Brendan Crossan: Malachy O'Rourke's contribution to Monaghan football will glow for generations
WHEN I read Andy McEntee threatened to take the head off a reporter’s shoulders for asking a fairly legitimate question on club player availability following Meath’s Leinster final humiliation at the hands of Dublin last Sunday, the first person I thought of was Malachy O’Rourke.
Remember, it was last summer McEntee had to be restrained after he tried to reach match official Paddy Neilan at the end of their All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Tyrone in Navan.
I don’t know Andy McEntee but I’d like to think some kind of behind-the-scenes peace accord could be thrashed out between reporter and manager and an apology (a public or private one) be issued so that the Meath footballers can concentrate on trying to re-calibrate the remainder of their season.
Clearly, though, there has been too much noise surrounding McEntee.
No team wants that kind of attention, where the manager is predisposed to losing his head.
When I read the colourful language McEntee used towards the reporter, I thought: ‘You would never hear Malachy O’Rourke saying that.’
O’Rourke was too placid for those kinds of antics.
He has probably been the most even-tempered figure on the GAA circuit ever since he decided to jump on the inter-county stage over a decade ago.
If he ever experienced that white anger McEntee suffers from, he kept it well hidden in his dealings with the press.
I don’t remember O'Rourke ever once ranting or raving after a game – and, let’s remember, perspective became blurred for a few years when the bitter rivalry between Monaghan and Donegal was at its height.
While McEntee was giving the evil eye to veteran reporter Jimmy Geoghegan of The Meath Chronicle, O’Rourke had made a typically graceful exit 24 hours earlier down in the old market town of Clones – a place where he enjoyed some unbelievable highs and desperate lows as Monaghan and Fermanagh manager.
Finally blessed with a handful of forwards worth talking about, Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh side put a stale looking Monaghan team to the sword.
After seven incredible seasons in charge of Monaghan’s senior team, O’Rourke stepped down.
It was the right time to go.
Indeed, O’Rourke had already decided before a ball was kicked that 2019 would be his last year in charge.
O’Rourke was undoubtedly lucky to work with a hugely committed group of players – and Monaghan were equally fortunate to have the Fermanagh native as their manager.
Next to Jim McGuinness, O’Rourke can be ranked as the best manager on the inter-county circuit of the last 10 years.
Consider these stats.
In his first season in charge (in 2013), he guided Monaghan to their first Ulster title since 1988.
In 2014, they reached an Ulster final, only to be squeezed out by Donegal. In those two seasons Monaghan won back-to-back NFL promotions and have become a permanent resident of Division One over the last five years.
Before the 2019 season started, Monaghan suffered a mere 11 losses in four seasons in the top flight, claiming two third-place finishes (2015 and 2018).
In 2015, they won their second Ulster title in three seasons, producing a tactical master-class to overcome Donegal again in Clones.
The only time O’Rourke’s side suffered a first round defeat in Ulster was this year (to Cavan). And the only years Monaghan supporters weren’t treated to a trip to Croke Park was in 2016 and 2019.
Prior to taking the reins in Monaghan, O’Rourke came desperately close to delivering a first-ever Ulster title with his native Fermanagh back in 2008.
At that stage, the rest of the country expected the Ernemen to disappear into the ether after their heroic stab at All-Ireland glory in 2004 – and yet, when O’Rourke took over in ’08, he kept them competitive and they should really have put Armagh away in that summer’s Ulster final before paying the ultimate price in the replay.
But his body of work with Monaghan will be remembered more fondly, especially in a county that boasts a paltry population of 61,000. Only Carlow, Leitrim and Longford have lower populations in Ireland.
What characterised Malachy O’Rourke’s teams as much as anything else was how they bounced back in years that their obituary was already written.
In 2016, Denis Connerton’s superbly drilled Longford team toppled them in Clones.
Back then, it felt like the end of the road for Monaghan and O'Rourke.
In 2017, Eamonn Burns’ Down team ambushed them in an Ulster semi-final before Monaghan recovered to gain revenge on the Mournemen in the Qualifiers and then sampling a Dublin tsunami in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Croke Park.
Last year, they should never have lost their Ulster semi-final to Fermanagh – and back they came to grace the Super 8s only to miss out on an All-Ireland final berth by the narrowest of margins against Tyrone.
However, 2019 felt altogether different.
The spark between management and players was gone.
It was one of those situations where nobody is really to blame.
Monaghan had emptied themselves in 2018 and never got near those standards this year.
They lost five Division One games in 2019 and were completely flat against Cavan.
They got past Fermanagh without impressing.
And, in all honesty, they were always vulnerable heading into last Saturday night’s clash with Armagh.
Few managerial stints end well. That’s life.
But Malachy O’Rourke’s contribution to Monaghan football will glow for generations.
For the Monaghan players, having Ulster medals will certainly count for something when they retire.
But it won’t necessarily be all about the medals – it’ll be how alive they felt during those years; beating Donegal in two Ulster finals, the blue and white pitch invasions; that mad, mad day against Kerry in the Super 8s, sunny Salthill, a rainy day in Omagh and feeling the green velvet of Croke Park under their feet.
All made possible by the unassuming man from Derrylin...