Monaghan heartache and was it Conor McManus's last dance?

Conor McManus and his Monaghan team-mates at the final whistle Picture: Philip Walsh
Conor McManus and his Monaghan team-mates at the final whistle Picture: Philip Walsh

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Dublin 1-17 Monaghan 0-13

THE space between the back of the changing rooms of the Hogan stand and the elevators is a concrete grey, soulless part of Croke Park.

This is the GAA equivalent of back-stage. When the crowds have spilled out onto Drumcondra after the show and the team coaches, just a matter of metres apart, sit patiently beside the changing room doors with their undercarriages open.

This breezy area has always had an end of night straggler feel to it. Tired stewards counting down the last minutes of a long day, perhaps a few family members of the players waiting for an embrace and a couple of reporters hanging around for one last roll of the dice.

The last Monaghan player to leave the changing rooms was Conor McManus.

For generations, countless tears have been buried in this grey space. McManus’s tears fell like all the others before him.

After 17 incredible hazy summers, was Saturday evening against Dublin his final act in a Monaghan jersey?

Inconsolable, it was like treading on a man’s grief as two reporters gently thrust their phones in his direction.

Reddened eyes, McManus paused a couple of times to re-gather his composure.

“I suppose I’ve been lucky that I’ve been fit to go for 17 seasons,” he said.

“I do struggle with my hip. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s just over time. It’s an issue that’s there and playing inter-county football probably doesn’t help it.

“Listen, I’ll see. I love playing for Monaghan. I love representing the people of Monaghan...

“You always want to be starting. I’m no different. If I can, I will. That’s just it...”

Players like Conor McManus only come around every hundred years.

Although Monaghan rightfully claim him as their own, McManus has always been a shared gift, a magical footballer capable of transporting us to a loftier place.

A constant light through the game's dark days - and when every sinew of Gaelic football seemed over-coached, he was the genius that never went away.

Under the lights of Croke Park on Saturday night, he was Monaghan's greatest hope in a fascinating All-Ireland semi-final duel, refereed supremely well by Sean Hurson of Tyrone.

“These are the days you want to be playing in,” McManus said. “Croke Park, Dublin, in an All-Ireland semi-final. That’s what you live for. That’s what you dreamed of. That’s what you were born to do. And they are the boys [pointing to the changing room] that you want to be soldiering with.”

Michael Fitzsimons has always been a textbook defender: brainy and touch-tight.

For 75 minutes, Dublin's number three did little wrong, but McManus still mined five points - three converted frees and a wonderful 58th minute score on the run that sailed between Dublin's posts at the Canal End that brought Monaghan to within a point of their hosts.

Two minutes later, he slung over an incredible ‘mark’ to level the game [0-12 apiece] as Monaghan and Dublin headed down the home straight.

But it’s the hope that kills you.

While Vinny Corey threw on a few rookie players to offer Monaghan fresh legs in the closing stages, Dessie Farrell could call upon a clutch of Allstars from his bench – Jack McCaffrey and Dean Rock (Ciaran Kilkenny came on in the 29th minute) – to close out the game, outscoring the underdogs 1-5 to 0-2 from the 60th minute onwards.

“We didn’t come here to run Dublin close or to get a pat on the back,” McManus added. “We came here to get to an All-Ireland final and we just came up short.”

This grey space between the changing rooms and elevators is no place to make any rash decisions as McManus rejoined his Monaghan team-mates for a post-match gathering upstairs.

Monaghan's Conor McManus produced another brilliant display on the big stage Picture: Philip Walsh
Monaghan's Conor McManus produced another brilliant display on the big stage Picture: Philip Walsh

Earlier, Vinny Corey entered the post-match press room with glowing praise for his players and some regrets.

Corey has been Monaghan’s Cool Hand Luke on the sidelines this year. Adjusting and recalibrating all the while.

Under that trusty baseball cap of his are some amount of football brains.

Dessie Farrell, for one, was mesmerised by just how resourceful and clever Monaghan had been all season.

“If you did a proper analysis on Monaghan... I’ve never seen an improvement in a team like it in all my time being involved in management,” said the Dublin manager.

“I know they’d some poor performances early on [in the Championship] but the adjustments they made all the way through it, they were very, very cohesive, everyone was comfortable with the gameplan.

“They use Rory Beggan really well to create overloads and mismatches. You have to be so careful in how you set up against that because they can expose you in front of your defensive line.

“If you press up too hard, they can pick you apart as well. They brought all of that. We’re just very happy to get over the line.

“We didn’t play particularly well, I thought it was a nervy performance from us, a semi-final performance, if you like, but we ultimately showed enough composure in the last 10 minutes.”

Tactically, Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final couldn't have begun much better for Monaghan.

Most of their match-ups were working: Gary Mohan on Brian Fenton, Ryan Wylie on Colm Basquel, Kieran Duffy on Paul Mannion and Killian Lavelle's tracking of Con O’Callaghan was another canny move by Corey.

