Fintan Kelly hopes it's winner stays on for Monaghan in Ulster
DESPITE having won two of the last three provincial titles, Anglo-Celt holders Monaghan are far from complacent, wing-back Fintan Kelly tells Neil Loughran...
TRAINING may be done for the day but, even in the majestic surroundings of Brown’s sport and leisure club in Portugal’s Algarve, rest, relaxation, refuelling, rehydrating - they only get you so far.
“Winner stays on, who’s next?” Without a PlayStation or Xbox in sight, the Monaghan players go back to basics to scratch that competitive itch in the hours after the hard yards have been done.
Brown’s has everything the modern-day athlete could possibly desire - a high performance gym, heated swimming pools, ice baths for recovery, fitness studios. But sometimes all you really need is a couple of bats and a ball.
“There’s been a fair bit of tennis and table-tennis played. Kieran Hughes isn’t bad at the table-tennis, wee Ryan Wylie’s decent too,” says Fintan Kelly, although forward Jack McCarron offered a different view at the launch night of the Ulster Senior Football Championship.
“I definitely owned the table over there - I was the boss,” said McCarron with a wide grin.
“We’re all county players at the end of the day,” continues Kelly, “we’re all competitive, nobody likes to lose.”
And if they’re competitive off the field, Monaghan have become seriously competitive on it. For so long regarded as the nearly men of Ulster football, they are now the leaders of the pack having won two of the last three provincial titles.
In Conor McManus, they boast the most deadly forward in Ulster, and one of the best anywhere in the country. Their panel is littered with strong, skilful footballers coming to the peak of their powers.
Raiding wing-back Kelly is one of those to have forced his way into the starting 15 in recent years. And, with the county’s U21s lifting a first Ulster title since 1999 back last month, the Farney conveyor belt is showing no signs of slowing down.
“It gives a lift to the whole county, it gives hunger to everyone and drives us all on,” adds Kelly.
Monaghan are in a good place - and not just because, speaking over a month away from their Ulster Championship opener against Down on June 5, they are soaking in the sun’s ray in Vilamoura rather than sheltering from the late April snow back home.
Yet, despite being the Anglo-Celt holders and some observers’ outside tip for a tilt at Sam, the Farneymen have never shed that underdog spirit. When Malachy O’Rourke took over towards the end of 2012, the county was at its lowest ebb in a decade. After inexplicably surrendering a nine-point half-time lead to Down in the Ulster semi-final, they limped meekly out of the Qualifiers against Laois a fortnight later.
Kelly wasn’t making the panel at that stage, but plenty of those who run out at Clones on June 5 were. Those memories, those experiences have hardened them, united them.
Watch the Irish News Championship preview for Monaghan:
O’Rourke, having worked wonders at neighbouring Fermanagh, was the man to revive their fortunes, starting from the bottom up. That’s why, when the conversation inevitably turns to defending their crowd, such talk is immediately swatted away. The painful memories of that 2012 defeat still resonate, and act as a salutary lesson against looking too far into the future, no matter how many others are doing it for you.
“I was just out of the U21s at that stage but I remember being there and watching it,” recalls Kelly.
“Monaghan had a serious first half but Down never took their eyes off the prize and came out a lot hungrier in the second half and unfortunately Monaghan were left wanting at the end of it. It just kept slipping and slipping…”
Just two years on from their All-Ireland final appearance against Cork, Down’s class of 2012 was a different animal to the current side. Gone is the experience and quality of men like Ambrose Rogers, Danny Hughes and Benny Coulter, replaced with youthful exuberance in Eamonn Burns’s new-look Mourne collective.
They failed to pick up a single point during a miserable Division One campaign that ended in relegation, shipping some heavy defeats along the way, and will go into the Clones clash as huge underdogs.
But being such big favourites does not sit easily with Monaghan: “Any man that takes a Championship game for granted is a fool and shouldn’t be on a county team,” says Kelly.
“We know they’re coming in with nothing to lose, we’re raging hot favourites, so they’ll throw everything at us. Down don’t have bad footballers. Their League form was bad, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad footballers.
“The way anybody should be looking at it is that you can’t win the Ulster title without winning the first round. Whatever about other provinces, in Ulster you can’t look ahead or you’ll get caught on the hop very easy. We have Down on the fifth of June and there hasn’t been one mention of anything else.”
The league wasn’t exactly straightforward for Monaghan either, as they needed a last-gasp point from Colin Walshe against Donegal on the final day to save their skins and secure their top-flight status for another year.
Yet, the Farney’s lowly finish does not tell the whole story. Early wins over Roscommon and Down were followed by an almighty tussle with All-Ireland champions Dublin at Croke Park.
McManus was at his imperious best, kicking 12 of Monaghan’s 16 points as they lost out by a single point. The Dubs cantered through the rest of the League without barely having a glove laid on them.
That was in February of course, not August or September, but having proved they can rise to the challenge in Ulster, why do Monaghan continue to fall short on the All-Ireland stage? And, having given Dublin plenty in the past two years, how far are they off Gaelic football’s elite?
“It’s hard to know,” says Kelly.
“Winning Ulster in 2013 was a big deal for Monaghan football. In 2015 it was more a case that we wanted to do more and unfortunately we didn’t do more. With that confidence you get a lot of hunger, and it has probably made the team a lot more hungry and driven. But we need to prove to ourselves.
“We’ve been in Croke Park twice, in 2013 against Dublin - beat. Last year against Tyrone - beat. So we need to prove to ourselves we’re close to that level. We haven’t done enough to prove that. We haven’t done it in Championship on the big day so we have to prove, outside Ulster, that we’re capable of being a big team.”
Despite going in as defending champions, the bookies have installed the Farneymen as third favourites behind Donegal and Tyrone to defend the title they won last July.
Winner stays on? Monaghan will certainly hope so.
Monaghan's main strength lies in how well drilled they are. Every single member of the team knows the role they are expected to fulfil, and their success under Malachy O’Rourke - he has delivered two Ulster titles in three years - is built on a solid foundation.
Defensively they are very strong, with Colin Walshe and the Wylie brother, Drew and Ryan, forming a teak-tough full-back line. Behind them, Rory Beggan is the perfect goalkeeper for the modern game, recycling the ball quickly and getting Monaghan on the front foot, often targeting the quick, dynamic half-back line of Karl O’Connell, Dessie Mone and Fintan Kelly. If he has been brought out the field, Kieran Hughes is always a reliable target.
The crowning glory of this Monaghan team, though, is Conor McManus. The team revolves around engineering as many opportunities as possible for the deadly Clontibret ace, who rarely misses no matter what the angle or distance.
With Owen Lennon having retired from the inter-county scene and fellow stalwart Dick Clerkin missing the whole of the National League with an ankle injury and then a damaged eye socket, Monaghan are not the formidable presence around the middle of the field that they once were.
Neil McAdam has performed well but he is a converted forward and, alongside either Kieran or Darren Hughes - or even Karl O’Connell - the pairings at present don’t offer the same physical presence as Lennon and Clerkin in their pomp.
There are also justifiable concerns that the Farney men are over-reliant on the superb Conor McManus. He scored just under half of Monaghan’s entire points haul during the League and if he was ever to suffer serious injury and be sidelined for an extended period, they would be in serious trouble.