'If there’s any team can pull this off, Monaghan’s the team': Farney eye up another great escape in Castlebar

With Monaghan finding themselves in the last chance saloon once more, supporters will head for Castlebar in hope rather than expectation on Sunday – Neil Loughran gauges the mood ahead of the Farney County’s latest date with destiny…

Scotstown man Michael McKenna has barely missed a Monaghan match in the last 50 years, and he travels to Castlebar on Sunday hoping the Farneymen can save their skins once more. Picture by Sportsfile
Scotstown man Michael McKenna has barely missed a Monaghan match in the last 50 years, and he travels to Castlebar on Sunday hoping the Farneymen can save their skins once more. Picture by Sportsfile

NOT long after 8am on Sunday morning, breakfast in the belly, Michael McKenna will pack up his car and hit the road for Castlebar. Daughter Paula, and possibly son Macartan, make up the travelling party for the almost three hour trip out west from Scotstown, just as they have so many times before.

“The son and daughter mightn’t like it,” he says, “but I get away early.

“I was in Clones for the game against Tyrone last week, I don’t live that far away, but we were in two hours before the game – just to get parked, get settled in. I wouldn’t be one for rushing things.”

In 50-plus years of following Monaghan’s fortunes - first with his own father, then his children - there is barely a ground in the country McKenna hasn’t visited. He never returns home empty-handed either.

“I’d have all the programmes from every game I was at… ’68 was my first county final, my father brought me, Clontibret against Scotstown, unfortunately we lost by a point.

“It’s big at the minute now, scrapbooks as well. I’ve a wee place in the attic converted. I haven’t missed a Monaghan game in a long time…”

Michael McKenna didn’t play football – “apart from 10 minutes U14, that’s as far as I got” – but, for as long as he can remember, life has revolved around following the fortunes of club and county.

For a spell straddling the reigns of Colm Coyle and Seamus McEnaney first time around, McKenna was brought into the inner sanctum as Monaghan kitman. From no age he imagined what it must be like behind the scenes at an Ulster final, or in the corridors below Croke Park.

“With the county, around 2007 and 2008,” he says, “I got to do both, and it was brilliant.”

The last decade, though, has been unlike anything before.

And to think Monaghan began 2013 in Division Three, the glamour of away days in Killarney and Castlebar never further from view as the Farneymen battled it out with the likes of Sligo and Wicklow.

But that proved the gateway to high times ahead. Under Malachy O’Rourke two Ulster titles followed in the space of three years, ending a wait going back to 1988. There were All-Ireland semi-finals and genuine ambitions of lifting Sam, as well as nine years in the top tier of the National League trading blows with Dublin, Kerry and the rest of Gaelic football’s biggest hitters.

It had been a while since there were days like this.

“Ah there was a time you would just go to the games, you were just hoping you’d win but you maybe wouldn’t be expecting much,” said McKenna, now in his 22nd year as kitman with his beloved An Bhoth.

“Without doubt this is the best we’ve had it - 1979 was good alright, Gerry McCarville, Fergus Caulfield, Hugo Clerkin, Dessie Mulligan, Gene Finnegan, all them fellas, but that only really lasted a couple of years.

“Malachy really maximised what we had. When you think of some of the nights, going down to Croke Park against that Dublin team… there’s great memories.”

Nothing, though, lasts forever. During almost a decade in Division One, this is fifth time Monaghan have found themselves heading into the final weekend sweating on survival.

McKenna was in Clones in 2016 when Colin Walshe’s late point saw them stay up on scoring difference at the expense of Cork, then in 2019 the Farney faced a nervy trip to Castlebar where, despite losing to Mayo, four points was enough for safety as Roscommon and Cavan fell through the trapdoor.

The oddness of a Covid-disrupted 2020 campaign saw a final day draw with Meath enough to keep noses just ahead of Mayo, while the last two years have been all about one man.

Jack McCarron came up with the extra-time winner in the relegation play-off against Galway in 2021 before, back at a sun-drenched St Tiernach’s Park 12 months ago, he repeated the dose in a winner-takes-all shootout against Dublin.

Tommy Freeman was on commentary duty with Northern Sound both days, almost roaring himself hoarse amid the madness of it all.

“You nearly forget you’re on air on those days, they were so tense.

“Just unbelievable occasions.”

Survival this Sunday, though, would be their greatest feat of escapology yet.

Nothing less than victory over a resurgent Mayo at MacHale Park will do, with Vinny Corey’s men also requiring a favour from their old friends in Tyrone as they host Armagh in Omagh.

Former Farney forward Freeman tried to keep his head down on the walk back to the car after Sunday’s defeat to the Red Hands, the handful of conversations held offering little in the way of optimism ahead of the trip to Castlebar.

But the stars have aligned before, with a potentially bumper fixture list ahead for Mayo, there is hope could ease the foot off the pedal a touch.

Kevin McStay’s side are already in the League final on April 2, while the following weekend is their Connacht SFC quarter-final date with Roscommon. Should Mayo come through that, Galway await two weeks down the track, with the Connacht final on May 7.

“Listen that’s something people in Monaghan have been thinking,” said Freeman.

“I don’t know how much I’d go into that. Kevin McStay has said he wants to make MacHale Park a fortress, maybe he doesn’t want to kill their momentum. He possibly could rest one or two but then you see Paddy Durcan has only just come back, we all know how good he is and maybe he’ll want to get a bit of time into him.

“Whatever team Mayo put out, it’s still going to be a battle.”

The Magheracloone man’s final year with the county was spent helping Monaghan get out of Division Three, but memories of those Houdini acts conjured through the years would do little soften the blow should the Farney eventually succumb on Sunday.

“It would be a bitter pill to swallow.

“There’s nothing like playing in the top division. When you’re playing against the best, it improves you as a squad – it shows you where you are as a squad. People say maybe there’d be no harm going down a division, but no. I’ll call it straight up, it’s not for me.

“A county of our size, we’ve done well to stay there, it came down to the last day before and we always pulled it out of the hat. If there’s any team can pull this off, Monaghan’s the team.”

Wherever Monaghan wind up in 2024, little will change for Michael McKenna. He will still be packing up the car first clip, heading wherever the road takes him, the support remaining the same no matter what.

“All those times we managed to stay up, you knew the day would come eventually when we didn’t pull it off. We might do it yet.

“But we lost boys to retirement this year, other boys are away, there’s a new manager, a new breed of players coming on. All of that takes time. I hope they stay up, if they do it might be the greatest escape yet but, even if it doesn’t happen, life goes on and Monaghan goes on.

“We’ll enjoy it no matter where we are.”