A year in review: Monaghan optimistic again under Vinny Corey

A players' manager: Vinny Corey and his team celebrate after securing their Division 1 status in Castlebar.
A players' manager: Vinny Corey and his team celebrate after securing their Division 1 status in Castlebar. A players' manager: Vinny Corey and his team celebrate after securing their Division 1 status in Castlebar.

For Monaghan people, still some 'ifs' remain weeks later. It's not often that the Farney appear in All-Ireland semi-finals. The thought of a first showpiece event since 1930 would drive a man to analyse to the point of delusion. And that’s about where we’re at.

The image of a perplexed Stephen Cluxton dropping a tame Conor McManus shot and watching it spill so fortunately/unfortunately wide would be enough to keep you up at night. Would it have been enough? No one knows.

  • Monaghan veteran Ryan Wylie: 'I've been on the receiving end of that a couple of times with Dublin... it's not a good place to be'
  • Back where it all began for Vinny Corey

The other standout memories are a 61st minute score from Brian Fenton that suggested the tide was turning, and a last-gasp Dean Rock goal that removed all doubt that it indeed had. 

From a more objective viewpoint, the ifs and buts work both ways. 

Ryan O’Toole’s goal against Tyrone could so easily have been refuted by Niall Morgan or a post. A looping Clare strike could have easily raised a green flag and left Monaghan in a bit of a pickle in St Tiernach’s Park. So too a Daniel Flynn effort in Tullamore.

And a penalty shootout win over Armagh obviously could have gone either way.

If one goes back even further, Monaghan met Mayo on the final day of their Division 1 campaign, where only a victory would suffice. Mayo were already qualified for the league final, and so rested a host of names.

Monaghan also required their good friends Tyrone to do them a favour against Armagh. That they did, and fortune was on the Farney side. Then again, you can only play the cards you’re dealt.

Much is made of Monaghan’s experience, but Dublin won the All-Ireland final and the three most discussed players were 41-year-old Stephen Cluxton, 35-year-old Mick Fitzsimons, and 33-year-old James McCarthy.

The Conor McManus situation was managed excellently, with Vinny Corey making the difficult decision to drop his clubmate off the back of the Ulster defeat to Derry. Indeed, the pair were playing together as recently as last year, but those are the decisions that have to be made.

Reinstating McManus against Dublin was almost equally as unpopular as dropping the Farney legend in the first place. Then McManus did what McManus does. Potentially the swansong, who knows?

The youth too were invested in however. Ryan O’Toole had an outstanding breakthrough year, having cut his teeth in Scotstown over the past four or five years. 22-year-old Gary Mohan looks to have matured off the back of a brilliant campaign, lining out around the middle as opposed to inside, as Monaghan coped without their best midfielder Niall Kearns.

Kearns and Ryan McAnespie were both supposed to be out of action in 2023. Indeed for that Tyrone match, that now feels so long ago, McAnespie sat in his house on a Monday morning in Sydney. With him was his housemate, Red Hands’ Ben McDonnell.

For the Emyvale man to return and star in the draw in Celtic Park, perhaps Monaghan’s standout result of the year, was a credit to his commitment. The half forward line of McAnespie, O’Hanlon, and Bannigan clicked nicely, with each of those comfortably on the right side of 30 while also looking like experienced heads.

Read more: Tyrone home but a Monaghan heart for Emyvale native Ryan McAnespie

Elsewhere, Latton’s Thomas McPhillips gained invaluable experience as he played 70 minutes in several league matches, while he also started the championship clash with Tyrone. Clubmate Kieran Duffy thrived in his new role as captain, an ever present, again, alongside former skipper Ryan Wylie.

The Dublin match gives great hope for 2024. The individual quality Monaghan possess was on full display, with a man-on-man approach coming just two weeks after an almost entirely zonal defence against Armagh.

It’s no secret that the Farney have a small panel, but the strength and conditioning team did an exceptional job to keep players fit. Donegal, Kildare, and Armagh were one week after the next, and the only real injury was a persistent shoulder issue of Dessie Ward’s.

If one looks at the likes of Galway, and Seán Kelly, Damien Comer, Rob Finnerty etc, you begin to appreciate just how difficult this new format is, as the games come thick and fast.

Any league style system just seems to suit this crop, with their last semi-final appearance coming after Malachy O’Rourke guided them to top spot in the 2018 Super 8s group.

2023 was supposed to be the end. Instead, it feels like the start of something.

Grade: B+

It was very close to top marks for Monaghan, but when all is factored in, there were some poor results along the way too. A league hiding against Tyrone was quite concerning, with Vinny Corey still teething in his first managerial role.

Darragh Canavan ran riot in the first half in Healy Park of the championship meeting too, in a match that epitomised the game of two halves.

Then there was the Derry defeat on the return to Omagh. Monaghan opened up, and with it Derry hit 22 scores from 27 shots. A fortunate Karl Gallagher goal removed a little gloss from the scoreline. 

A defeat to Donegal in the final group match was scarily similar to that first Derry match. The opening 35 saw Donegal on 81% shooting accuracy against a strangely passive defence.

Read more: Dara O'Baoill revels in statement Donegal win

But at the end of the day, it’s the big games in Croke Park that really count. To get there was an achievement, to perform twice was enough to send a county into overdrive. Monaghan’s tactical flexibility was there for all to see, as they threw McManus and Kieran Hughes in from the start against Dublin.

Ironically, a poor 2022 peaked with a win over the Dubs, and a successful 2023 peaked with a loss to the same opposition. A year is a long time in sport.

Manager: Vinny Corey 

Clontibret man Corey excelled in the role it seemed no one wanted.

Rory Beggan’s roaming was curtailed somewhat, as he has become more of a playmaker than a strike runner. A defence splitting pass to Karl Gallagher set up a Stephen O’Hanlon goal against Tyrone, a typical example as Beggan remained behind the ball this year.

Killian Lavelle was utilised as a man marker, nullifying Con O’Callaghan and Rian O’Neill to name but two.

The Derry performance in Celtic Park saw Monaghan essentially mirror their opposition, and it proved a tactical masterclass. McManus and McCarron were dropped, and the next day McCarron kicked 0-09 against Clare.

Corey made the tough decisions whilst keeping the squad happy. His man management is second to none. He is forever humble in the media, as shown by his Off The Ball interview after the shootout with Armagh, but he is also a master of tactics. No surprise for a man obsessed with the game.

Monaghan will be hoping it’s the first year of many.

Player of the Year: Conor McCarthy

Only eight players contributed more from play than McCarthy in this year’s championship. Five of those were from either Dublin or Kerry. McCarthy played at wingback. Enough said.

It was actually Séamus “Banty” McEnaney that originally lined the Scotstown man out in defence. That was an experiment that wasn’t a disaster or a raging success, but few saw Corey reverting back to it.

McCarthy’s goal against Clare is worth a look back for those who haven’t seen it, but what was more impressive was his character, something that has been questioned.

Against Donegal he kicked two wides in injury time in a two-point defeat. Just a week later, he was making national headlines and earned man of the match, scoring another goal to knock Kildare out of the championship. One would imagine he is towards the top of the queue for a deserved All-Star.

Special mentions also to Killian Lavelle and Gary Mohan who came of age in white and blue.