GAA Football

Malachy O'Rourke labouring to take burden off Conor McManus

Despite being double-marked Monaghan ace Conor McManus continues to flourish

IT'S impossible to fault Malachy O’Rourke.

He’s tried virtually everything to lift the scoring burden off Conor McManus. New players have been road-tested. There have been tactical tweaks and innovations. But when you tally Monaghan’s NFL scoring stats, McManus accounts for just under 50 per cent of them.

The indefatigable Clontibret man registered 2-41 (0-33 frees) to help keep the Farney men in the top-flight. Guess who’s next on Monaghan’s scoring charts? Goalkeeper Rory Beggan with 0-7, all from placed balls.

Therein lies O’Rourke’s problem. And yet, Monaghan’s underbelly is bursting with young talent. Daniel McKenna, Ryan McAnespie, Thomas Kerr, Shane Carey, Barry McGinn and Conor McCarthy have been filtered into the Monaghan senior team. But they need time to find their feet.

More established attackers Dermot Malone and Darren Hughes have chipped in with 1-3 apiece from play this season, while injury to Kieran Hughes and raiding wing-back Dessie Mone meant they both had truncated league campaigns.

In four of Monaghan’s Division One games this season, their spread of scorers was five or less. At last week’s press night in Cloghan, O’Rourke could have predicted reporters’ questions: “There’s no doubt Conor is a top-class forward,” he said.

“The higher the stakes, the better he produces. I suppose it has been labelled at us that we have been over-dependent on him and we can’t get away from that. But we’re trying to improve our system of play to get fellas into better scoring positions to have a better spread of scores; [we’re] just trying to find new ways of getting more men on the scoresheet and, I suppose, improve players individually in regards to technique and everything else. It’s an ongoing process because we need to improve on that.”

The two-time Ulster-winning manager has innovated by playing defensive speed merchant Karl O’Connell further forward, with varying degrees of success: “It’s just looking at different ways of playing and trying players in different positions during the National League and trying to get the best combination and what the best balance is going forward,” O’Rourke added.

“Somebody like Karl is a very pacy player, he can break the line and he can be very dangerous going forward, if he’s given a bit of space. We’re just looking at the best balance in trying to get more scores, but also making sure you’re sound defensively.”

Monaghan open the defence of their hard-won Anglo-Celt Cup on Sunday at home to Down, who suffered seven league defeats in-a-row and were relegated out of Division One. Nobody gives the Mourne men a chance of victory.

Despite being a counter-attacking team, Monaghan are expected to make all the running in the early stages this Sunday: “It’s a case of being patient and keeping your composure,” O’Rourke said.

“A lot of these Championship games, you’d like to think you can win them in the first 15 or 20 minutes, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s like Cavan in the first round last year, I think we were four points down with 15 minutes to go. The boys just kept their heads and eventually won the game, so that scenario would do us this weekend.

“It’s about being patient on the ball and probing to find the right opening, trying to make the right decision at the right time. And then, at other times, when you’re counter-attacking you do things a wee bit quicker. It comes down a lot to players making the right decision at the right time.”

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Meanwhile, Paul Finlay has been recalled to the squad after being given the league campaign off. The Ballybay man excelled in their club championship win over Clontibret a couple of weeks ago and certainly adds composure and free-taking to the side.

“We just felt, over the last couple of years, Paul was there from the start of the year and played well in the National League but then, when it came to this time of year, we felt he didn’t have that wee kick that we would’ve liked,” said O’Rourke.

“So this year, we wanted to give him every possible chance of performing better, so we gave him a bit of an extra rest and he’s come back and he’s fresh. But Paul, like all of the boys, are just fighting for places - first of all, to get on the panel and then the starting team. You want everyone chomping at the bit, mad to get in there and we’re in a healthy position.”

The squad enjoyed a four-day training camp in Villamoura, Portugal to help prepare them for the defence of their Ulster Championship: “It was brilliant,” said O’Rourke.

“You can use the whole day for work that we want to do. The big thing about it is just the actual weather. If you’re trying to walk through team play here and talking through things, after five minutes boys are freezing cold, it’s raining on top of them and you just have to go home.

“Whereas over there, you can sit on the ground and have a chat and nobody’s in a panic to leave. It just gives you a great chance to discuss things, to do things in an awful lot more detail. The surroundings are very pleasant and we’re just indebted to the county board and all our sponsors to go there and try and maximise what we’re trying to do.”

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