GAA Football

Monaghan ace Conor McManus rues missed opportunities of 2020 but is ready to go again

Conor McManus recalls his missed free against Cavan last October that might have changed the course of history

IN the first half, it was business as usual from Conor McManus. Each time he gained possession it seemed to result in a score for Monaghan.

Padraig Faulkner, McManus’s marker in their Ulster preliminary joust at an eerily quiet Clones last October, was virtually blameless.

The Cavan man was just beaten by the better man.

Looking disinterested in the opening exchanges, McManus sprung to life on 10 minutes, sending Faulkner one way, then the other with one sharp bounce of the ball before firing over from outside the 45-metre line.

The Clontibret man clipped over another couple of points before stretching Monaghan’s commanding first-half lead over their neighbours with a sublime bit of movement.

Kieran Duffy watched McManus before delivering an inch perfect pass. McManus ran towards the ball before checking and running towards goal and when Duffy’s lobbed pass found him he slotted the ball past Cavan ‘keeper Raymond Galligan.

It was just another vintage day on the Championship circuit for the three-time Allstar.

Monaghan were so assured in that opening half that they looked good enough to win another Ulster title. They cut through the Cavan defence like a hot knife through butter.

Runners on the shoulder at all times, buckets of pace in attack while the likes of young Michael Brannigan and Stephen O’Hanlon looked every inch inter-county attackers.

Monaghan led Cavan by seven points at the break, racking up 1-11, but it should have been 4-11 at least, and game over.

Ryan McAnespie, Karl O’Connell and Conor McCarthy all had sights of the Cavan goal but failed to seal the deal.

But, as soon as the half-time whistle sounded, Monaghan’s exhilarating version of jogo bonito abruptly ended.

Monaghan played so desperately lateral in the second half the Sky Sports cameraman could easily have left his lens pointing at Monaghan’s half of the field and gone for a pint in the Creighton Hotel – had it been open – and missed nothing.

As a consequence, Monaghan starved their best forward of possession in the second half and proceeded to gift the game to their neighbours.

Once Raymond Galligan fired over the winning free in the closing stages of extra-time, a Cavan fairytale was born.

Monaghan had flattered to deceive yet again.

“When somebody gets a run on you, you can be often found wanting,” recalls McManus.

Crucified in the media for their perceived tactical approach to the second half, McManus counters: “There was nothing tactical in that game that we desired to do that lost it for us.

“We didn’t do what we said we were going to do at half-time. We were seven points up and we didn’t go out in the second half and attack the game the way we said we’d do. We retained possession at times when we probably shouldn’t have, and then we had chances that we didn’t take in the first half and second half.

“So combine all that and you can only look at yourself and as a group. Cavan dug it out and we didn’t. That’s just the bottom line.”

The thing was McManus – a spectator for vast swathes of the second half – could see the nightmare unfolding in front of him.

Cavan kept chipping away at Monaghan’s lead. Gearoid McKiernan began to get free while Gerard Smith and Luke Fortune popped over scores for the Breffnimen.

“You look at the Cork-Kerry game a couple of weeks later,” McManus says. “Cork hit Kerry with a sucker punch and they’d no time to respond. We were different in that we had time to respond to get our act together but it was just unfolding in front of our eyes. For one reason or another it got away from us. That’s up to us, we have to carry that as a team and hopefully at some stage we start learning these lessons.”

McManus didn’t shirk his responsibilities either. With the game tied at 1-13 apiece in stoppage-time of normal time, the evergreen attacker missed a free he would convert every day of the week, especially in the familiar environs of St Tiernach’s Park.

“I would expect myself to score it. If you hit it 10 more times you’d like to think you’d put it over eight or nine times out of 10.

“From my end of things and as a team, we should really have not let it come to that. We had the winning of that game from a long way out. When I look back, I had the winning of the game in my hand and I felt I let myself and the team down by not taking that chance.

“I didn’t have a lot of interest in watching the games after that loss because I'd missed that chance and I personally felt we should have been playing in those games.

“But that’s sport. There are days it has gone for us and obviously there have been more days over the last while that they haven’t. So we have to try and learn from that.”

From both a club and county perspective, it was a year to forget for the 33-year-old attacker. Clontibret just about saved themselves from being relegated to the intermediate ranks, needing a play-off win over Castleblayney at the tail end of August, while Seamus McEnaney’s Monaghan side were gone after one game.

