Monaghan stalwart Dessie Mone looks forward to season 16 with Farneymen
DESSIE Mone's name first appeared on a Monaghan teamsheet on a wintry day at Dr Cullen Park, Carlow way back in February, 2004.
With elder brother John Paul at full-back, 19-year-old Dessie started at half-forward and the Farneymen, in the wilderness since the mid-80s and languishing in Division 2A of the National League (Division 3 in modern currency), made the long journey home sitting at the bottom of the table after a two-point loss to the Barrowsiders.
“It wasn't the most glamorous debut,” says the Largy College PE teacher, now 34, as he looks back on that inauspicious start.
“I remember we went to Mass in Carlow the night before and I was rooming with Mickey Slowey. He was to-ing and fro-ing from America at that time and he was telling me all the stories about New York. Here, I was nearly on the plane to the States the next morning instead of going to the match.
“It was different times back then.”
Mone resisted the temptation to head for the bright lights of the Big Apple and he is currently gearing up for his 16th season at inter-county level. He is one of the most experienced players in the land but he's not the longest-serving in the Monaghan panel – that honour belongs to his Clontibret clubmate Vinny Corey who made his debut in 2003.
Look through the old programmes from that time and you'll come across a player here and there who is still soldiering on – Mayo's Andy Moran and Dublin's Stephen Cluxton are two – but there aren't many more.
Whatever is in the water in Clontibret, it should be bottled because Corey and Mone both played in Monaghan's final Dr McKenna Cup game this year (Corey scored) and they'll both have important roles to play throughout this season. For Mone it's very simple: Give him a ball and a yard of grass and he's happy.
“I'll keep playing for as long as I can because football is enjoyable and I'll be a long time watching from the sideline,” he said.
“As long as the body is feeling good I'll keep going.
“For a long time we were down in the lower tiers so when you're up and you have the chance to play football at the level we do every week it would be a shame just to walk away.”
Back to the start and, like Mone, that 2004 loss in Carlow was manager Seamus McEnaney's county debut but results improved as the season wore on and the following year Monaghan won promotion. They were up and down the divisions like a fiddler's elbow in Mone's first 11 seasons in the county jersey.
After promotion in 2005, there was relegation in 2006 and promotion again in 2009. Then 2011 to 2014 were the yo-yo years – from Division One to three and back again in the space of five action-packed seasons.
Top flight stability has been achieved since 2015 and Monaghan are now firmly established as a bona fide top flight outfit. Mone sees the competitive club scene in the Farney county as the bedrock for the success.
“Club football in Monaghan was always very good and the league and championship was always competitive,” he explained.
“There were always good players in Monaghan, it was getting them together. When I started we had Damian Freeman and John Paul and Dermot Duffy in the team and there were other good players, it was just a matter of gelling them all together.
“Banty (McEnaney) did that when he came on board and Malachy (O'Rourke) has done the same. Everybody wants to play for Monaghan and play for each other and that's the most important thing.”
Last year Monaghan finished third in Division One with five wins from seven games. As always this year's schedule, from hosting Dublin in the first game to taking on Mayo at Castlebar in their last, is demanding.
There are four road trips this year compared to three in the previous three seasons but that shouldn't bother Monaghan because, statistically, the Farneymen have done as well away as they have at home since they returned to the top flight.
In their previous four campaigns they have won seven, drawn two and lost the other six of their 15 home games and lost five and won eight of their away fixtures. That's 16 points on home soil and the same on the road. In addition, their form against the traditional ‘big guns' has been impressive.
Monaghan have won three out of four against Kerry, beat Dublin last year (for the first time since 2006) and just a kick of the ball separated the sides in the previous two meetings.
So there are plenty of reasons for Mone and his mates to be cheerful as they prepare for the visit of the Dubs next Sunday.
“It's not the easiest start,” says Mone with a laugh.
“But that's what you want, you want to be playing that type of football week-in, week-out, playing against top players and testing yourself. We want to stay up in the top tier as much as we can; it's good for the county and the young players coming through as well.
