Monaghan showing signs of progress but answers will only be revealed in Super 8s
IF there’s one thing his almost six years in charge of Monaghan have told us, it’s that you shouldn’t try and second guess Malachy O’Rourke when it comes to team selection.
Only once this year - for their Ulster Championship meetings with Tyrone and Fermanagh - has he started with the same 15 players, opting to chop and change through the course of the National League and during the Qualifier run that has delivered them to this Super 8 stage.
During the Spring months it was seen as an effort not to repeat the mistakes of the year previous, when O’Rourke largely kept faith with the same starters through the course of a productive and encouraging League, only to flop when Championship came around.
Indeed, many predicted the end of Monaghan as we knew them in the wake of their 10-point All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin.
The Ulster title wins of 2013 and 2015 were suddenly but a distant memory as a tired, uninspired-looking team was mercilessly swept aside by the blue wave. O’Rourke looked to have squeezed every last drop from the Monaghan players, but now the well was dry.
If the Derrylin man believed that for a second, he would surely have walked away in the weeks or months afterwards. No doubt there was soul-searching, but that he decided to stay on tells you he felt there was still much more to be extricated from the group.
The same experienced core that has served Monaghan so well largely remains but fresh blood has been injected, along with the freshness that successful, carefully managed rotation can bring.
Pulling that off while retaining such depth of squad makes Monaghan the envy of many counties across Ireland.
“Sometimes if a manager is there three or four years, not that they have favourites, but for the boys who are maybe number 24 or 25 for a few years, they start to think ‘f**k it, what’s the point, sure he’s not going to play me this year?’” observed Fermanagh’s Paul McCusker ahead of the Erne County’s Ulster semi-final clash with Monaghan.
“But he [O’Rourke] seems to have kept the thing fairly fresh, he rotates and uses his subs well.”
Niall Kearns has perhaps been the biggest revelation. Previously hanging around the fringes of the panel, the Sean McDermott’s midfielder has started every game in League and Championship, playing almost every minute (he was withdrawn in added time against Kerry and Donegal and 11 minutes from time in victory over Dublin) – more than any other outfield player.
Ryan McAnespie is not a new face by any stretch but with his work-rate and selfless running, he is now one of the most important players on the Farney side, despite his tender years.
And, from an attacking perspective, the signs so far are good as Monaghan are averaging a bigger score in League and Championship than at any other time since they were promoted to Division One in 2015.
Yet only over the course of the next couple of weeks will we see how much has really changed because, in terms of performance and results, 2018 almost exactly mirrors a 2017 that ended with many more questions than answers.
They enjoyed another successful League campaign, securing a fifth consecutive year in Division One and finishing with a flourish by beating Dublin in Croke Park.
And when they ousted defending champions Tyrone in Omagh, the hype machine really cranked into overdrive.
They were deigned Ulster champions-elect in some quarters as we marvelled at the intricate, Dublin-esque runs that opened up space in a normally water-tight defence.
We also speculated that the biggest lesson Monaghan had learned from their Croke Park skelping at the hands of Jim Gavin’s men nine months previous was that if you can’t beat them, join them.
And then, just as had been the case the previous summer, they were brought hurtling back to earth with a tremendous thud. For Down in 2017, read Fermanagh 2018 – both 4/1 underdogs upsetting the odds.
Down roughed them up and played some electric attacking football, but it was a game Monaghan could and probably should have won after starting and finishing with a series of gilt-edged wides.
This year’s semi-final with Fermanagh was a different contest altogether but with the same result. Two points ahead going into added time, it was in the palm of their hands until Eoin Donnelly’s fisted goal broke their hearts.
Most telling, however, was just how easily the Ernemen shut them down, choking the space in their own half and seriously reducing the option of direct ball into Conor McManus and Jack McCarron by ensuring at least two bodies surrounded them at all times.
As a result, the clever off-the-shoulder runs, the dynamic loops that had worked a treat against Tyrone were replaced instead by laboured, energy-sapping build-up play which all too often ended with them ceding possession.
They have regathered themselves through the Qualifiers, but given the kindness of the draw afforded them – Waterford, Leitrim and Laois - it is difficult to draw any new conclusions.
Indeed, the weekend victory over the O’Moore men showcased the best and the worst of Monaghan – all the good that got them over the line against Tyrone during an excellent first half, followed by the sloppy disjointedness that led them towards defeat to Fermanagh in the second.
The selection of Shane Carey provided the Farneymen with an added attacking dimension from deep, and it would be a statement of intent were O’Rourke to keep faith with the Scotstown man against Kildare on Sunday.
After a similarly straightforward Qualifier experience last year, the Monaghan boss might have preferred a sterner challenge through the back door this time around – although games against the Lilywhites, Kerry and Galway affords them a much greater opportunity to get up to speed than a one-off, winner-takes-all showdown with the Dubs on their own patch.
The tag of favourites hasn’t always suited Monaghan in recent years but they have to make it work for them when they travel to Croke Park on Sunday to face a Kildare side with the wind at their backs after impressive Qualifier wins over Mayo and Fermanagh rescued an otherwise dismal season.
They have the tools to get over the line against Cian O’Neill’s pacy, powerful but defensively fragile Lilywhite side, with their semi-final hopes perhaps hanging on the outcome of the following week’s potential Clones cracker with Kerry.
Probable XV v Kildare
2018 top scorers (Championship scores in brackets)
Conor McManus 2-39 (1-21)
Jack McCarron 1-23 (0-9)
Conor McCarthy 2-16 (1-8)
Rory Beggan 0-18 (0-10)
Fintan Kelly and Karl O’Connell - both 0-10 (0-6)
Most minutes played
Rory Beggan 840
Niall Kearns 829
Karl O’Connell 797
Ryan McAnespie 745
Darren Hughes 740
Super 8 fixtures
July 15, Croke Park, 2pm: Monaghan v Kildare (Croke Park, 2pm)
July 22: Monaghan v Kerry (Clones, 4pm)
August 4: Galway v Monaghan (Salthill, 6pm)