GAA Football

Will Monaghan ever get a better chance?

Darren Hughes was one of five men over 30 on the Monaghan team that was narrowly beaten by Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final.

IF you put two boxes in front of Malachy O’Rourke, one with ‘brilliant’ on it and the other labelled ‘disappointing’, and asked him to file away 2018, which would he pick?

In the context of the history of Monaghan football, it could only be considered as the former. A first All-Ireland semi-final in 30 years, this year’s was as close a brush with an All-Ireland decider as the 1985 team had when they took Kerry on a second date.

Tyrone were maybe that little bit more fluid but Monaghan will leave the year behind with deep regrets. What if they’d thrown Kieran Hughes in even five minutes earlier? What if Rory Beggan had held that last ball, would they have worked a score or engineered a free?

Not that there’s anything can be put on Beggan’s head after the season he had, pushing himself to the head of the discussion about the best goalkeeper in the game right now.

And Conor McManus remained right at the head of the sport at the other end of the pitch. They are two incredible assets to Monaghan football, and the county will want to squeeze each and every drop they can from them over the next few years.

Therein lay the big success of their year though. Having gone full tilt at the league since their promotion to Division One, Monaghan took a different approach this year. McManus only played half of it, for one. Those carrying bumps and scrapes were rested, no matter their importance and no matter the opposition.

And yet they finished third and were the only team to beat Dublin all year, winning their final game in Croke Park after a number of near misses in recent seasons.

Not only was this National League season a greater boost to their confidence than any of the previous three, but it deepened the resources they had at their hand.

And so it was no great surprise when they went to Healy Park and won in May. They dominated most of the game, yet it was only in the final ten minutes that they pulled away.

There was always the sense that Tyrone would come back around from that, but no sense at all that Monaghan would end up swimming through the same choppy waters as them in the qualifiers.

And that’s where the disappointment starts. They’ll feel they were further down the road than Donegal and that, had they got a shot at Declan Bonner’s side, there would have been a third provincial title since 2013.

Eoin Donnelly’s fist saw to that in stoppage time to take Fermanagh into the decider and leave Monaghan stunned at the semi-final stage by a rank underdog for the second year running.

Their reaction this time could not have been more different. They carried a serious edge throughout the qualifiers and, even in spite of the lack of quality in opposition (namely Waterford, Leitrim and Laois), their performances suggested that they were far from done for the year.

It took a strong arm to halt Kildare’s momentum and then for 74 minutes, they were comfortably the better of Kerry in Clones, set for a famous victory before David Clifford turned joy to despair once more.

Still, they hadn’t lost, and the display was enough to send them into Salthill with confidence. They didn’t just beat Galway, they pummelled them in their own back yard, and the scenes on the pitch afterwards were live long in the memory.

Tyrone were definitely the lesser of two evils in the semi-final and, while it followed a different pattern to the first game, Monaghan had just taken command when their luck deserted them. Darren Hughes’ block was exceptional, Conor Gormley stuff, except that when it came to the fate of where the ball fell, it landed at Niall Sludden’s right foot.

They chased desperately to rescue it back again but history slipped through their grasp. Conventional wisdom says they’ll never get a better chance.

What They Need
BERNARD’S Watch would come in handy. Imagine what a unit they’d be if they could freeze their senior stars in 2018 for a few seasons and wait for the 2106 Ulster U21 winning side and this year’s U17s to come through and hit their early-to-mid 20s. But time waits for no county. How much of Monaghan’s injection of freshness this summer came from a couple of new faces and how much of it came from the established men doubling down is hard to gauge. That there were fewer guarantees of game time for any player – see the example of Kieran Hughes being unable to force his way back in – drove their levels up.

When it came down to it, they still rely heavily on Conor McManus. Against Tyrone in Croke Park it was notable that they didn’t just look to him for scores, but to get his hands on the ball at some point in almost every attack. Conor McCarthy had his best summer but Jack McCarron hasn’t quite found the championship pace after his blistering league campaign in 2017.

There was a bigger emphasis on attack this year which led to Shane Carey getting much more game time, and Ryan McAnespie’s brilliance in a more advanced role was huge plus. They could still do with a bit more creativity in the other half-forward berth.

The partnership Darren Hughes has built up with Niall Kearns at midfield would allow Hughes’ brother Kieran to play a permanently advanced role if he’s at himself and injury free next summer.

Defensively, Drew Wylie’s return to form could be interpreted as coming off the pressure of Conor Boyle’s unbroken stint in the number three jersey during the league. The Ballybay man took it back when Boyle hurt his hamstring and didn’t put a foot wrong all through the championship. He was matched by his brother Ryan, who will go very close to an Allstar.

They didn’t get as much as they might have liked out of Colin Walshe, but their defence looked strong all year with Darren Hughes sitting as an ultra-effective sweeper. So strong that Fintan Kelly was spared to pick up the most dangerous half-back for the opposition as there simply wasn’t room for everyone at the back.

And with the Allstar-in-waiting goalkeeper Rory Beggan behind them, there isn’t much they need in terms of personnel changes. Maintaining their levels and finding that little bit more in attack again is all that stands between Monaghan and another step forward.

Manager Status 
THE job is Malachy O’Rourke’s for as long as he wants it, and it was confirmed last week that he will be in charge for at least the next two seasons. That comes as no great surprise given how refreshed they looked all through 2018, with O’Rourke clearly feeling that progress has been made and that there is the potential for more of it. He’s expected to retain his entire backroom team as well, with Ryan Porter and Leo McBride playing prominent roles.

Mr Consistency
WINNER of his fifth Irish News Allstar in six years, Conor McManus is almost certain to add a third national gong next month. There are just very few players like him in any generation, and even fewer of them turn up in a small county like Monaghan. Despite having to carefully manage his hip troubles in recent seasons, his brilliance hasn’t been diluted one bit. The score from the sideline in Healy Park against Tyrone will be just as long remembered as the 1-9 he scored against Kerry in Clones. He is 30 now and Monaghan will be well aware that their time with him at the head of their attack is becoming more finite, and that it must be maximised. They might never see another like him.

End of the Line 
THE same names have been appearing in this column for five years solid and yet they keep coming back. Vinny Corey will be 36 in January, while Dessie Mone will turn 35 in June. They are the two most obvious candidates for retirement but Corey in particular was in the best physical shape this year he’s been in for a number of seasons. What will worry Malachy O’Rourke is the age profile of a handful of his established stars. While they won’t be hitting the quit button yet, Darren Hughes (32 in February), Conor McManus (31 this November), Drew Wylie (31 next June) and Karl O’Connell (turned 31 last week) will know that the window of opportunity is starting to swing shut. Neil McAdam and Gavin Doogan both have very limited game time this year and might consider the future on those grounds.

The New Breed
IF they could find a few more like Niall Kearns they’d be doing alright. Plucked from the obscurity of junior club football, Malachy O’Rourke worked with him last year and then gave him every minute of the National League to find his feet, and it paid dividends with an Allstar nomination for some superb performances. He was arguably the most unheralded of the young batch at the beginning of the season. If Monaghan are to find another gear, they will need the likes of Michéal Bannigan, David Garland and James Mealiff – all of whom saw a bit of pre-season football but little else – to make a big leap forward in the near future. Garland and Bannigan are both forwards, while Mealiff was centre-back on the U21 team that won Ulster in 2016. If they’re to continue on an upward curve, Monaghan desperately need those youngsters to find another level.

27.1
THE average age of the starting fifteen for the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone. Within that, five of their starting team were 30 or over, while Fintan Kelly and Dermort Malone were 28 at the time.

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