“The way the League is now, games come thick and fast and once it's over the Championship is only around the corner. Everybody puts their best foot forward in the League and players are out there to impress their managers and it has become very important, you go out and try to win every game.”
In the 15 years since Mone first appeared on the scene, Gaelic Football has been transformed and, as we are constantly reminded it is ‘a squad game' nowadays. Last year Monaghan played seven League games and a whopping nine Championship fixtures. More than ever before it was imperative that manager O'Rourke had a capable squad to see him through Division One, then the Ulster Championship, then the Qualifiers, then the Super 8s and, finally, the All-Ireland semi-final battle with Tyrone that ended in an agonizing one-point defeat.
Mone started three of the League encounters and was a substitute in a fourth. In the Championship he featured in every game, starting three and coming on as a sub in the other six. The Super 8 win against Kildare was the only time he was on the field for the throw-in and the final whistle.
“The way I look at it, you're just there for the team and whatever role the manager gives you, you have to accept it and do it to the best of your ability,” he said.
“I'm enjoying the football at the minute and that's the most important thing - I tell the kids at school: ‘Enjoy your football no matter what role you're asked to do' because you're never bigger than the team.
“You just do it with a good attitude and that's what you have to bring when you're in around a squad. You can't think about yourself, there's no other way of looking about it.”
Last year was such a season off highs and lows for Monaghan. There was the win over Tyrone and then the loss, the last-minute defeat to Fermanagh, David Clifford's equalizer for Kerry at Clones and the joyous scenes after the win in Salthill…
Mone came on late in that game at Pearse Stadium and, as ever, the Farney faithful roared with delight when they saw him. He remains a cult hero with the fans.
“For years we weren't competing at all,” he says.
“You hear people chatting about the football coming up to the League – a lot of people want to see us. I've been around a long time and people would know me and Vinny Corey would be of the same stature. Aye, you take it on board and you appreciate the people who are coming to cheer us on.
“You try and do your best for the people of Monaghan.”
Always has; always will.
What are their chances?
WITH four seasons in division one behind them, Monaghan are now an established force in the top flight. The Farneymen matched their 2015 ranking by finishing third again last year – just behind Galway and Dublin - with five wins from seven games and Fintan Kelly's score saw them beat the Dubs for the first time in 12 years in their final game.
Having Dublin up first this time is obviously a difficult opener, but what better way to start the season than welcoming the All-Ireland champions to Clones?
It's the sort of challenge manager Malachy O'Rourke thrives on. The canny O'Rourke has managed once again to keep his squad together. Youngsters will be added and they can bed into a squad that is rich in experience from Corey and Mone, through the Hughes brothers, the Wylie brothers and of course the peerless Conor McManus.
Throughout O'Rourke's time in charge the annual question has been: ‘Have Monaghan gone as far as they can?' And the answer has always been ‘No'. His side is continuously changing gameplans and developing and last year the Farneymen kicked on from their League success to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals were they lost a thrilling all-Ulster clash to Tyrone by a single point.
Can they find the extra percentile that would see them go a step further in 2019? Don't bet against it.
Ones of watch
THE Dr McKenna Cup threw up a few new players who could make an impact for Monaghan in 2019. The pace of Stephen O'Hanlon certainly caught the eye when the Farneymen took on Armagh at the Athletic Grounds.
The Carrickmacross youngster cut a swathe through the Orchard county defence and earned his side an early penalty and could well have an impact as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, forward Micheal Bannigan scored four points in his first game of the season against Antrim and added another in the second round tie with St Mary's.
Elsewhere, Niall Kearns will hope to improve after his excellent form last year, Dessie Ward continued his development with a series of quality displays in the club championship and Scotstown's skilful and hard-working Conor McCarthy is another young player Monaghan fans will hope to see blossom at inter-county level this year.
Speaking after Monaghan's McKenna Cup clash with Armagh, manager Malachy O'Rourke said places were up for grabs and form, not reputation, would decide who got them.
“We're not really looking at who did what last year or two years ago,” he said.
“We're looking at who'[s doing it at the minute and if we feel that lads are showing up well and deserve their place then they'll get in and it's up to them to hold on to that place. It's a good competitive panel.”