Brendan Crossan: Never write off the Monaghan footballers

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Vinny Corey has carried on the good work in Monaghan
Vinny Corey has carried on the good work in Monaghan

IN GAA terms, Monaghan is the most remarkable county in Ireland – bar none. It has been that way for quite some time.

Monaghan comes in at a modest 28th on the list of population sizes per county in the country, sitting at just over 60,000, slightly down over the last number of years.

“People are still talking about the population,” Ryan Wylie told Neil Loughran of The Irish News this week.

“I don’t think anybody knows the exact population anymore. It’s getting smaller and smaller every time I hear the story - it’ll soon be only the 15 players who live there.

“I don’t take much heed of it. The more you feed into that, the more you might get annoyed by it, and I don’t really see the point. We deserve to be where we are.

“I know people might get annoyed about it, people maybe say we’re not getting enough exposure, but we have a core group of players the last 10-15 years, a lot of them would get onto a lot of county teams.”

Probably because of their relatively small population size, there has always been a giddy rush to write Monaghan’s footballing obituary once they lose a Championship game or struggle in Division One, based on the crude assumption of their modest population size.

And yet, they consistently prove the outside world wrong about the alleged autumnal gloom that seems to take a firm grip of the media more than the Monaghan players themselves.

When Seamus McEnaney, who lit the fuse in the county, couldn’t get Monaghan over the line during his first spell in charge, there was a sense of impending doom when he left.

And, in fairness, they did have some difficult seasons thereafter, but then Malachy O’Rourke arrived in the county, and everything changed.

Their 2013 Ulster triumph, beating defending All-Ireland champions Donegal in the final which ended a 25-year wait for an Anglo-Celt, was one of the greatest tactical feats achieved in the modern game.

O’Rourke had emphatically outfoxed Jim McGuinness. Given their population size (again), they were supposed to disappear into the inter-county ether but would dine out on that unforgettable day in 2013 for generations to come.

But they stood their ground, reached another Ulster final the following year – Donegal gaining revenge – before reclaiming the silverware in 2015 again.

In 2016, I remember interviewing Darren Hughes in Clones asking about the impending demise of Monaghan football after wily Longford boss Denis Connerton had successfully plotted the downfall of Malachy O’Rourke’s team in the Qualifiers.

Minutes after such a devastating defeat, Hughes insisted Monaghan would be back next year. I didn’t believe him. Monaghan were definitely gone this time.

That was seven years ago. Tomorrow evening, they’ll be competing in their second All-Ireland semi-final in five seasons.

Towards the end of last year, I sat down with Conor McManus in the Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan town.

I didn’t expect an exclusive retirement story – even though absolutely nobody would have begrudged ‘Mansy’ had he decided to hang up his inter-county boots.

After all, he’d turned 35 on the day of our interview, he was punching a lot of hours into his estate agency business, his hips were crumbling, Monaghan were going through a period of notable transition and Vinny Corey eventually allowed his heart to rule his head by taking the managerial reins.

I thought Monaghan’s season would go something like this: Get relegated from Division One, exit Ulster early enough and bow out of the All-Ireland series at the last 16 stage.

I should have listened to McManus in the Hillgrove that day.

“As a Monaghan player," he said, "we’ve been listening to that [our demise] for the last five or six years.

“Our obituary was written in 2016 when we lost to Longford. Malachy [O’Rourke] was after doing four years with us then and had won two Ulster titles with us. He could’ve walked away there and then and nobody would have said anything because he’d done an unbelievable job with Monaghan.

“That was the measure of the man, he stayed where he was after such a downer.

“I suppose there is an element of learning in that too, the easy thing is to walk away. I don’t think it would be easy to walk away either because you still feel you’ve something to contribute and as long as you feel that and you’re wanted by the manager we’ll see where that takes us in 2023.”

It helps when each phase of transition in Monaghan over the past 15 years has been handled with care, as managers and coaches during that time could never be accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The team culture has always been properly calibrated from the Freeman brothers to Dick Clerkin to Gary McQuiad to Dermot McArdle to Paul Finlay to Dermot Malone and Stephen Gollogly.

That baton, handled with care by the solid citizens of the not-too-distant past, has been passed to the people like Karl O’Connell, McManus, the Hughes brothers, Rory Beggan, the Wylies (Drew has since retired) and Kieran Duffy.

Ryan O’Toole, Karl Gallagher, Jack McCarron, Conor McCarthy, Michael Bannigan and Stephen O’Hanlon look to their elders and embrace the team culture.

And so, with Monaghan underage teams continuing to maximise what they have, the wheel keeps on turning.

Vinny Corey has proven to be as cute as a fox on the sideline too and faces into any big personnel decisions he’s had to make undaunted, just as he did when he squared up to opponents like Michael Murphy in his playing days.

There has always been something soothingly old-fashioned and blue-collar about Monaghan footballers. The way they play football. Their humility. Even the way they treat the press.

While the GAA has become over-run with press officers over the last decade, the Monaghan players have remained the same.

They'll talk to whoever they like, whenever they like and they don't make an obstacle out of the media.

Their achievements over the past 15 years are absolutely remarkable. And they'll give Dublin their fill of it tomorrow evening.