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Is This The Year? Breaking Monaghan's Quarter-Final Hoodoo Is The Crucial Next Step

Is This The Year? Breaking Monaghan's Quarter-Final Hoodoo Is The Crucial Next Step

When Malachy O'Rourke agreed to take the Monaghan job in the Autumn of 2012, heroic tales of Banty's thwarted glory were a distant echo.

The squad were exiled in the third division and without a sighting of the third round of qualifiers since 2010. Six years on, Monaghan are chided for not making the All-Ireland semi-finals.

By anyone's measure, that's progress.

By Peter Leonard, who was part of O'Rourke's backroom staff at Fermanagh, it's much more.

It is a phenomenal achievement. Go back six years, people thought that the team was gone. Monaghan, at that stage, were deemed an old, done team. Everyone was looking at them saying, ‘Paul Finlay is done, Dessie Mone is done, Freeman’s done, they are a team on the way down, Banty has taken as much out of them as there is to take’.

They were a Division Three team that were no force in Ulster. They were also-rans; bridesmaids of Ulster. Within six years people are saying that Monaghan should be an All-Ireland semi-final. That's phenomenal.

Monaghan

Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke - His team need to beat Galway in Pearse Stadium on Saturday to ensure a place in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. The game is live and exclusive on Sky Sports from 5pm.
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Since O'Rourke took charge, Monaghan's consistency is remarkable. Successive promotions have led to four-straight years in the top division, only once finishing outside of the top four. While they have not been immune to the Ulster championship's proclivity for a mugging, they've won as many titles as anyone since O'Rourke took charge and only Donegal have made more final appearances in that time.

They have made the last eight in each of O'Rourke's years in charge, bar an aberrant 2016 scalping by Longford.

Given such consistency from February to August and the resources at his disposal, only Jim Gavin can compete with O'Rourke in the pound-for-pound managerial stakes. So how has he done it?

Colm Shalvey, a journalist with The Northern Standard, ascribes it simply: "They have the best players in the county playing for them. They have been consistent in keeping the panel together, very few players have walked away from it".

Paul Finlay, who stepped away in 2016, credits the players for sticking together along with the professionalism of O'Rourke's set-up. "We’re a small county but we got something good going some years back, and everyone in there knows it is a good set up. It did slip off a bit under Eamon McEneaney but there was a lot of good work done by Seamus McEnaney and everyone who was able to contribute to the county just wanted to be there. Players have a want for it, and they can see there’s a good set-up there. They are happy to get stuck in and put their shoulder to the wheel".

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O'Rourke was joined from Fermanagh with his right-hand man Leo McBride and trainer Ryan Porter. Leonard, who was part of the Monaghan set-up in 2013 before stepping away, says McBride's importance should not be underestimated.

What does Leo bring? Honesty. Players love him. He has a connection with players. There is something about Leo: he can chat to players. If you’re in the middle of a meeting, he will just call a spade a spade. And he’ll get away with it.

He will, in a few words, sum up the honesty of the thing. He is tactically smart, too. He used to train the team at the beginning, and now I understand it’s taken mostly by Porter, who is a phenomenal coach and a phenomenal trainer.

With the combination of Porter and Leo, and seeing how well organised Malachy is, players will think that 'this man means business'.

Monaghan

The backroom team has been refreshed in the last couple of years with the additions of Owen Lennon and Colin McAree, with Finlay attributing the emergence of midfielder Niall Kerins and the accuracy of Rory Beggan's kickouts to the influence of Lennon and McAree.

At the centre of it all, however, is O'Rourke.

"His great attribute", says Leonard, "is his way with players. He has that way of making every player of feeling important". There are twin elements to this; the practical and the verbal. 

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To address the former: O'Rourke simply picks on form. "He will play guys that are training well", says Finlay. "He rarely plays the same team twice, there is usually a little change".

Finlay attests to his oratorical skills, too.

He is an excellent motivator. He has the guys jumping out of their skins. He has this canny way of finding some story that relates and will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. He always has something fresh and something new to call on.

That’s not necessarily the day of the game, it might be that week in training. Be it from a book or a film, he’ll always have something.

I thought that was brilliant: it was always fresh. You never thought the same thing was going to come twice from Malachy.

That he keeps on plucking the right nugget is a testament to the depth of O'Rourke's reading and curiosity. Leonard recounts a tale from their Fermanagh days, when Kieran Shannon was brought on board as a sports psychologist. In an early meeting Shannon recommend a series of books only to be met with reviews and recommendations. "Whatever book Kieran trotted out, ‘Oh aye, that’s a good one. I’ve also read such and such a one'".

Leonard has another tale illustrative of O'Rourke's team talks.

The morning of the Ulster final, it was obvious that the team was very, very nervous. Fermanagh boys always played with a smile on their face. Malachy gave this team talk and it was...I was sitting there shaking. He said at the end ‘Boys, you know what, just go out and play. Because d’you know what? There are two billion Chinese men and women and not one of them care'.

The boys just looked looked at each other and just laughed. It lightened and lifted the mood, and they ran out the door with a smile on their faces, clapping each other on the back, roaring 'Let’s do this!'

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There has, however, been a consistency to Monaghan's quarter-final results too: a pair of defeats to Tyrone and another couple of scutchings by the Dubs. What has held them back?

Finlay admits that bar perhaps 2013, Monaghan haven't acquitted themselves properly in these games; Shalvey agrees but tempers this by accentuating the quality of opposition; Leonard diagnoses plainly.

Let’s call a spade a spade. They keep on coming up against Dublin and Tyrone. That’s a very unfair thing that people say about Monaghan, that they can't get over the quarter finals. Aye, but nobody can bate Dublin, like.

They are unlucky enough to have drawn Dublin twice. Mayo can’t beat them; Kerry can’t. Same with Tyrone. Tyrone are a serious outfit.

The Super 8s have at least afforded Monaghan a chance to meet somebody else, but were haunted by another vestigial hoodoo in Clones as they let slip a first-ever Championship win over Kerry.

As they head to Salthill with fate still in their own hands, Leonard is confident that O'Rourke will have massaged minds into a reframing of outlook. "Knowing Monaghan and Malachy, they would probably have been thinking that we just want to be going into the last game playing for something".

What if the unthinkable happens, and Monaghan can't make the next stride? Is it a failure? "It would be very, very disappointing to the players as they've expended a huge amount of energy to try and get past that quarter-final", says Finlay. "But it’s not a failure".

Leonard agrees.

God I don't know how it could be thought of as a failure.

As far as I can see with a lot of the pundits, unless you are a Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo or Dublin they don’t really want to talk about you.

They’ll give you the basic platitudes, they’ll say that Monaghan are a good team, but they don’t hold you with any respect.

That’s what I think Malachy has done for Monaghan: given them respect.

Sky Sports have another live and exclusive doubleheader on this Saturday August 4th. Coverage of the GAA Football All-Ireland Quarter Final Series match of Galway and Monaghan starts at 5pm and coverage of Kerry v Kildare starts at 5.50pm. Plus on Sunday don't miss the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Semi-Final replay, live on Sky Sports from 1pm.

For the latest online news go to www.skysports.com/gaa

Follow Sky Sports GAA on Twitter @SkySportsGAA or on Sky Sports Facebook

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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