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Conor McManus on Kerry, legacy, and moving on from the disappointment of 2019

Monaghan are still getting used to life without Malachy O’Rourke, who stepped down after seven seasons in charge last year.

Monaghan's Conor McManus.
Monaghan's Conor McManus.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT’S MONAGHAN AGAINST Kerry in Inniskeen on Sunday, a game which has grown into something of an unlikely long-distance rivalry over the years. 

It all dates back to a heated All-Ireland quarter-final in 2007. 

Kerry were red-hot favourites despite a six-week lay-off, Monaghan the hardy underdogs.

The Ulster side sensed opportunity. The Kingdom were ready to stamp their authority.

The tone was set when Darragh Ó Sé left Dick Clerkin nursing a bloody lip. The Monaghan man would later be sent-off, with Tomás Ó Sé’s late fisted point proving the difference after a fiercely contested encounter.

A year later Kerry would beat Monaghan at the same stage of the championship, this time extending their winning margin to two points.

To this day, it doesn’t take much to ignite the bite between the teams, but for McManus, that 2007 game sticks out for different reasons.

“It’s the only [championship] game since I started played with Monaghan that I haven’t played in,” he says.

“We had played the Ulster final [against Tyrone], I didn’t start, I came on. The back door game against Donegal in Omagh, I started that day. I was wing forward I think and the following week we were playing Kerry and it was changed around to the same as the Ulster final.

“It’s the only one I haven’t played since I started.”

All these years later, the pain of the loss is still raw, even if the Clontibret man didn’t make it onto the pitch in Croke Park.

“Yeah, they went on to win the All-Ireland. It was a good Monaghan team. A very good Monaghan team and obviously it was my first year on the panel and we probably didn’t realise how good it was at the time until a number of years after that, when you look back at the calibre of players we had.

“The likes of the two Freemans [Tommy and Damien] at the peak of their powers, Dermot McArdle, Gary McQuaid, JP Mone, Dessie Mone, Dick Clerkin, Owen Lennon, Paul Finlay Rory Woods, a lot of top class players and they probably didn’t get out of the game what maybe they might have deserved.

“They didn’t get the Ulster medal. The following year we went into the Ulster championship as favourites as it turned out, and we played a Malachy O’Rourke managed Fermanagh in the first round and they beat us down in Enniskillen and that rocked us back a step or two, but we were back in Croke Park and lost by a point or two, so we had run them [Kerry] fairly close that year as well and that team probably fizzled away a little after that.”

Of course, McManus and Monaghan football have come a long way since then, winning Ulster titles in 2013 and 2015. 

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aMcKeever Sports 2998 McKeever Sports brand ambassadors Katie Power (Kilkenny), Conor McManus (Monaghan), Andy Moran (Mayo), Rian O’Neill (Armagh) and Hannah Looney (Cork) at the brand’s GAA Licence Launch in Croke Park.

For years McManus was shouldered with the burden of leading the team as its clear star forward, collecting All Star awards in 2013, 2014 and 2015 for his troubles, but that dependence on one man to constantly deliver had its drawbacks. 

If McManus had a quiet day at the office, Monaghan often found it hard to produce scores from elsewhere. That is no longer the case.

This league campaign has showcased the wealth of attacking talent available to new manager Séamus McEnaney, with scores coming from all over the pitch. Monaghan had nine different scorers in their one point loss to Galway and the win over Mayo, and eight in the defeat of Tyrone and draw with Dublin.

So far, the limp 2-12 to 0-8 defeat in Donegal last time out is the only real black mark of a largely promising campaign.

A win against Kerry this weekend would be the perfect response.

“The performances up to the last day had all been reasonably good,” McManus continues.

“There were probably more positives in most of them than negatives but that was flipped on its head the last day against Donegal, there was probably more negatives than positives. But it’s the league and it’s tough, you are playing week-in, week-out, and maybe you are always liable to get a performance like that. Hopefully our only one came in Donegal and we can rectify that the next day and try and get a better performance.” 

The progress is even more impressive considering that the team are still adapting to life without Malachy O’Rourke, who stepped down after seven seasons in charge following Monaghan’s championship exit at the hands of Armagh last year. 

“I suppose that was the biggest challenge, because we had such a good set up for seven years under Malachy and Ryan Porter and Leo [McBride] and the boys. There was the unknown as to what happens after those boys and can we get a set up to match that and bring us forward again.

“And credit to Banty [McEnaney] he has gone and put a brilliant team around him. Conor Laverty and Peter Donnelly and David McCague, they have been very good since they came in, it’s a fresh voice and maybe a slight change in approach but not much to be perfectly honest. You would have hoped regardless of who came into the set up that there would have been a bit of a reaction because of how poor we played last year, and the early exit and boys were chomping at the bit to get back, so it’s been good so far but it’s early days.”

seamus-mcenaney-celebrates-with-conor-mcmanus-2322020 McManus with Monaghan manager Seamus McEnaney. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After a disappointing 2019, confidence is clearly on the rise again, yet too often Monaghan have failed to deliver on early season promise. Granted, Monaghan have had to fight it out in Ulster each year, the most competitive of all provincial championships

At 32, McManus’ medal collection consists of two Ulster championships and a pair of Division 2 and 3 titles. 

It might not be the type of haul expected from one of the most gifted forwards of his generation, but looking back to that 2007 game against Kerry, McManus feels the county’s success can be measured in other ways. 

“Even myself growing up, whenever you were watching football it wasn’t Monaghan football you were watching,” he explains.

“It was the Derrys, the Downs, the Donegals that were winning and competing in the latter stages [of the championship], so it is a different dynamic for young people in Monaghan now. Development squads in Monaghan have been doing reasonably well for the last 10 years and a lot of the lads in [the senior squad] at the minute would have all played development squad football and they’ve won minor championships, U21s, they have seen Monaghan win Ulster championships and been involved in quarter-finals and semi-finals. So it is a different dynamic for Monaghan football and the fact that we are [playing in] Division 1 these last few years, it probably is in a different place.”

Conor McManus was speaking in Croke Park as McKeever Sports announced it has secured the official GAA licence to manufacture official club and county playing kit and leisurewear. This completes the full complement of GAA, LGFA and Camogie manufacturing licences for the fast-growing Armagh based sports company.

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