The mystery of Malachy and Monaghan

IF you want an insight into how Monaghan beat Donegal we could sum it up in two words: Siya Bafuna.

Or since you probably don’t know yet what those two words mean, we’ll offer up a couple of more: Malachy O’Rourke.

There can hardly be a better sudden impact manager or ambush expert in Gaelic football – other than perhaps the one he defeated last Sunday in Clones.

On the club scene he’s won senior county titles in Derry, Cavan and Tyrone as well as an intermediate in Monaghan.

This weekend five years ago he was a kickout from delivering his nativeFermanagh their first ever Ulster title. An Armagh team with McDonnell and Clarke in their prime were on the rack, the upstarts Fermanagh have reeled off seven of the game’s last nine scores. Shaun Doherty had just boomed over the equalising point in injury-time, all the momentum and destiny as well seemed to be with the Ernemen but when Armagh goalkeeper Paul Hearty suddenly and mysteriously required medical attention, referee Jimmy White decided to blow it up. Armagh would regroup to grind out the replay, breaking Fermanagh hearts, but during that summer, Fermanagh had won the hearts of neutrals with some of their defiant giant-killing.

I had the good fortune and privilege of working with O’Rourke that year, serving as the team’s sport psychologist, and got to see up close just how he can energise and motivate a team.

Just like the Monaghan team he inherited last autumn, he had taken over a team that had been relegated to Division 3. Yet his primary goal wasn’t just to win promotion (which he would subsequently achieve): he made it clear very early on our mission was to reach an Ulster final and win it.

No one outside the group would have thought that was possible. Our first-round opponents were actually Monaghan, who only the previous August should have beaten a Kerry team that went on to win the All-Ireland. People were talking about Seamus McEnaney’s team winning Ulster, possibly even Sam itself. Fermanagh though, ambushed them in Brewster Park.

Next up in the Ulster semi-final was Derry who at the time were joint favourites to win the All-Ireland. They had beaten Kerry in the league final, had gone up to Ballybofey to beat Donegal in the championship, and in Paddy Bradley they had the most irresistible forward in the country at the time. Paddy would be held to one point in Omagh that night – and Derry would be beaten by two. For only the second time in 63 years Fermanagh qualified for the Ulster final.

For each of those games, and no doubt for last Sunday too, Malachy had his team suitably focused, suitably confident and – critically – suitably relaxed. The stereotype of a new-school manager is someone meticulous but essentially humourless. O’Rourke only fits half that profile.

As much as he treats football seriously, he has a hugely pleasant disposition. For him and his faithful number two Leo ‘Dropsy’ McBride, players play best when they have a smile on their face so it helps if you have one yourself.

One time before a big game that summer, he told the story about the man on the wire in the Manhattan skyline. Up there with everything literally on the line was what real living was about.

“Everything else,” he said with that trademark smile, “is just hanging about.”

“Keep Cool” was his mantra and that became one of the team’s, even when they were barely hanging onto that championship high wire.

Another time that summer we could hear the opposing team taking strips of paint of their dressing room door, Malachy with a wink reminded our players of the old Dean Smith maxim, “Just remember, boys, there’s a million Chinese people who couldn’t give two hoots how today goes!” In the laughter that resonated around the four walls was also a resounding confidence.

He had them in that ideal state – loose yet fired.

Along with coming up with a precise gameplan for a big game, he’d also have a specific theme to trigger an ideal state of challenge. In the build-up to one of the games that summer all we’d read in the papers how mightily superior our opponents were. They weren’t just going to beat us; they were probably going to win the province and the All-Ireland itself. To steel and seal our mindset though, he told the players the story of the Zulu warriors, and the chant the South African nation adopted in the lead up to the 1995 rugby World Cup clash with New Zealand.

One of them asks “Niya besaba na?” – Are you afraid of them? “Hayi!” they roar. “Asiba Sabi!” – No! We are not afraid! “Siya bafuna!” – We want them! Anyone who was in that hotel room can still see O’Rourke smiling with intent, “Lads, we want these boys!”

And you can easily see him saying it to the Monaghan boys sometime last week. His players weren’t going to shirk from any challenge last Sunday. They were going to embrace it. They wanted Donegal last Sunday, not just that Anglo-Celt Cup.

Now they have it. In no small part because they have one cool smiling cat from Derrylin.

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