To rob a line from Pulp Fiction, this ain't the first time Monaghan have had a gun pointed at them. Across their eight-year run in Division One, this will be their fifth go at staying up on the final day. They have survived in every way possible, not to mention some that ought not to have been.
Since arriving in the top flight in 2015, they are the only county to have stayed up by winning, losing and drawing on the last day. In the past decade, they are the only team to stay in Division One with a final tally of just four points.
Last year, when relegation across the divisions was decided by play-offs, they were the only team to stay up after extra-time. They make cockroaches look like wishy-washy dilettantes.
For Monaghan, there's no such thing as leaving it too late. In 2016, they lost four games in a row, went seven points down to Donegal on the last day and took the lead for the only time in the fourth minute of injury-time. The winning point came from corner-back Colin Walshe, his only score of that whole league campaign. It was enough.
Last year was probably the most Monaghan rescue job of the lot. They didn’t actually manage a win in normal time – they drew two and lost one in the group stage and were level with Galway after 70 minutes in the play-off. Or more accurately, they were four points down on 70 minutes in the play-off but hauled it back in injury-time and found a comeback in extra-time too. Jack McCarron kept them up with the last kick of the game.
All of which makes for two competing and even contradictory themes heading into this weekend’s latest escape attempt. On the one hand, Monaghan’s expertise when it comes to handling these final-day tests is clearly unparalleled – it’s no stretch to label them the top division’s best ever exponent of the art. On the other, they will probably have to take the hint sooner or later.
On the evidence of the past month, sooner is the favourite. This has been easily Monaghan’s least impressive campaign since they arrived in Division One. They are dead bottom of the table, with the worst points difference of the eight teams strapped to their back. And for anyone who has watched them, nothing in what the table says could be called a lie.
"The big thing that stands out to me is that their scoring average isn't good enough," says Paul Finlay. "Not for Division One. They're not putting enough on the board. Even the day they beat Donegal, they still only got 1-12. That's not going to be enough against Dublin. They're not hitting big numbers and that's the main underlying problem.
"I thought they started the league quite well but left results behind them against Tyrone and Mayo. They were creating goal chances but not taking the last pass across the square for the palm-in goal that would have sealed the game. That catches up with you eventually. And now in the last few weeks, they've been overrun by really rampant displays by Kerry and Kildare.
Monaghan have needed more transition, rather than having these guys be the ones who are doing it week-in and week-out in the league and pulling every bit out of themselves to keep us up"
“You could see Kildare last week, they looked hungry and ravenous and full of running. They’re buoyed by the new management team and mad for keeping their Division One status. All the stuff that Monaghan were so good at down the years. But for whatever reason, Monaghan looked like they are lacking that freshness that we would have seen from them over the years.”
In this campaign, the clock has felt like it was ticking on Monaghan from the opening day, when they kicked 12 wides against Tyrone and only came out with a draw. They didn't pick up a win until their fifth match against Donegal – in every one of the seven seasons that went before, they banked at least one victory in their opening two games. Last weekend, they gave up 0-24 in Newbridge, making it Kildare's highest points total in a league game since they put up 4-25 against Kilkenny in 1990.
"I try to look at it positively because they've done so much for Monaghan football," says Tommy Freeman. "But last Sunday, they looked tired. They have a few men there who have given an awful lot and are still soldiering on. And in the opening three matches of this league, they looked good and looked sharp. But all of a sudden, things have started to filter away on them."
Finlay and Freeman did their time in the trenches, as far and away the two classiest forwards Monaghan had before Conor McManus came along. They cut their teeth in Monaghan teams that played in the old Division 2B in the early 2000s, who drew with Waterford and Leitrim and lost to Wexford and Carlow and plenty more. Theirs was the generation who not only lifted the county to a higher plane but insisted on it becoming a regular fixture there.
It has led to a stretch of league campaigns that would have been unthinkable when they started out. Of the current Division One teams, only Dublin and Kerry have been in the top flight longer. Monaghan have beaten them both, ending winless stretches of 27 years (Kerry) and 12 years (Dublin) in the process. Indeed, they’re the only team to have beaten the big four – Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone and Mayo – home and away in the past eight seasons.
Finlay is correct, however. They looked a tired side against Kildare last week, casting around for new solutions to old problems. Conor McCarthy has threatened to become the kind of strike forward they need to take over from McManus since his debut in 2017 and yet he started last Sunday at centre-back, keeping tabs on Kildare’s Ben McCormack.
Monaghan were 0-7 to 0-0 down inside the opening 12 minutes – hardly McCarthy’s fault but whatever it was that Monaghan were trying, it clearly didn’t pay off. He moved back into the forwards for the second half and scored their only goal.
Elsewhere, Gary Mohan has been the main success story of the league. Big and bold and with a border lad's mullet swinging magnificently from his head, Mohan started the campaign taking lumps out of Pádraig Hampsey and has continued to show damn all respect for anyone he has come up against. Killian Lavelle has started to find his feet around the middle, Micheál Bannigan has shown well in flashes. But on the whole, Monaghan have relied on familiar faces.
“This is the issue,” says Finlay. “I can’t help but be a wee bit pessimistic about Monaghan’s chances over the past couple of years because of the old guard and the stage of their career that they are at. Over the past few years, you’re looking for players to come along and take the mantle off Conor (McManus) and Darren (Hughes) and Walshey and these lads. But week after week, they’re still the ones who are knocking it out of the park.
“Monaghan have needed more transition, rather than having these guys be the ones who are doing it week-in and week-out in the league and pulling every bit out of themselves to keep us up. New players have come along but it’s still the experienced players who are leading it. So I have been expecting it a little bit, that the day would be coming when they would fall back into the pack a bit. Maybe now it is coming home to roost.”
Maybe, maybe not. Monaghan haven’t lost in the league to Dublin since 2017 and even then it took a brilliant late goal from Jack McCaffrey in his absolute pomp to beat them in Clones. “The one thing you know,” says Freeman, “is that they’ll give it everything. They’ve been in this situation before and they always go after Dublin in the league. I wouldn’t count them out yet.”
Until the last long whistle sounds, nobody will.
Monaghan v Dublin in the NFL since 2015
These teams have played seven times since Monaghan were promoted to Division One – six of them have finished with a goal or less between the sides. Their last meeting was on a Saturday night in Croke Park a couple of weeks before the first lockdown, a game Monaghan threw away. Despite leading by nine points on the hour mark, they conceded 1-7 in the closing stages to give up a draw, with Davy Byrne striding forward to kick the equaliser in injury-time.
2015 (Clones) Dublin 1-22 Monaghan 1-11
2015 (Croke Park, league semi-final) Dublin 0-17 Monaghan 0-16
2016 (Croke Park) Dublin 1-14 Monaghan 0-16
2017 (Clones) Dublin 2-15 Monaghan 1-15
2018 (Croke Park) Monaghan 2-12 Dublin 0-17
2019 (Clones) Monaghan 2-13 Dublin 1-13
2020 (Croke Park) Dublin 1-15 Monaghan 1-15