Once more unto the breach for Monaghan and Dermot Malone
MEN, women, boys and girls in green and white danced in the summer sun at Healy Park last year. Meanwhile, under the stand, Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke did his best to hold back the tears.
His men had been sucker-punched by Eoin Donnelly's goal in the dying seconds and lost an Ulster Championship semi-final by a point.
The Fermanagh underdogs and their followers had every reason to celebrate and make plans for the Ulster final but the loss was a gut-wrenching disappointment for Monaghan and there was worse to come.
A few weeks later, the resilient Farneymen had picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and clinched a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals by dismantling Galway in Salthill.
As the sun went down on Galway Bay that Saturday evening, their jubilant and loyal fans reversed the sorry scenes from the loss to Fermanagh and a sea of humanity in blue and white swept onto the Pearse Stadium pitch to celebrate a stunning victory for their county.
But there was more heartache to come.
Monaghan pushed Tyrone top the pins of their collars in the semi-final but with the game in the balance, the Red Hands wriggled off the hook and the game ended in another one-point loss. More pats on the back but no medals to show the grandkids.
“No defeat is easy to take in Championship football,” says Dermot Malone, who was man of the match in that win in Galway.
“I remember coming off the field after the Fermanagh game and just shaking my head in shame, knowing that we didn't perform anywhere near where we could have.
“It's hard to know what went wrong; it's hard to put your finger on it.
“We were well up for it and we knew exactly what Fermanagh were going to bring to the table. On the day they just stifled us and we have to give them a bit of credit for it – they played well, they broke everything down. It was a bit of a dogfight and they came out the better in it.
“We got in front in the second half but they came back and got a goal. It was bitterly disappointing for us and we had to hold our hands up, we had no-one to blame but ourselves.
“We had some frank words with each other and we were lucky enough that we got a bit of run in the Qualifiers and things just snowballed…
“We were so close against Tyrone. When you lose by a point it's a bitter pill to swallow and when you look back there are always things you could have done better.
“Tyrone are a brilliant team and on the day they got the rub of the green and got over the line. We could have no complaints – we had a couple of chances, they had a couple of chances – they performed better on the day and took one more chance than we did.
“We have to keep our heads down and try and get back up there again.
“It wasn't a terrible, terrible year but we still didn't have any silverware to show for it. You don't get any medals for getting to a semi-final, so it's not really anything to be proud of.”
‘You're being a bit hard on yourself there,' you tell him.
‘When you look back on last year, I think you will be proud of what you achieved.'
But Malone remains unconvinced.
“Maybe,” he says.
“I know a couple of Monaghan teams back in the day that still talk about the time they had Kerry nearly beat (1979 All-Ireland semi-final) and it went to a replay. They say if they had taken their chances in the first game they would have beat them.
“Eamonn McEneaney might have kicked a point to win it… They still talk about that but, ah, I don't think this group of players will look back on last year with fond memories. Not yet anyway. We look at it as an opportunity lost rather than an achievement to get to the semi-final.”
The incessant drama of last year is all water under the bridge now. Monaghan start from ground zero again and there's no such thing as easing yourself into the Ulster Championship, not when they've got neighbours and bitter rivals Cavan up first.
“I'd have good ties in Cavan and I know there is a nice bit of tension building up along the border,” says Malone.
“There are a lot of bragging rights on the line but any time we have played Cavan over the last four or five years there has been very, very little in it and I don't think there's going to be much difference come the 18th.
“Breffni Park is always a brilliant atmosphere, a couple of years ago it was nearly a sell-out and a couple of times it got real, real hot and heavy.
“There'll be very little in it; both teams didn't have the League campaign they wanted. We beat them in Clones and a couple of things went our way that day. If they'd gone Cavan's way they probably would have nipped us and we would have went down. There is nothing between us at the minute.
“Conor McManus has really been the difference in some of the games. He kicked a few points and in a tight game, when you have somebody like him it makes all the difference.”
The winners of Monaghan-Cavan derby will progress to the Ulster semi-final and take on the winners of the Down versus Armagh face-off in Newry. Malone has had his fingers burnt too many times to start looking ahead to that game.
“If any team has lessons learned about Championship football, it's ourselves,” he says.
“You would think that maybe last year we might have looked past Fermanagh but definitely we're not looking any further than Cavan. They have a Monaghan man – former county player Martin Corey, brother of evergreen Farney stalwart Vinny – in with them now. He's played against us all at club level at some stage so he'll know us inside and out and Cavan will be ready for us, they'll have their match-ups right.
“We give Vinny a bit of jip over it at the dinner table but I don't think there's much going either way. I'd say it would be fairly quiet at the Corey dinner table at the minute.”
Malone hails from the Castleblayney Faughs club that produced the great ‘Nudie' Hughes, the forward star of the Monaghan sides of the 1980s. But it was another former county man, Declan Loughman, who was the biggest influence on him in his early days.
“Declan coached me for about six or seven years,” he says.
“He was a great manager and if I was ever to pick anyone to give a motivational speech he would be the main man.