As has been the case over the last number of years, McManus has moved mountains to be fit for his county. Plagued by hip problems, the Clontibret man has spent more hours than he cares to remember in gyms doing prehab and rehab sessions.

“I've been told hip replacements are coming down the tracks,” he says with a wry smile.

“But you don’t even think about it. The damage is done now. No matter what I do over the next two, three, four or five years – or however long it’s going to be when I finish up with Clontibret – the damage is done now.

“You just put it out of your head and get on with it. There’s a fair bit of rehab attached to it and getting yourself ready to train or play.”

McManus adds: “If you put all the time doing prehab and rehab onto a football field your skill work and everything else would be so much more advanced because you put so much time into just getting onto the field. I’d love to be fit, but just turning up and playing are long gone for me. I haven’t been able to do that for about 10 years.

“It’s just part of the process now. It can be frustrating, as it doesn’t respond as well at times and you feel you’re banging your head against the wall but you just have to persevere with it.”

But there won’t be any carefully crafted retirement statements any time soon from one of the all-time greats of the game.

He’ll keep going until his hips or perhaps his manager says otherwise.

“I’ll keep doing it for as long as it responds to treatment and I suppose it’ll coincide with as long as I’m good enough to play or whether I’m good enough to get a jersey. That will determine things.

“At the start of last year, it probably wasn’t going that well for me; I felt I was not getting to where I wanted to be but I got on top of it eventually and before the county season started I felt good. The bottom line is training and playing in pain, you can’t perform at your best. Training painfully and coming into game in pain…

As a result, McManus has tweaked his game over time.

If anything, it's based more on craft than ever before. The loop runs are shorter and smarter, giving consistent master-classes in economy of movement.

“You could get away with it at club level, where you don’t train from one week to the other, and then go out and play a game. At county level you need to be out on a field as much and as often as you can. If you can’t get on the field Tuesday and a Thursday then you’re not going to be fit to perform at the level you need to be at on a Sunday.”

“I’ve nothing planned. I was looking forward to getting back at it and getting another year started.”

And in any case the year of Covid would be no way to finish a fantastic playing career that has to date yielded two Ulster titles, international recognition and three Allstar gongs.

While he feels incredibly fortunate to have been able to indulge his sporting passion when most other codes were shut down during the pandemic, there was so much lost too in 2020.

Driving to training and matches alone. No dressing-room banter. Nobody hanging around after games. It was what teams and players had to do in order to keep the virus away from their doors.

“I think it’s probably the same for everybody – the social interaction. That’s the biggest thing I’ve missed.

“Even going up to Clontibret football field on a summer’s evening, there might be a juvenile game on and the place is buzzing and you can call up to the club and have a bit of craic with whoever is upstairs having a pint.

“And all the social interaction that goes with training. Even with county training last year, when we went back, you were going to training on your own, not really togging out in dressing rooms, nobody really hanging about for food afterwards. It was a case of get in, get out and get home.

“The whole camaraderie and the buzz around of going to games in cars, no buses and no meals, were gone. It’s all that you miss. I think everybody has been affected. It just depends what platform you use to get out into the world.

“To be fair, on the flip-side of that, we were lucky as county footballers last year because we got to go and train and were able to get of the house for three and four nights a week and play our games. While it wasn’t what you wanted, we were very grateful at the time to have it.”

With the GAA opting to split the National Football Leagues into regional ones for 2021, the start of which will almost certainly be delayed due to Covid, McManus hopes they can revert back to the original format next year.

“I wouldn’t be a fan of the new structure of the League,” McManus says.

“When they restructured the Leagues into Division One, Two, Three and Four, it has been a brilliant competition every year and like for like teams playing each other every week. You’d look forward to going down to Kerry or having Dublin come to Clones or playing away to Mayo, whatever the case is.”

Monaghan will be grouped with Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal when they finally get the green light.

“As it turns out Covid has really thrown a spanner in the works for those games we have ahead of us. I would certainly hope that [new structure] wouldn’t be the case going forward. Hopefully it’s a one-off because it'll just feel like another McKenna Cup.”

Regardless of what new formats will be road-tested, you can bank on Conor McManus still doing his thing in the blue and white jersey of Monaghan and the yellow of Clontibret.

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