six years and won three of them. That’s what they did, they ground teams down, wore them down and got on the right side of tight margins. That’s what made them the team they were.”
All of this is true, of course. And all of it makes sense. But they concede themselves they still should be doing better. Even if an Ulster title is no sort of Holy Grail in the club, the sheer number of chances they’ve given themselves by winning Monaghan says they ought to have at least made a final by now.
Given where they were this time 12 months ago, it would be some turnaround if this was the year they finally made it. But an hour of football is an hour of football. No time like the present.
“Funny, I do think it’s probably the most enjoyable competition that we play in,” says McManus. “There’s something about it, representing the county on the Ulster stage. And taking supporters on the road and going away to county grounds and coming away with hard-earned wins. There’s something special about that too.
“But as well, you can throw off the shackles a bit. Monaghan has only 10 senior clubs and everybody knows everybody. You’re battering against the same faces and the same set-ups all the time. There’s such a familiarity to it and everybody has gripes and grudges stored up going back years. So when you get out into Ulster, there’s that bit of variety about it.
“There’s no doubt this is bonus territory for us but by no means would I diminish how much we want to win or the ambition that’s within the group. And there would definitely be a thing for a few of us who’ve been around for a good while and who’ve played in six or seven of these campaigns, that feeling that we haven’t made our mark on it. Over your career, to be in a competition six or seven times and not even make it to a final, it’s definitely something that you would have regrets about.”
Only one fix for that.