Player retention the secret behind Monaghan's success
IT'S remarkable that, in this day and age, 13 of the 19 players that Malachy O'Rourke used in his first championship game as Monaghan manager five years ago are still there today.
Five of the other six – Owen Lennon, Dick Clerkin, Paul Finlay, Stephen Gollogly and Tommy Freeman – were there until retirement age, with only really Christopher McGuinness having dropped away earlier than he might have.
Only Dublin can match that retention rate (they've lost just four from that year's final), which is a mark of the echelons in which Monaghan have been operating of late.
“There would be change but there'd be a core group that would still be there, and those boys have given us serious commitment over those six years,” says Farney boss Malachy O'Rourke.
“The amount of fellas there that have never missed a training session in that time, have maybe missed one or two, every single when we're here we have 36 on the panel.
“We had that starting off the year and the 36 are here every single night. Sometimes the fellas who aren't making the 26 are forgotten about but they're making a massive effort.”
Their place in the top bracket has solidified with each passing year, and yet their exact standing within that group has never quite been certain. Double Ulster champions, four-time quarter-finalists but never beyond that until now, they're consistently there without ever quite being there.
Last autumn left them as dispirited as they've been. It seemed like five years of work had taken them to a point of maximising themselves. That they were ready to take a proper cut off Dublin.
Malachy O'Rourke went away and thought over his future after that game, but admits that seeing how Tyrone got the same treatment a few weeks later acted as a “comfort” in the post-mortem.
His gait carries the eternal stamp of enthusiasm, but even he was tested by that defeat.
"We were very disappointed that day because we felt we would be a lot closer to Dublin. We went down and we felt we could have a real good go at them.
“After that when Tyrone went up against Dublin and Dublin looked so strong again, it sort of put things into perspective for us but everybody was keen again, the boys are real resilient group, real ambitious hungry group.
“They were keen that everyone stuck together and went at it again and just when you see that, you can judge for yourself when the hunger is going and whether the boys need a change.
“So far the boys seem to be responding well so we'll just keep hammering away.”
The Fermanagh defeat this year never quite fell under the same level of disappointment. Granted, it was a sickener, but the analysis of it made it easier to recover from.
And that showed very quickly. There was an edge to them in the qualifiers that hadn't always existed in previous years. They were callous and unforgiving to Laois and Leitrim, and their first half display against Laois was plenty of evidence that the second was a mere blip.
“The boys just realised we've put in an awful lot of work over the last number of years.
”We felt that we had a very good year up to that [Fermanagh defeat], we finished third in the National League, we had a really good victory against Tyrone and then the Fermanagh one, there's a lot of expectation and we didn't perform the way we'd have liked to on the day.
“Having said that, we felt that after a bad start we controlled the game and had it won to a degree and we got caught at the end, and Fermanagh deserved their victory.
“We felt we had a lot of good work put in behind us and we were determined the year wasn't going to end like that.
“You could feel sorry for yourself and not go out and perform, but we approached it in a positive frame of mind and said let's attack the qualifiers and see where it brings us.”
It brought them to where they'd always planned to be, and where they deserved to be. And yet still, they're seen as outsiders.
If the currency of their draw with Kerry has weakened with the premature exit that it helped cause, so be it. But their wins over Tyrone back in May, over a tough Kildare side and then a Galway side that had lost just once all year haven't earned them the stock they merit.
Some bookmakers had Monaghan at 13/8 outsiders at the start of this week, although most appear to have wised up since.
“We felt we were good enough to be in the Super 8s and we wanted to test ourselves against the top teams,” says O'Rourke.
“We've been testing ourselves against the top teams in Division One this last number of years, we've been able to be really competitive and we wanted to be able to do that in the championship as well.
“We did feel when we got our group that we'd every chance of getting through it, and that's the way it turned out.
“It wasn't so much that it was a big surprise to us to be so close to beating Kerry and then we felt we missed our chance – we felt we'd be competitive against any of these teams.
“We felt that even though we didn't get through against Kerry, we'd be able to go to Galway and beat them and go through. We felt if we kept improving, we'd a fair chance to be in an All-Ireland semi-final.”
The next step is far from beyond them.
Monaghan 2013 v Antrim
Rory Beggan; Kieran Duffy, Fintan Kelly, Colin Walshe; Dessie Mone, Neil McAdam, Darren Hughes; Owen Lennon, Dick Clerkin; Paul Finlay, Vinny Corey, Owen Duffy; Christopher McGuinness, Kieran Hughes, Conor McManus
Subs used: Stephen Gollogley, Drew Wylie, Tommy Freeman, Jack McCarron