Monaghan the masters of escapology as Farney avoid the drop again

Monaghan boss Vinny Corey celebrates with the Farney players after sealing Division One survival with victory over Mayo in Castlebar. Picture by Sportsfile
Monaghan boss Vinny Corey celebrates with the Farney players after sealing Division One survival with victory over Mayo in Castlebar. Picture by Sportsfile

Allianz National Football League Division One: Mayo 0-14 Monaghan 2-14

HOW could we ever have doubted them? Of course Tyrone still had to beat old foes Armagh in Omagh - hardly a gimme - and sure Mayo have been the form team all year.

But this is Monaghan, on the last day of the League, needing a win and the stars to align elsewhere to save their skins; we’ve seen this movie before, we know the ending already, but it is never any less of a surprise.

For the fifth time in nine Division One seasons, the Farney found themselves in the last chance saloon. After the disappointment of consecutive defeats to Galway and then Tyrone, hope had been hard to lay a hand on in recent weeks.

Under a new manager, missing some key personnel, and with a clutch of their most loyal footsoldiers hovering around the mid-30 mark, perhaps all their lives had been used up.

Monaghan, though, have never rolled like that. Instead, knowing Mayo already had a League final to look forward to next weekend, they went for broke.

Vinny Corey handed first starts this year to Karl O’Connell and Conor McManus – both played the full 70-plus minutes, both were immense. McManus finished up with 1-6, three from play, in a breathtaking display capped off by a coolly converted last gasp penalty, won when a buccaneering O’Connell was felled by Jason Doherty.

Darren Hughes, who turned 36 in February, threw himself around MacHale Park like a young buck trying to impress. Captain Kieran Duffy was all over Aidan O’Shea like a cheap suit from minute one.

And where they set the standard, others followed. Scotstown’s Ryan O’Toole bagged the Farney’s first half goal after one of many lung-bursting runs upfield. Thomas McPhillips enhanced his burgeoning reputation, Stephen O’Hanlon helped wrestle back momentum in the second half, while Gary Mohan made a huge impact off the bench.

But that was only ever going to be a part of the deal.

Edginess filled the air, at least for the travelling hordes. Phones were on constant refresh, particularly in the second half as the games in Castlebar and Omagh were tied on several occasions.

In the dying minutes, and with only the slightest glimmer of light, one Farney fan could take no more.

“Come on Tyrone!”

Given the counties do Ulster Championship battle in under three weeks, it was a sentiment laced with pure, unashamed heat-of-the-moment selfishness - and who could blame him?

Maybe the cry made its way to Omagh as events turned in Monaghan’s favour, just as they have so many times before. Even without Jack McCarron - the final day hero of the last two League campaigns - for the final 10, they moved one, then two, then three ahead right on the 70 minute mark.

Word filtered through that the Red Hands had finally managed to muster a bit of daylight, moving two ahead as the seconds ticked down. Hundreds of youngsters, too excited to wait for the whistle, had to be ushered off the field three minutes into the four added.

Their moment wasn’t far away.

With opposite number Robbie Hennelly pushing up into midfield, Beggan launched one of his trademark projectiles over the top, the ball broke in Monaghan’s favour and all of a sudden O’Connell found himself bounding towards an open goal.

Doherty caught up and did the needful, earning a black card for his endeavours. McManus made no mistake with the penalty, the ball not even in the net before the other end of MacHale Park was thronged.

But what of Omagh? At last word came through, Armagh’s fate sealed in dramatic fashion.

“I wasn’t following it myself, but I heard the boys talking behind me saying Tyrone were two points up,” said Corey.

“So when the final whistle went, we were delighted to win, players were coming over delighted, asking who won, I didn’t know who won.

“Then once word got out it went a bit mad then.”

It was a moment made all the sweeter considering Corey was a part of the side that helped deliver Monaghan to the top table almost a decade ago. McManus is a Clontibret club-mate, Darren Hughes, O’Connell, Duffy, McCarron were all soldiered alongside on good days and bad.

Against the odds, and without key defensive pair Conor Boyle (hamstring) and Dessie Ward (shoulder) - who he hopes will be available to face Tyrone on April 16 - they managed to pull the rabbit from the hat once again.

“Those men are unbelievable,” he said, shaking his head.

“Conor was exceptional, always has been for Monaghan. When you need a man, he is the man. And sure Darren Hughes has been doing that a lifetime now.

“I couldn’t be any prouder of them boys. I knew the calibre of them, I played with them a long time, and for them to still be doing that, and to be leading a lot of young boys out there...”

Corey acknowledged Monaghan had “got Mayo at the right time”, and there were stages when McStay’s men –who, with an eye on what’s to come, showed 10 changes from the previous week – played like a side with business already taken care of.

Their focus now turns to a League final against Galway at Croke Park next Sunday, before facing Roscommon in the Connacht Championship the following weekend.

“Monaghan were just fighting for their lives, you could see that, so that’s always the danger,” said McStay.

“They came here to fight a ferocious battle. We matched them and matched them, but just couldn’t squeeze past them and I think they looked the winners from a long way out.”

Monaghan - the masters of escapology. Maybe next year we’ll learn.

Mayo: R Hennelly; D McHugh, P O’Hara, S Callinan; M Plunkett, J Doherty, S Coen (0-1); B Tuohy (0-2), M Ruane (0-1); K McLoughlin, F Irwin, J Flynn (0-2); C McStay, A O’Shea, P Towey (0-6, frees). Subs: D McBrien for McHugh (HT), D McHale (0-1) for McLoughlin (37), J Coyne for O’Hora (49), J Carney for Irwin (58), R O’Donoghue (0-1, free) for Towey (64)

Black card: J Doherty (70+4)

Monaghan: R Beggan; R O’Toole (1-1), K Duffy; T McPhillips, R Wylie, K O’Connell (0-1); D Hughes, M Bannigan, K Gallagher; S O’Hanlon (0-2), S Carey, K Lavelle, C McCarthy (0-1); J McCarron (0-3, 0-1 mark, 0-1 free), C McManus (1-6, 1-0 pen, 0-2 marks, 0-1 free). Subs: G Mohan for Carey (HT), K Hughes for McCarron (59), S Jones for Gallagher (68), J Irwin for O’Hanlon (70+2)

Yellow card: D Hughes (18)

Ref: D Gough (Meath)