County Focus: Disappointing year sees Malachy O'Rourke quit and Monaghan go back – with an eye to the future
Story of the Season
HOW a story finishes, or even how it ends, rarely tells you everything you need to know, and that was the case for Monaghan in 2019 - though the last act will resonate into 2020 and beyond.
The first competitive match of the season brought a thrilling – for January anyway – win over Dublin in Clones.
The last act of the year was Malachy O’Rourke, still with one-year of his latest two-year term to go, stepping down after seven seasons in charge following the Qualifier defeat to Armagh. Well, sort of the last act. Because Banty’s back, but more of that later.
O’Rourke’s decision to step away from the bainisteoir bib brought down the curtain on the second – of just two – great periods in modern Monaghan football history. The Ulster titles he won in 2013 and 2015 were Monaghan’s first since Sean McCague masterminded three between 1979 and 1988.
Even outside the silverware, Fermanagh man O’Rourke turned Monaghan into perennial challengers, always in the conversation when it came to naming the top five or six teams in the country.
Last season was the high point – and maybe the low one two – as they reached the county’s first All-Ireland semi-final in 30 years before losing by a point to Tyrone in a game that was theirs for the winning. The hangover from that loss – and the absence of some big game players – bled into a 2019 that was a far cry from the glorious summers supporters have enjoyed for the best part of a decade.
By the time the League was over they had collected their lowest Division One points total of O’Rourke’s tenure – four, which was good enough to stay up by a point.
Their next lowest total in the top flight during that time was the six they managed in 2016, when only points difference kept them up.
That the 2016 Championship ended up by some distance O’Rourke’s worst as manager - a home Qualifier loss to Monaghan - should perhaps have set the alarm bells ringing as the Farneymen headed into this summer’s campaign.
Losing Darren Hughes to season-ending ankle injury a month before the Ulster opener against Cavan was a huge blow and it took Monaghan more than a half to look remotely like they were operating at Championship pace.
They gave Cavan a 1-3 head start and only managed 0-2 from their first 11 shots. They were sluggish and second best all over the pitch and, although they improved after the break thanks to throwing off any defensive notions and piling forward, they had left themselves far too much to do.
The 0-12 to 1-13 defeat was the only time they lost at the first Championship hurdle under O’Rourke.
The Qualifier win over Fermanagh was tight, tetchy and of note mainly for the melee after Conor McCarthy’s late insurance goal to give Monaghan a 1-10 to 1-6 win.
Two sputtering displays against next-door neighbours didn’t bode well for the visit of another - especially as Armagh had already shown a bit of life in the Championship thanks to an injection of youthful vigour and talent.
Two of the new breed, Rian O’Neill and Jarlath Og Burns, contributed handsomely as Armagh ran away from Monaghan in the second half at St Tiernach’s Park in a 2-17 to 1-12 win. O’Rourke resigned after the final whistle.
And now, Banty’s back. Since the end of his first, six-year, stint in charge of Monaghan from 2004 to 2010, Seamus McEnaney was in Meath and Wexford, but the past two years as minor and U20 manager of his native county edged the Corduff man closer to a return to the big job.
The last time he was in charge he lifted the Farneymen from also-ran status into Division One, their first Ulster final in nearly 20 years and the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
You know he’ll bring the same passion and enthusiasm, but he’s got a much tougher act to follow this time.
What They Need
EVEN though they may be led by a familiar face, this group of Monaghan players are heading into uncharted territory.
In the six seasons before the one just finished under Malachy O’Rourke, they failed to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals just once – in 2016 – picked up two Ulster titles along the way and elevated the status of the county to the point that not getting to the All-Ireland final last season was seen as a major disappointment.
So, losing to Cavan in Ulster and Armagh in the Qualifiers this year counts as a huge step back.
They’ve bounced back before; after inexplicably losing at home to Longford in the 2016 Qualifiers, they reached the All-Ireland quarter-final the next year before going one better in 2019.
But all that was under the continuity of O’Rourke. A new management team – including former Tyrone trainer Peter Donnelly, ex-Down forward Conor Laverty and Scotstown’s David McCague, who was with Seamus McEnaney at minor and U20 level – inhererit a group that has provided some of the brightest days in the county’s history while knowing some serious prospects are on the verge of coming through.
Next year will be too soon for a lot of those, so ‘Banty’ and co will need to work with what they have – which is plenty. This season O’Rourke’s plans were disrupted by key men missing big chunks of the season.
An ankle injury kept Darren Hughes out of the entire Championship, while a hamstring injury did the same to his brother Kieran during the League. Niall Kearns didn’t play in the League either, as he recovered from heart surgery last October, and didn’t start the Championship defeat to cavan either.
With the spine of the team the other side of 30, some fresh faces making an impact the way Kearns did in 2018 would ease the transition, and maybe allow McEnaney to do what Declan Bonner has done with Donegal and give the stalwarts with miles on the clock but plenty to offer some League rest.
FOR the first time since 2012, Monaghan will head into a football year without Malachy O’Rourke at the helm. The Derrylin man’s decision to step down threw up a number of high-profile potential successors, with Mattie McGleenan, Tony McEntee and Rory Gallagher all linked to the job. In the end the Farney county board went back, but with an eye to the future, with former senior boss Seamus McEnaney, coming off a year each with the minors and U20s, returning to the hotseat.
IT’S a mark of just how disappointing the season was for Monaghan that it’s a real struggle to find a player who maintained the, admittedly high, standards we are used to seeing from them.
The League campaign was inconsistent right through, both from match to match and within games themselves, as they began with a thrilling victory over Dublin and all but ensured their top flight survival with a victory over neighbours Cavan in their penultimate match to record their two wins. The other five matches brought defeats and varying levels of frustration and quality.
They sorely missed the quality Kieran Hughes brings, with a hamstring injury meaning he didn’t kick a ball in the League, but the Scotstown man was Monaghan’s best player against both Cavan and Fermanagh in the Championship, helping fill the void left by brother Darren’s absence.
End of the Line?
None of the older guard – all of whom played under McEnaney in his first spell in charge – have indicated they are stepping away and that can only be good news for the new management team as they survey their options for the years – and years – ahead.
There wouldn’t be any shame if they did as no Monaghan team have been on the hard road so consistently as this one.
The oldest stagers are Dessie Mone, who will be 36 next summer and Vinny Corey, who will be 37 by the time the National League rolls around. Darren Hughes, who did goals in an Ulster Championship match under McEnaney, will turn 33 during the League, while Conor McManus, who was given his inter-county debut as a wing-back by McEnaney in 2007, will be 32 in November. As things stand, all will be back, and all can still contribute for Monaghan.
The New Breed
It’s not difficult to imagine that a huge part of McEnaney’s sales pitch to the Monaghan county board is the work he’s done with the next generation as minor and U20 manager the past two years.
The U17s who won the Ulster minor title in 2018 – including huge forward talent Aaron Mulligan (Latton) – won’t be seen at senior level for a few years yet, with this year’s champions, managed by Mark Counihan, right behind them.
While the U20s disappointed this season, ‘Banty’ will be perfectly placed to identify which of this year’s panel could make a more immediate step-up.
Midfielder Dean Connolly (Killanny), who captained the side that fell at the first Ulster hurdle against Cavan, and full-forward Andrew Woods (Inniskeen) should see McKenna Cup action at the very least, while Ryan O’Toole gave a glimpse of his potential during Scotstown’s run to the Ulster final last year.