Monaghan’s squad depth braced for Donegal-shaped challenge

Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Monaghan v Donegal (Sunday, 1pm, St Mary’s Park, Castleblayney)

Having returned to the county fold under Vinny Corey, Stephen O'Hanlon has been one of Monaghan's most impressive performers in the early part of the year
Box of tricks: Against Fermanagh, the elusive Stephen O'Hanlon (Monaghan) was the only Monaghan forward to have registered a Championship minute in 2023. (Philip Walsh)

In all, the Monaghan side that toppled Fermanagh on Wednesday night shared just four names with the XV that were eventually shook off at the feet of what were to be the All-Ireland champions Dublin.

Against all of Tyrone, Derry (the second time), Kildare, and Armagh, Monaghan embellished their reputation as a clutch team in last year’s championship, off the back of arguably the least believable survival in Division One to date, and there’s been a few.

Indeed last year’s league showed little signs of what was to follow. A disappointing home defeat to Armagh was compounded by a hiding at the hands of Kerry and a hammering from Tyrone.

Relying on results come the final day, Monaghan were blessed to meet a Mayo side guaranteed a place in the league final. The results that had to go their way went their way, and Conor McManus did what Conor McManus somehow keeps on doing.

1-7. A penalty, two marks and 0-05 from play. Cometh the hour…

The retirement question had hung over McManus in the Farney County after the departure of Séamus McEnaney. How often it ever crossed his mind or whether he ever entertained the thought at all is something we will never know.

When Clontibret teammate Vinny Corey took the Monaghan reins however, it was never in doubt. ‘Banty’ once described Corey as “the most driven man and footballer in Monaghan”.

And how he proved that in his maiden season, ambitious to the point of insanity. It’s rare that people in the Farney County lose optimism, but in the early stages of last year’s league, it seemed that was the case.

Corey never did. He knew what he had at his disposal. He wouldn’t have taken the job that nobody wanted otherwise.

Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone helped Monaghan to Ulster titles in 2013 and 2015. Picture by Philip Walsh
Man for the job: Vinny Corey in action against Michael Murphy, a man he often marked in his playing days. Picture by Philip Walsh

On Wednesday evening, his starting XV featured 12 clubs, with three of those Junior and and a further four operating at Intermediate level in 2023. Discounting Stephen O’Hanlon, the remainder of the Monaghan forward line didn’t start a Championship match between them last year.

In fact, O’Hanlon was the only one of the six to play a minute of Championship football.

19-year-old Stephen Mooney has chipped in with 0-7 in less than a match and a half, while the likes of Davy Garland, Darragh McElearney (both UCD) and Seán Jones (DCU) were all unavailable due to Sigerson Cup action.

Two of Monaghan’s key forwards in the shape of Míchael Bannigan and Ryan McAnespie were also out of action, owing to injuries in the opening round win over Antrim.

Some of the Scotstown contingent were reintroduced from the bench, with the towering Míchael McCarville rewarded for his powerful club displays. All-Star Conor McCarthy was also reintroduced, although Jack McCarron’s return was ended prematurely due to a head knock that resulted in a black card for Tiarnan Bogue.

Oram’s Jason Irwin was another to be forced off with a head knock, a man who was part of the late Ógie Ó Dufaigh’s Ulster MFC winning side back in 2018, and he is still only 21.

Donegal will be an altogether different test however, with Monaghan fortunate in drawing the perceived two weakest sides in Ulster in the group. Two wins are bound to have bred confidence in an inexperienced squad however.

One would expect 2020 Sigerson Footballer of the Year Davy Garland to come back into the fold, with Conor McCarthy looking a safe bet to start. Ryan O’Toole, another tied into college football at UCD, could well slot in for young Bobby Walker of Tyholland.

With Donegal having put minutes in the legs of Paddy McBrearty, Oisín Gallen, Jamie Brennan, Brendan McCole, Ryan McHugh and others, they may well prove too strong for a Monaghan side well off full strength, with Jim McGuinness back pitchside to oversee proceedings.

Killian Lavelle, man of the match on Wednesday, may well face the task of tracking Gallen, with captain Kieran Duffy more suited to the challenge of talisman McBrearty.

At the other end, many of these Farney sharpshooters will be an unknown quantity to a certain extent, which could see McCole end up on Garland. Although not huge in stature, Garland uses his low centre of gravity and deadly left foot to remain a threat closer to goal.

Vinny Corey appears to have built more strength in depth in 2024, but just how strong are the new faces? On Sunday in St Mary’s Park, that will become a lot more apparent.