Where has Monaghan's rejuvenation come from?
Monaghan are routinely tipped for relegation at the start of the season, yet after four games they're almost guaranteed safety and are impressing. Cahair O'Kane looks at what has changed from the flatness of 2019 and why Conor McCarthy, Niall Kearns and Conor Boyle in particular have made such an impact…
AS sure as the evenings start to lengthen, January will end with Monaghan being tipped for relegation.
This is their sixth straight year in the top flight, during which time Dublin, Kerry and Mayo have been their only ever-present colleagues.
The dark of winter shortens Monaghan’s shadow. The match programmes are brought out, their average age totted up and they are universally condemned to the drop.
Of the 20 men they used against Armagh last summer, Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone retired in the close season.
Conor McManus, Karl O’Connell and Darren Hughes have all turned 32. Drew Wylie is 31. Kieran Hughes and Fintan Kelly are both 29.
Their longevity is not a finite resource. Malachy O’Rourke, Leo McBride and Ryan Porter had gone a year after they probably should have, by their own admission. They’d looked weak limbed treading water in spring, and by summer they were blowing up bubbles.
Tipping their run in the top flight to end just seemed easy to do this spring.
Four games in and Monaghan are up there with Galway as the most impressive side in Division One so far.
Their opening day one-point loss in Salthill, when Conor McManus missed a penalty and they had a late chance cleared off the line, looks less like a bad defeat and more like a good performance with each passing week.
They tore strips off Tyrone, were ten points up in Croke Park before drawing and cruised past Mayo.
So what’s changed?
For one, this seems to have been the winter Conor McCarthy needed.
Scotstown had won five out of six county titles since 2013, propelling them into Ulster runs that twice ended in final defeats. Their loss to Clontibret in the autumn ended their five-in-a-row bid, but it also released McCarthy.
He’d also finished up at UCD, where he’d been doing a four-year science degree. He played in three straight Sigerson Cup finals, winning two and starring in the 2018 victory over NUIG, where he hit 1-6 in a man-of-the-match display.
A joy in itself, it nonetheless detracted from his inter-county ambitions. While he’s currently at Dublin IT studying to become a Master of Science, the earlier, shorter competition allied to a first-round exit at the hands of Queen’s has left him with a first proper run at it with Monaghan.
Midway through this campaign, the 1-9 he has scored (all from play) is the most he’s ever scored in an Allianz League campaign. If he plays the full 70 minutes against Donegal on Sunday, he’ll have already played more minutes than in any previous campaign.
Above all, the quieter winter has allowed the 24-year-old to bulk up.
“You can see physically, he’s got a lot bigger,” says former team-mate Dessie Mone.
“I noticed myself when I saw him togged out at the weekend. He’s definitely bulked up. Defenders are trying to get the ball off him and he’s shrugging boys off.
“He seems to have done a lot of work over the winter with Peter Donnelly, and that’s the difference you’ve seen so far.”
With the extra bit of size, instead of trying to wriggle into gaps like an invertebrate, he’s cracking at the sides as he goes through them. He manufactured a gap that didn’t appear to exist between Aidan O’Shea, Padraig O’Hora and Michael Plunkett when he went goal-hunting last Sunday.
Earlier, he’d left third degree burns on O’Hora as he took him down the left wing and fisted over.
The pace, the ability, the finishing have always existed within him, but if he’s added the directness then he can be the serious player he’s always threatened to be.
That’s not all, though. One of the reasons Seamus McEnaney got the job ahead of Tony McEntee was the strength of the backroom team he had assembled.
Peter Donnelly is his head coach, overseeing both the strength and conditioning side and the technical and tactical football coaching. The latter is done in conjunction with Conor Laverty and David McCague, who deliver the pitch sessions.
Their attacking play has seemed more uninhibited. More in tune with the changing trends of football. More 2020.
Moving Ryan Wylie into a permanent station at centre-back and building a settled defence that has Conor Boyle at full-back has given them a structural base.
Boyle’s run of form has been outstanding, and routinely finding himself in advanced positions underlines the verve with which the whole team is playing.
He had played the whole of the 2018 league campaign but suffered a hamstring injury before the Tyrone game. He played little of the league and all of the shortened championship last year, but there’s been a different cut about him this season.
Kieran Hughes is enjoying his first proper run at it in a couple of years. The return of his brother Darren and midfield partner Niall Kearns that has made the most indicative change from last year’s short summer.
The Hughes brothers have both toiled at midfield during their time, both with the dutiful approach they bring to any role. But Kearns is the natural number nine they were crying out for.
He made his breakthrough in 2018 and it had the most transformative effect on the whole setup. Going into the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, he was the focus of attention for his displays.
That Rory Beggan displayed his Allstar form in the year that a traditional fielder broke through was no coincidence.
When The Irish News tried to squeeze a few gems out of Malachy O’Rourke before the game, he literally ran away from the dictaphone, such was his reticence to load pressure on the shoulders of a fledgling.
Yet he was once more outstanding, dominating a midfield battle with Cathal McShane in the days before Tyrone worked out what they were doing with the square peg anywhere other than in the square hole.
But Kearns was then sidelined for almost a year by needing open heart surgery to repair a leaking valve. He was back for the tail end of last summer and was their best player in the loss to Armagh, but is only really getting back to himself now.
“Size wise, Monaghan haven’t always been blessed by height. Darren, in fairness, he’s been battling and doing well, but he always needed a partner. Niall came along and the two of them had a great combination.
“They were two massive misses for Monaghan last year. You take the two midfielders out of any team, they’d feel the effects, it would hurt them.”
We’ll learn yet.