NFL Focus: Early silverware was just what the doctor ordered for battle-hardened Monaghan
THIRTY-two men got game-time, there were four victories (two of them against rivals they’ll soon tangle with again in Division One) and Monaghan already have the Dr McKenna Cup back in the trophy cabinet.
The Farney county hasn’t had a start to the year like this since 2003 but let’s not get too carried away with that. Back then Monaghan failed to force their way out of Division 2B and finished well out of the promotion shake-up. In the Ulster Championship, they did take the scalp of All-Ireland champions Armagh but faltered against Down before Meath ended their season in the second round of the Qualifiers. Monaghan were done and dusted before the end of June.
So a McKenna Cup is absolutely no guarantee of success to come but of course you don’t need to tell the Monaghan players or Seamus McEnaney, who began his first spell as manager in 2004, that. Then again, it doesn’t hurt either, does it?
The early stages of 2022 served as a reminder of the class Monaghan displayed last season when they saw off Galway in a ‘Game of the season’ contender to retain the top flight status they’ve held since 2015. They followed that up by beating Fermanagh and Armagh (another Game of the Season contender) and pushing eventual Sam Maguire winners Tyrone all the way to the finish in the Ulster final at Croke Park.
Dessie Ward wore six, 12 and six again in that Championship campaign. The Ballybay clubman was outstanding at centre half-back throughout the Dr McKenna Cup – easily Monaghan’s best player in a difficult first half against Armagh and brilliant again in the final against Donegal.
He had the look of a man who’s put in some hard graft in the off-season but that’s hardly a surprise. After all, Ward actually made his own football pitch during lockdown in 2020. Unable to contemplate life without football, he took action by rolling out a field behind his house, borrowing a set of goalposts from the club and then marking out a pitch with flour and lime.
“I’m full of running for this time of year, I suppose,” said the former DCU Sigerson Cup winner who runs ‘Breakthrough Performance’ after Monaghan’s win over Donegal at Healy Park last Saturday night.
“It’s hard to get it right this early in the season but we’re building rightly going into the League and the fitness levels are starting to improve so I’m happy enough.”
An Ulster minor winner in 2013 when he played a central role in Monaghan’s comeback from eight points adrift against Tyrone, Ward’s well-taken early goal sent Monaghan on the road to victory against Donegal and his brilliant late tackle to deny Peadar Mogan at the death made sure they thwarted a determined comeback to reach their generation.
“I suppose you’d call it ‘last ditch,’” said Ward with a touch of trademark modesty.
“I was just lucky that Peadar turned back onto his left foot so I could get a hand in and we got out the field and kept the ball for a while. They put it up to us in the second half and we must have given our supporters a heart attack with the way we played but we got there in the end.”
Tomorrow evening Monaghan retrace their steps to Omagh. There’s no silverware this time but the stakes are much higher as they take on the defending All-Ireland champions in their Division One opener.
“I’m sure they’ll be bouncing off the ground and they’ll be looking forward to getting out and taking us on,” said Ward, who scored a vital point when Monaghan made the trip to Tyrone in ‘Division One North’ last year and drew 0-14 apiece.
“It’ll be an interesting one I’m sure.”
THE long list of players who saw action for Monaghan throughout the McKenna Cup didn’t include leading lights like Conor McManus or Kieran Hughes who was outstanding for club Scotstown in their Monaghan Championship-winning run.
Add in Ward, Drew Wylie, Colin Walshe, Darren Hughes, Karl O’Connell and Rory Beggan among others and this is the probably the most experienced group of players in the country. In Monaghan, everyone answers the call and other less fortunate county managers look on with envy.
“It’s very important to have all those players and you want every one of them and Monaghan needs every one of them,” said manager Seamus McEnaney.
“The great pleasure in managing Monaghan is that every single player who’s capable of playing for the county is available to you.”
As he says, he’ll need them all because the Farneymen have All-Ireland winners Tyrone first and they welcome losing finalists Mayo to Clones the following week. Always dog-eat-dog, Division One looks extra tight this year and it won’t be a surprise if scoring difference comes into play to separate the top from mid-table and mid-table from relegation.
“We’ve the two All-Ireland finalists first up and it doesn’t get much tougher than that,” said McEnaney.
“It’s an unbelievable Division One with the eight tams that’s in it and we’re delighted to be in this space and competing in this space and we want to stay in this space.”
MONAGHAN will need every ounce of their considerable experience to keep their heads above water in Division One this year but you could say that about most of their rivals in this who’s-who of Gaelic Football’s elite.
One of four Ulster counties competing in the top tier, the Farneymen have four road trips (Tyrone, Armagh, Donegal and Kildare) and just three (Mayo, Kerry and Dublin) games at home. That fixture split could prove significant because home form has been crucial to Monaghan’s survival in Division One ever since they gained promotion in 2014.
Over the last five seasons, Monaghan have played 14 League games on home soil and won 10 of them, drawing one and losing just three times - against Dublin, Mayo and Kerry. In 2019, it was home form that kept Monaghan afloat – all four of their points came from wins against Dublin and Cavan at Clones.
Even last year, when they were denied home advantage in Division One North because of a breach of the Covid regulations, Monaghan saved their best form for the home sod. It seemed their time had come to an end in the top flight when Galway raced into a commanding lead in their relegation play-off but Conor McManus forced extra-time with typical class at the death and then Jack McCarron kicked a dramatic winner.
McCarron has looked sharp and fit in pre-season and he provides Monaghan with a route one option at full-forward. Former attacking partner Conor McCarthy has been shifted to wing-back and his man of the match performance against Armagh suggests that the experiment will be persisted with.
The return to fitness of Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe give manager McEnaney options in the full-back line alongside Ryan Wylie, Conor Boyle and Kieran Duffy in front of consistently excellent roving goalie Rory Beggan.
At midfield, Niall Kearns is fully fit and firing and the Hughes brothers, Darren and Kieran, and Killian Lavelle are all option to partner him. Up front, McManus is, as always, the main man and he’ll have no shortage of support from developing youngsters Micheal Bannigan and Andrew Woods and a mobile half-forward line that includes Shane Carey and Ryan McAnespie.
Gary Mohan, a confident and aggressive handful from the Truagh Gaels club, could also have an impact. He first played three years ago but a succession of injuries meant that little has been seen of him since. He’s fully fit now and looks a ready-made Division One ball-winner.
On home soil, Monaghan always fancy their chances but even on the road they are hard to break down and don’t tend to lose by much. Experience, the form of Beggan and McManus from frees and keeping their key players fit will be crucial to their chances this year.
Monaghan fixtures: Tyrone (A), Mayo (H), Armagh (A), Kerry (H), Donegal (A), Kildare (A), Dublin (H)