Conor McManus will go down as one of the great forwards of all-time
THE great thing about entering sports journalism at the tail end of the 1990s was Ulster football had entered a golden era. The northern province and further afield was coming down with great forwards.
Despite the creeping years, Mickey Linden was still a joy to watch. ‘Wee’ James McCartan was another player from the Mournes raging against the dying light.
The languid grace of Enda Muldoon was sight to behold up in Derry. The Ballinderry man struck me as someone who didn’t break sweat on a football field.
All great players have two things in common: they can slow the game down and keep their heads when everyone else around them loses theirs.
There were countless times in the early ‘Noughties’ where Paddy Bradley simply couldn’t miss the target. Distance and angles didn’t matter to him.
Peter Canavan still carried magic dust in his pockets in the early ‘Noughties’.
Mickey Harte got the best out of his Errigal Ciaran club-mate by playing the Tyrone genius as close to goal as possible which helped deliver All-Ireland titles in ’03 and ’05.
Down in Croke Park every August, nobody could dummy better with a bounce of the ball than Colm ‘The Gooch’ Cooper.
Back in those days, nobody played the role of the desperate romantics better than Mayo. And nobody had more imagination on a football field than Ciaran McDonald.
With every sumptuous kick pass, Croke Park would be in awe of the blonde bombshell from Crossmolina. From the seventh floor up in the Hogan stand, McDonald was an artist at work, a once-in-a-lifetime footballer who every GAA supporter celebrated.
Michael Donnellan and Michael Meehan were the jewels in Galway’s crown.
And when you look back at the Armagh team of the early-to-mid ‘Noughties’, it’s hard to quantify just how special their front men were.
There’s not a player who embraced the big stage quite like Oisin McConville.
Football, to him, was a state of mind. I reported on countless games where Oisin would decide games in the closing stages.
It reached the stage where you expected him to win tight games for Armagh all by himself.
Stevie McDonnell was cut from the same cloth as McConville. The bigger the game, the better he played. McDonnell loved his marker being touch tight and nobody profited from an inch of space more than he did.
Jack O’Connor, the former Kerry manager, remarked in his autobiography ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ that he’d never witnessed telepathy on a field quite like McDonnell and Ronan Clarke.
On the '40, John McEntee was elegance itself.
As a footballer, Diarmaid Marsden had everything – strong as an ox, skill to burn and an insatiable appetite for hard work. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a better team-mate than Marsden.
Back then, there were more individuals, bigger characters at a time when the game was less mathematical.
Nobody manipulated space better than Brian McGuigan.
There were days at Croke Park where Stevie O’Neill, quite literally, didn’t miss.
And everybody remembers where they were the day Owen Mulligan dummied his way past the Dublin defence in '05 to score a goal of the highest quality.
I was sitting in Knox’s pub, Ennis, Co Clare applauding the television screen like everyone else.
As the years rolled on, though, the great forwards – the players that leave an indelible mark on the game - disappeared from view.
In a recent interview with The Irish News, former Cork forward and 2010 All-Ireland winner Daniel Goulding explained his decision to quit the inter-county scene when he could easily have continued.
“The game had changed a lot,” Goulding said. “It was a lot more about athleticism and not about a finishing corner-forward.”
Now, more than ever, the game at the top level is about survival of the fittest, a Darwinian pursuit, where fewer and fewer players stand out, and more and more players look the same.
There are exceptions to the rule too.
Conor McManus of Monaghan always stands out. He’s as good as anything that’s ever played the game.
The fact that the Clontibret man is playing in an era where athleticism is king and crowded defences are the norm makes his achievements all the more staggering.
Last week in Salthill, McManus provided yet another reminder of his brilliance. His genius has been virtually constant for Monaghan this summer.
In the Farneymen’s memorable victory over Tyrone in the Ulster Championship earlier this summer, the narrative was that Conor McManus had come alive in the final 10 minutes.
On closer inspection, his contribution was much greater than those incredible final minutes in Healy Park. He had 19 possessions in all.
In the first half he had 11 touches. From six of them, Monaghan scored 1-5.
He also won three turnovers from Cathal McCarron, Frank Burns and Niall Sludden in the opening half.
Monaghan’s two-point victory will be remembered for McManus’s incredible 71st minute score which Oisin McConville later hailed as the best Championship point he ever witnessed - and a 67th minute pressure free from the other side of the field that punctured Tyrone’s comeback.
There is more than a bit of Oisin McConville about Conor McManus insofar as thriving on the big stage.
McManus will make an impact again against Tyrone on Sunday afternoon because that’s what the Clontibret man does at Croke Park.
We should appreciate and enjoy one of the last truly great forwards of modern times.