“He was someone I always would have looked up to, I would have seen videos of him playing and even as a manager you could see the passion coming through him and you could tell he'd have been an inspirational leader when he was playing.
“He had a big influence on me, there was a touch of old school in him – he wouldn't have been a man for the fancy solo-dummy, he'd have run through a wall quicker. Definitely a bit of him would have rubbed off on me.”
Seamus McEnaney first brought Malone into the panel back in 2010. Monaghan, in search of a first title since 1988, reached the Ulster final that year but Malone played no part in the game against Tyrone.
“We were playing a challenge match against Fermanagh the week before it and I did my cruciate,” he recalls.
“That was my ball bust for about nine months and it really took me a year to get back to myself. It was tough going and I was only 19 or 20 and I didn't recover properly, I didn't give myself enough exercise at the time so it took me a bit longer to get back to where I was. Lessons learned!”
Since his return he has evolved into a tireless worker, a super-fit, combative ball-winner who continues to pop up with vital scores for the side.
“The way teams are set up nowadays, it's a hard slog from start to finish,” he says.
“You see the stats from the GPS and boys are covering a lot more ground now than they would have when I first started in 2010. From all positions on the field now – corner-backs are going to corner-forward and vice-versa. In the modern game everybody needs to work their socks off, first and foremost, and after that you can work in a couple of fancy dummies if you can get the chance!”
Anyone who gets sold a dummy at Monaghan training should be prepared for a bit of stick over it because the players spend a lot of time in each other's company.
Last year's Farney car pool must have been one of the busiest in the country. 22 of the Monaghan panel were living in Dublin including Malone, who works as an account manager for recruit company Indeed.com. He takes the wheel for the 90-minute drive from the city out to the lush green acres of the training ground at Annyalla.
“I take whoever wants to come,” he says
“There's a couple of students who don't have cars and we throw them in. On the way down the road you mightn't get too much craic, everybody is half sleeping, but on the way back up you always get a bit of craic for an hour and-a-half. There's always a bit of a buzz.
“Some of the boys you wouldn't know too well but when you're travelling up and down the road with them you get to know them very well.”
Himself, Colin Walsh, Shane Carey, Thomas Kerr, Ryan Wylie and Karl O'Connell decided to take the car pool on the road last year and headed off to Budapest for a holiday.
“We ended up going up and down the road with each other and we decided to go away,” he says.
“It was a quiet weekend,” he adds with a what-happens-on-tour-stays-on-tour chuckle.
The team spirit he hints it comes as no surprise. This Monaghan side has been on the road for a few years now and the players will know each other inside out by this stage. They've won together and they've lost together and have come back for the next game going as hard as they did in the last.
“We all enjoy playing football like probably every other county player,” says Malone.
“Whether you win or lose, it's still a great privilege to be able to go out and pull on the jersey. At the end of the day Gaelic Football is just a hobby.
“We're all doing it because we enjoy it and if you're going to start giving up because you've had a few defeats there's no point in doing it at all because you're in the wrong game. You dust yourself off after a couple of weeks and go back to square one again, win, lose or draw.”
Once more unto the breach dear friends…
Big game experience? Check.
Canny manager? Check.
Defensive organisation? Check.
Point-scoring goalkeeper? Check.
Unmarkable star forward? Check.
Monaghan have most of the bases covered and singling out Conor McManus is no disrespect to a very talented supporting cast because the Clontibret marksman is as good as there is in the country.
Like McManus, manager Malachy O'Rourke's hunger for success remains unabated. Now in his seventh season at the helm, the Fermanagh native continues to cajole the extra inches required from a focussed and motivated group of players.
Goalkeeper Rory Beggan is a commanding presence between the posts and deadly accurate from free-kicks and 45s, while in front of him the Wylie brothers, Drew and Ryan, Colin Walshe, Karl O'Connell and Kieran Duffy form a settled and experienced defensive unit.
Alongside McManus, the attacking options include Dermot Malone, Ryan McAnespie, Conor McCarthy and Shane Carey while the pacey Stephen O'Hanlon could be a new problem for opposition defenders to deal with this summer.
THE ankle injury to experienced Scotstown clubman Darren Hughes has left Monaghan short on options around midfield. Last October, Allstar nominee Niall Kearns endured “six or seven” hours of surgery to repair a leaking valve in his heart and missed the entire League campaign and looks certain to miss out on the Ulster quarter-final against Cavan although he will return before the summer is out.
Kieran Hughes also missed the League but manager O'Rourke does have options in Gavin Doogan, Neil McAdam and Fintan Kelly.
Monaghan reached two semi-finals last year and lost both by a point. It remains to be seen whether that pair of gut-wrenching defeats has taken anything out of the side. After a brilliant start against Dublin, the League form was patchy and the Farneymen needed to beat neighbours Cavan in what amounted to a relegation play-off to avoid the drop.
The perennial question when it comes to Monaghan is: How many years can these players keep going to the well? The perennial answer is: At least one more.