Jack McCarron’s return can only ease Monaghan’s path in Ulster

Fermanagh not sure of fitness of key players such as Ryan Jones and Tomas Corrigan

 Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke has this season welcomed back a fully fit  Jack McCarron (left). Photograph: INPHO/Presseye/Trevor Lucy

Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke has this season welcomed back a fully fit Jack McCarron (left). Photograph: INPHO/Presseye/Trevor Lucy

 

If there is such a thing as a “soft” side to this year’s Ulster football championship draw then Monaghan might consider themselves lucky to be on it. No Tyrone, Donegal or once old guard Derry until the final, a weakened Armagh or Down later on perhaps, plus home advantage in their opening game to boot.

If there is such a thing as a “hard” side to that same draw then Fermanagh might consider themselves unlucky to be on it. No county has won an Ulster title from the preliminary round since Donegal in 2012, and they were the rare exception, and Fermanagh are still trying to win that title for the first time in their history.

Fermanagh’s recent form has also been disturbingly poor. Relegated from Division Two, they scored their one and only goal in the opening round, and manager Pete McGrath is still not sure of the fitness of key players such as Ryan Jones, Tomas Corrigan and Declan McCusker.

All of which suggests Saturday evening’s meeting between the two counties will require a considerable shift in form – and luck – to prevent the expected outcome. There were also 12 places between the counties by the end of this year’s league, Monaghan finishing fourth in Division One, Fermanagh coming last in Division Two.

More worryingly for Fermanagh, perhaps, is the impression that Monaghan are even better primed than 2015 – when they last won the Ulster title. Manager Malachy O’Rourke, now in his fifth season in charge, has this season welcomed back a fully fit Jack McCarron, still only 24, but for a few years now mostly lost in the wilderness of successive injuries.

Starting with a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder at the end of 2012, McCarron also tore a cruciate knee ligament in 2014, suffered repeated hamstring tears, and required surgery on his ankle, but he has bounced back in spectacular fashion, topping Monaghan’s scoring chart in the league with 3-29, including 2-19 in his opening four games.

Scoring pressure

McCarron does come from good stock (his father Ray was one of Monaghan’s standouts in the 1980s, winning two Ulster titles, plus an All-Star in 1986). Another Monaghan player from that era, Eugene “Nudie” Hughes, who won three Ulster titles and the first player from the county to win an All-Star, has also recognised McCarron as an immeasurable addition to this year’s team, not least in taking some of the scoring pressure off Conor McManus.

“Jack McCarron has been a revelation in the full forward line, especially as he has had to recover from injury in the past two years,” said Hughes, speaking at a recent media event in Croke Park.

“And we have added Dessie Ward, who has also been a revelation, added a new dimension to our half forward line. Owen Coyle, Karl O’Connell coming up the field. Fintan Kelly is brilliant coming up. There is a variety of scorers now.

“You still will depend on Conor. Conor is deflecting the highlights away from himself. The good thing about it is that there is more creativity now in Conor. Monaghan are just in a good spot at the moment, and they are able to create a lot more chances. And they have a variety of players to take them. The strength in depth of the squad is very, very good, and it shows that they have back-up now, and that the under-age structure of the county is working.”

McCarron did make it back from injury in time to start Monaghan’s qualifier game against Longford last July, but which ended in the shock 2-13 to 1-13 defeat. There was speculation O’Rourke might step down after that, although Hughes has no doubt he made the right choice in staying on.

“The Longford match was a big blow, but Malachy sat down, took his time. Malachy saw the type of person and player who were in Monaghan, and when they wear the county jersey you get a lot out of them.

Even keel

“He has done very well, give credit to the players that have stayed on. Malachy is very easygoing but he gets the family feel of a team, he kept that working. He was more like a counsellor than he was a manager, he was able to keep them on an even keel.

“In Ulster, you can’t take any team for granted, and we won’t do that. We know exactly what it is like to play Fermanagh. The one thing that Monaghan has now, there is no player in Monaghan left on the sideline that hasn’t been played.

“We couldn’t pick a player in Monaghan and say that he should be on the team. Malachy and his selectors have done a great job, maximising the talent within the county and getting them to play together. It makes training even more intense, and when you are fighting for your position it hardens the older players to get back into the team. That is why Malachy has Monaghan in a great position at the minute.”

Saturday’s winners play Cavan in the Ulster quarter-final on June 11th.

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