Grainne McElwain: Monaghan go down fighting in League that still matters greatly

Plenty still to play for on final weekend

Niall Morgan's distribution was superb as Tyrone saw off Monaghan in Omagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Niall Morgan's distribution was superb as Tyrone saw off Monaghan in Omagh. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

Sin é! After 10 years in top flight football, Monaghan were finally relegated to Division 2. I use the word finally because for the past three years, the Farney county has survived by winning on the final day against Galway, Dublin and Mayo. This year, it was not to be.

The league started so positively with a brilliant win against Dublin but it went from bad to worse and they could not eke out a win in subsequent games with Kerry, Derry, Roscommon, Galway, or Tyrone.

Last weekend’s game was played in atrocious conditions in O’Neill’s Healy Park and despite Tyrone holding a seven-point lead at two different periods in the game, Monaghan did what Monaghan do best, stand up and fight.

Alas, for all Monaghan supporters the comeback wasn’t enough. The level of effort cannot be questioned but there will be genuine regret on how mistakes in both precision passing and concession of goals throughout the campaign have left them where they are.

There has been a narrative over the last number of years by certain media commentators berating the league and renouncing the importance of it for the season ahead. This is an argument I have never bought into.

The League is a fantastic competition and one, where teams are evenly matched and in the case of Dublin and Kerry, they are challenged in every game they play. For them, the league is their toughest competition until the All-Ireland series.

It would be a massive stretch for anyone not to expect both of them to be Leinster and Munster champions this year. There is no guarantee though, for either of them that they will be in the League final. This weekend’s final fixtures in Division One will determine this.

What do we want from the League competitions? Recent arguments of blaming the split season and HQ in GAA for the lack of interest of the league are mistaken. The split season was brought in to ensure the vast majority of club players benefit from a fixed calendar of Gaelic games. It has been life-changing for them and their families.

Remember, this is an amateur sport. The CPA (Club Players Association) was formed to try and get this to happen. Covid expedited it and Croke Park and Congress made it happen. It is something the vast majority of players want and it works.

We live in a culture of a blame game. I’ve seen it happen at club committee level when those at the top table are criticised for not doing more by other members of the same committee. It’s a them and us notion with those giving out forgetting that they are the elected decision-makers too.

What value you put on the League depends on what you want from it. For counties with a smaller player pool, they need to find players. It’s fine having challenge matches and players shining in these games but how do new defenders respond to marking Darragh Canavan or how silky are a forward’s skill against Derry’s mean defence?

Darragh Canavan celebrates his brilliant goal against Monaghan at Healy Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Darragh Canavan celebrates his brilliant goal against Monaghan at Healy Park. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

Only games that matter in the League and championship will show management who has what it takes to make it at this level and that’s when it gets tricky. When do you stick or twist? For teams like Dublin, Kerry and the Limerick hurlers, new players seamlessly come in and are automatically in sync with established players. Unfortunately for all others operating in Division One, this is the exception to the norm.

Undoubtedly, injuries and their impact have played a role in how Galway, Monaghan and Roscommon in particular have performed and a main reason why they are at the bottom of the table fighting relegation. Yes you can argue this comes from all the games played but injuries appear not to have affected other teams in the same manner.

From Monaghan’s perspective, injuries have been really challenging. Conor McCarthy, Ryan McAnespie, Michéal Bannigan, Dessie Ward and Stephen O’Hanlon have been injured for large portions of the league, and factor in the loss of All-Star goalkeeper Rory Beggan to the NFL , it has been a tough few months.

Galway have played without Damien Comer, Cillian McDaid, Liam Silke, Shane Walsh and Seán Kelly for a lot of their league games too. They have had to find players, with the likes of Micheál Breathnach player Cillian Ó Curraoin taking his chance but it’s a steep ask to go to Killarney and win this Sunday without the more established players. Those players coming back from injury also need game-time so I imagine there are a lot of conversations ongoing as to when and how players knit back into the side and what game they do so. No team wants more injuries this weekend so close to championship.

As the final weekend of games commence, there are still unknowns in all divisions. Who will be relegated with Monaghan and who will be in the Division One League Final: Derry, Dublin, or Kerry? All have a lot to play for, much to the dismay of Roscommon and Galway.

In Division Two, Armagh and Donegal are promoted and are in the League Final but who joins Kildare in relegation?

Division Three sees Down and Westmeath on 11 points each, with the Mournemen top on scoring difference, but they face a Clare side in Newry who know that a win will take them up at the expense of Conor Laverty’s side if Westmeath get at least a point against Sligo. Limerick are relegated, but will it be Wicklow or Louth who join them?

In Division Four, Laois look primed for promotion as they only need to beat bottom-of-the table Waterford.

Wexford, Longford and Leitrim are on eight points apiece and battling it out for second. The last-named should beat Tipperary to move to 10 points but if Longford beat Wexford, Leitrim will miss out to the Midlanders on head-to-head, after losing to them in round four.

If Wexford beat Longford, Leitrim will go up by beating Tipperary, having beaten the Model county by a point in round three.

Each of the divisions have a story and every team has something to play for this weekend. It’s exciting and meaningful and a competition that deserves respect. It also represents the best opportunity for teams to win silverware and a competition all county board coffers are very grateful for.

To the naysayers. Stop the blame game. We all have a vested interest in the competition doing well. For some fans, they may not see such evenly matched games until later in the year so they like me are looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

As my highly competitive 10 year old son tells me “We’re in it to win it” A sentiment I’m sure that will be shared by all teams this weekend.