GAA Football

Kicking Out: Monaghan have maximised themselves. Isn't that all anyone can hope for?

For ten years Division One has tried to burn them out but with little more than a bucket of water and good instincts, they find more and more remarkable ways to escape. Picture by Philip Walsh

AS the banks of the MacHale burst around him, Conor McManus quickly finds himself swimming in a familiar sea of final-day euphoria.

He barely has time for an Alan Shearer-esque salute before he and his team-mates are engulfed.

Monaghan have avoided the flames again.

Eulogies have long been written, rehearsed and then stored away on the county’s top table adventures.

For ten years Division One has tried to burn them out but with little more than a bucket of water and good instincts, they find more and more remarkable ways to escape.

The answer to why some of their generational servants are still there is getting to remind you of a great line on why Chrissy McKaigue once togged out for a club hurling match that he had no call playing.

“Because nobody told him not to.”

What will we actually say about them when the time does come?

Like most teams, they’ve lost more than they’ve won. Their big shot at reaching an All-Ireland final slipped through their fingers.

But having waited 25 years to win an Ulster title, they won two in three summers and far outlived their top-flight life expectancy.

Whatever they win from now until the end of this cycle, we’ll say one thing for sure: they maximised themselves.

As individuals, as a team, they’ve squeezed every single drop of blood they had into the fabric of their county.

With it they’ve dyed a decade the colour of Clones and Croke Park and Killarney.

Perhaps staying there has come at the detriment of a few summers. You can never have it all.

They’ll always go back to Eoin Donnelly’s fisted goal in Omagh, to leaving their rally against Down too late in the Armagh sunshine, to the misfortune of the ball falling at Niall Sludden’s feet after a Darren Hughes block that would have been remembered just as Conor Gormley’s is had it taken Monaghan to an All-Ireland final.

No matter how good their structures are, it won’t always be like this for Monaghan. Their population doesn’t make success impossible but it does make eternal sustenance difficult.

Theirs is a boom and bust economy, just like the other 29 counties that aren’t Kerry and Dublin.

You just hope that as a county they’ve appreciated it all, good and bad.

This is not the latest Farney obituary. They’ll end when they end.

Tyrone’s resurgence over the last month has been built on their most decorated war heroes.

Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte, Niall Morgan, Darren McCurry, the returning Ronan McNamee, they’d perhaps waited on others to grab the baton. Waited long enough and eventually have had to just take it and go again.

Aidan Forker has raged hard to provide the light for Armagh to follow in spring. He has been their one real beacon of consistency.

Injuries are, for the first time in his career, starting to niggle at Chrissy McKaigue. He’s taken a few bangs and bumps in this league campaign.

Standing by the mouth of Cavan’s dressing room on Sunday, Ryan Jones and Marty Reilly are deep in conversation.

You wonder what keeps someone like Reilly there when his role gets reduced to what it is now.

Same for Sean Quigley on the other end. They work all their careers for the rare days out in Croke Park and now when one comes along on Saturday, neither man will start.

Football careers are incredibly finite. Almost everyone that’s played inter-county football can be assumed to have been fulfilled in some way.

Because some never make it past the south-west Antrim primary school blitz.

Others let the mantle of a good minor pollute them.

Nowadays it’s drugs as much as drink could take a man.

You never know when the great cruciate plague might strike.

Women, cars, travelling, CrossFit, whatever it is, there’s always something else to be had.

Some people give it away. Others have it taken from them. The only comparison is that when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Playing the game passes you by so quickly.

Every manager you’ve ever had will have told you to enjoy it, that they wish they could still do it, these are the best days of your life.

Most people don’t listen. It washes over you. And then you get to your mid-30s and realise that no matter what your head knows now, your body knows it can’t go back to the start.

You can’t get faster now and you can’t eat better and you can’t go back to that county final and take your time over that free or track that run you didn’t or go the other way on the penalty.

It’s become so serious and so fast-moving that there’s no time to stop for pictures along the way. Just take a look out the window and sure come back another day and see it right.

Except there is no other day. You only get to be on this train once.

Of the rare days that you might win, you can’t go back and bottle the buzz. So take the days off work after it, go and enjoy it, because it’s a feeling you might only ever replicate again once or twice in your entire life.

The last time our club won a championship, it was played on a Saturday. By the Sunday afternoon, there were only half a dozen players left celebrating. We wasted the buzz, took it for granted.

Of seven finals, we lost five, one after a replay. You can go back to the individual mistakes but mostly, the big regret is that we just never quite worked hard enough early enough in the year to deserve to win at the end of it.

Yet we managed to win a couple.

You could live for 100 years and only a handful of things might ever come close to that feeling.

One chance is all you get at all of it, the good and the bad.

Monaghan have taken a lot of their chances since 2013.

Not all of them, but enough to leave the stage satisfied whenever Father Time eventually finds them after years of telling everyone they’re next.

Everybody eventually goes next.

Until that day comes, make sure you’re happy with what you’re leaving with.

Because you’re never coming back.

GAA Football