But the Dubs had their homework done too. They blotted out the attacking threats of Karl O’Connell and Conor McCarthy on the wings and their defensive athleticism at times was a sight to behold.

While much is made of Dublin’s attacking riches, their defenders displayed all the savvy and insatiable appetite of a pack of wild dogs of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Always making contact, getting a hand in, nipping at the ball, eventually forcing a spillage and sprinting upfield with their captured prey.

It was incredible to witness Dublin's defensive diligence.

Monaghan, as a result, had to work for everything they got in the first half as they trailed 0-8 to 0-7, with Mohan, Michael Bannigan and Stephen O’Hanlon hitting mighty scores.

Dublin's Paddy Small pursues Monaghan's Ryan Wylie during Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final Picture: Philip Walsh
Dublin's Paddy Small pursues Monaghan's Ryan Wylie during Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final Picture: Philip Walsh

But Cormac Costello was on fire for at the other end: six shots – six points. The kind of ratio a forward dreams of in a semi-final.

Every single turnover in Dublin territory seemed crucial, with James McCarthy beginning to step on the gas in a stunning second-half display.

The ageless Ballymum Kickham’s man kept driving at Monaghan’s defensive lines and was the architect of several important counter-attacking scores.

“They punished us badly all day on turnovers – 1-10 off turnovers,” Corey estimated. “Turnovers are crucial at this level. When you’re playing a top two or top three team, you give them the ball, you’re going to get punished. We might have only scored four points from Dublin turnovers. Every time we made a mistake, they just pounced on it.

“But credit to Dublin, they put the squeeze on us at that point and we didn’t have the answers but I don’t think the score-line was a fair reflection of the game and the effort the boys put in."

Corey added: “Dublin probably had a bit more athleticism where some of our key men were starting to get tired. Some key men had to come off and Dublin were able to keep that going and we’ve seen that before where they can punish you in the last few minutes.”

Level six times throughout Saturday’s semi-final, Monaghan were so canny, but they could never get their noses in front.

The Dubs finally broke for home after McManus had levelled on the hour mark for the last time.

Jack McCaffrey, Fenton, Kilkenny, McCarthy and O’Callaghan all played hugely influential roles in the last 10 minutes of normal time before Dean Rock prodded the ball into Monaghan’s net in stoppage-time to put an unfair look on the scoreboard.

Paying homage to the aforementioned, Farrell said: “You can’t coach it. You can’t give it to young fellas. They’re full of energy, they want to be part of it, but there are certain things that life experience teaches you, and how to close out games like that is one of them. We’re fortunate to have that in the squad.”

Dublin may have sealed their first All-Ireland final place in three years, but Saturday evening was as much about Monaghan’s gallant efforts and how Vinny Corey almost prevented the dam from bursting with a much weaker hand than Dessie Farrell.

While a host of Monaghan boys – including McManus – will be debating their inter-county futures over the summer, Vinny Corey was in no doubt the much celebrated 30-club all still have plenty to offer their county.

“I think there’s more in the tank in those boys – absolutely,” he said. “Some of those boys have given a lot of service but it’ll be completely their decision.”

As McManus fought back the tears on Saturday night, the final word was his.

“We were here five years ago and we were beaten in an All-Ireland semi-final and going out the door we felt we’d be back here – it took us five years to get back,” said the 35-year-old.

“Hopefully it doesn’t take Monaghan five years to get back again. You want to be competing at the end of the Championship. I’ll not make any decisions right away but it’s not about me – it’s about Monaghan. We’ll try and get back here next year whether I’m there or not.”

Dublin: S Cluxton; E Murchan, M Fitzsimons, D Byrne; J McCarthy, J Small, L Gannon (0-1); B Fenton (0-2), B Howard; P Mannion (0-2 frees), P Small (0-1), N Scully; C Costello (0-7, 0-3 frees, 0-1 mark), C O’Callaghan (0-2), C Basquel Subs: C Kilkenny for N Scully (29), J McCaffrey (0-1) for C Basquel (44), L O’Dell for P Small (63), D Rock (1-1) for P Mannion (69), T Lahiff for C Costello (72)

Yellow cards: J Small (42), J McCarthy (52)

Black card: N Scully (17-27)

Monaghan: R Beggan (0-3, ‘45s); D Hughes, K Duffy, R Wylie; K O’Connell, C Boyle, C McCarthy; K Hughes, K Lavelle; S O’Hanlon (0-1), M Bannigan (0-1), R McAnespie (0-1); C McManus (0-5, 0-3 frees, 0-1 mark), G Mohan (0-1), D Ward Subs: K Gallagher for D Ward (45), J McCarron (0-1) for K Hughes (46), R O’Toole for C Boyle (60), S Jones for R McAnespie (66), C Lennon for K Lavelle (69)

Blood substitutions: C Lennon for D Hughes (51-54)

Yellow cards: G Mohan (41)

Referee: S Hurson (Tyrone)

Conor McManus (number 18) soaks up the pre-match parade
Conor McManus (number 18) soaks up the pre-match parade