Since Malachy O’Rourke was appointed manager of Monaghan in autumn 2012, his side has matched up very well against Ulster standard-bearers Tyrone. The Farneymen have won two Ulster titles in that period (which equals the Red Hands’ haul), they have dumped their neighbours out of the Ulster SFC twice, and they have enjoyed three wins over Mickey Harte in the NFL.
Knocking Tyrone off their perch (or at the very least, joining them atop it) may have seemed a fanciful objective for O’Rourke when he began his tenure, but it’s a testament to his recent achievements that Tyrone/Monaghan has now become Ulster’s premier rivalry. However, just like the Tyrone/Donegal rivalry of the early 2010’s (which still exists to an extent, but not to the same degree it would if Jimmy McGuinness was currently at the Donegal helm), the Red Hands’ rivalry with the Farney hasn’t quite caught national attention. Certainly not in the same manner that Armagh/Tyrone managed in the noughties or the Down/Donegal/Derry mêlée à trois did in the nineties. All those sides won All-Ireland titles and they followed on each others coattails. Until the current Monaghan or Tyrone sides do likewise, their regular battles won’t carry as much weight.
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So, unfortunately for O’Rourke, his tenure may well be defined by losses to Tyrone. His side have been defeated by Harte’s men in Croke Park three times – All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2013 and 2015, and a heart-breaking semi-final loss last year – and on Saturday night, they suffered a comfortable league defeat in Omagh that puts them, with games against Kerry and Mayo still to come, on the brink of relegation from Division One. That would be an unthinkable scenario for a Monaghan outfit, who aspire to competing against the best teams in the land and have worked hard to prove their own quality in that company.
There won’t be many voices of dissension within Monaghan footballing circles, but Saturday night was worrying because of the performance level, or lack thereof. They started slow, failed to leave that little “something” on their tackles and conceded an early goal to Peter Harte who subsequently tortured the Farney defence all night. An uphill struggle ensued, and despite moments of characteristic inspiration from Conor McManus, this was a Tyrone victory that never looked in doubt.
It followed disappointing defeats to Galway and Roscommon; limp performances far removed from the edge and exuberance that highlighted Monaghan’s win against All-Ireland champions Dublin on the opening NFL Sunday or marked out their march to the All-Ireland semi-final last summer. Or helped them capture their most recent Ulster titles. Those were a series of performances predicated not just on natural footballing talent that sometimes caught opponents on the hop, but on a physical, mental and tactical awareness that accentuated it. That’s what makes O’Rourke one of the game’s top coaches – his teams are always visibly well-prepared. He also excels at bringing out in his players a self-belief that never wanders into the realm of arrogance; that isn’t their style. It just hasn’t gelled so far in 2019.
So, is Monaghan’s magic waning?
In short, no. They haven’t become a bad team overnight and it would be folly to question their credentials based on a few disappointing league games. Sometimes, said well-preparedness is diluted when the target isn’t quite as significant. Admittedly, those games have shown a worrying downward trend, but their manager is more than capable of turning a fruitless spring into a defining summer. He will use the negative press to focus the squad and tease through a bit of the siege mentality that suits Monaghan teams so well. Sprinkle in an Ulster Championship draw that avoids Tyrone and Donegal until the Final and you have a dependable recipe for a return to the Super 8s.
That’s when the real fun begins. Because, if we can level one criticism against Monaghan, despite how effective they have been at punching above their weight, it is that they have yet to take things to the next level: that signature win in Croke Park still eludes them. The profile of their squad and the energy levels they bring to the field – both physically and mentally – surely mean the window of opportunity for a true national emergence, is closing.
Relegation from Division One would arguably narrow that window further, but nothing is inevitable with Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan side. They have been defying the odds for six seasons now and will relish the opportunity to do so again this summer.
Ciaran is the man behind UnTitled – the weekly Football newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dviF1X