GAA Football

Cultural bricklayers: The incredible longevity of the generation that learned from Monaghan's architects

T Monaghan's strong mindset has helped them become renowned for some great escapes from relegation out of Division One, most recently when they beat Mayo in Castlebar on the final day of the League season. Picture: Sportsfile

PROBABLY the worst thing to happen to ordinary Gaelic footballers was the publication and discovery in Ireland of James Kerr’s book Legacy.

Detailing the mystique around the All Blacks, since it came about, every two-bit manager stepping in front of the junior Bs for the first time has boiled everything down into the same seven-letter word: culture.

The desire for a strong culture is understandable. Building one? That’s where the problems start.

Different counties have their own ingrained mini-cultures that border on stereotypes. Kerry’s is to kick the ball, Tyrone have a strong club ethic, Donegal can’t escape handpassing and so on.

Monaghan’s modern culture is to play until you drop, and then get up and play some more.

This is a remarkable crop of footballers. Their longevity is often boiled down to little more than their age profile, which is impressive enough in its own stead.

Darren Hughes is 36, Conor McManus and Karl O’Connell 35. Fintan Kelly, Kieran Duffy, Shane Carey and Rory Beggan are all in their 30s too.

You didn’t come here to find that out.

Jonny Davis, who worked with their players day and daily for two years in 2021 and 2022, calls the current group the county’s “cultural architects”.

And in the starry eyes of youngsters like Sean Jones and Andrew Woods and Ryan O’Toole, that is what they are.

But Conor McManus, Darren Hughes, Kieran Duffy, Rory Beggan et al are more cultural bricklayers than architects.

The plans were drawn up by the generation before them.


Conor McManus has played every single championship game since 2008. Graphic: Martin McGoran


It’s rare to have so many players carry on deep into their 30s except in Monaghan, where those men are walking behind the footballing ghosts of Dick Clerkin, Eoin Lennon, Dessie and JP Mone, Damien and Tommy Freeman, and Vinny Corey himself.

“Them boys all played on until they were 34, 35, 36. So if they did it, why wouldn’t I do it? It’s nearly expected of you,” said Conor McManus earlier this year.

The big thing about this Monaghan crop is that they’re always on the field when it matters always.

Monaghan have played 66 championship games since Conor McManus came off the bench against Down for his debut in 2007. That’s about 5,300 minutes of football, give or take a bit of stoppage time.

He was taken off with seven minutes to go against Kildare in 2010. Last year in Mayo, the shepherd’s crook surprisingly reached out for him after 57 minutes. Beyond that, it was the drips and drabs of games that were already won.

Of all that time, he’s probably missed no more than a single game’s worth in total.

Darren Hughes has played 59 out of 66 since his debut the same day as McManus. He too was only ever taken off once prior to injuries starting to build-up in 2021.


Darren Hughes' championship stats. Graphic: Martin McGoran


Rory Beggan has the luxury of being a goalkeeper, we get it. But if it were not for a token stoppage-time substitution in 2016 and one black card, he would have played every single minute of every game since the tail end of 2013.

That's more than 8,000 virtually-unbroken minutes across 117 consecutive starts (46 in championship and 71 league).


Rory Beggan's record is incredible, playing 41 consecutive championship games and 71 league games in a row, running back to 2013. Graphic: Martin McGoran


Kieran Duffy is on 48 out of 52, and hasn’t missed a game since 2016.

Karl O’Connell found himself frozen out for a while in the last two seasons but is still going on nine years, the 2014 game with Kildare, since he last had no involvement in a championship outing. He started every game between that year’s clash with Dublin and last year’s win over Down.


Karl O'Connell is another of the Monaghan ever-presents. Graphic: Martin McGoran


In an Irish News interview before their Ulster win over Tyrone, he said: “I’m glad I’ve maybe banked something: ‘Karl can step up here – he mightn’t be on a good run but he’ll step up. He’s still there’.

“The greatest compliment you can give someone is that you feel you can depend on them. The truth is I feel lucky to still be able to do this here.”

Ryan Wylie is the youngest of the group at 29. But having debuted against Tyrone in 2014, he’s played in 40 of their 41 championship games, starting all but two and only been taken off twice.

If Armagh invented the tight-fitting jersey, Monaghan came up with the tattooed geansaí. Once it finds a body out and starts to look like it fits, it becomes near impossible to escape.


Ryan Wylie is the youngest of the group but has missed just one championship game since his debut in 2014. Graphic: Martin McGoran


All that comes from the very culture that existed in the changing room those players first stepped into when they were pockmarked with acne.

Common sense has a lot to do with it too. Darren Hughes is 36 and working his body to its limits as a dairy farmer.

"They [management] know when I come to training if I am f***ed or not. They know to look at me,” he said in a 2018 Irish Examiner interview where he also conceded to two bars of chocolate a day.

Like his age, you didn’t come here to learn that Conor McManus has a hip problem and that he knows what he’s putting himself through now will almost inevitably come back on him in later life.

It’s all accounted for. Under Banty’s second term, players would be given advance copies of what they’d be doing at training sessions. The work would be scored between 0 and 10 for its physical exertion.

For instance, within the planning process, the impact on his cartilage of having him standing around at all between drills and then going into exercises involving twisting and turning would be considered.

“It’s managing their individual load through the week and understanding you don’t need Conor McManus doing ten 100-per-cent runs over 100 metres to prove himself,” says Jonny Davis.

“He proves himself on the weekend. If there’s game play, skills or small-sided games or game scenario, Conor knows the game inside out.

“He’s like an out-half playing four or five plays down the line, he knows the situation ahead of time and what position to put himself into to get space.”
Davis compares the elder statesmen to when he was involved in massaging Rory Best through the last few years of his rugby career, which ended at the age of 37 having been prolonged by easing up massively in between games.

He is perfectly positioned to understand what the elders bring to Monaghan, having worked in the line of strength and conditioning with Ulster and more recently with Tyrone and Down footballers.

“Those guys, everything about Monaghan football, everything that could embody as wanting to see in a player, those guys have it in spades. For the young guys in the squad to be in that environment, over time you hope that rubs off on them.

“You often see when it comes to players that have been there for a long time, they’re the cultural architects of shaping what Monaghan football is about.”


Kieran Duffy hasn't missed a game in seven years. Graphic: Martin McGoran


Their length of service is remarkable in itself.

But the depth of it, and how they strap themselves up on a weekly basis and put their bodies through the ringer of championship football, is pretty much unique.

As cultures go, Monaghan’s is one to admire.