The Big Interview: Monaghan’s special branch

Everyone recognises Malachy O’Rourke as one of the best managers in Gaelic football. Yet for all his success we still don’t seem to know Malachy O’Rourke. And we certainly don’t know his right-hand man, Leo McBride, who goes everywhere with him. Kieran Shannon knows them though, from working with the pair in 2008 as a member of the Fermanagh backroom team that reached a rare Ulster final for the county that year. Last week, the three caught up. And it was some catch-up.

The Big Interview: Monaghan’s special branch

Leo ‘Dropsy’ McBride rose from his seat in the Hogan Stand and motioned to his fellow Monaghan selector Finbarr Fitzpatrick.

“Here, let’s go down.” For all the talk in Monaghan of Malachy O’Rourke being something of a messiah, no one has known better than O’Rourke himself that he’s neither infallible nor invincible. But if there was someone, it would be his right-hand man.

Together as a manager-and-coach combo, O’Rourke and McBride have achieved all kinds of firsts and wins. The first year in their first gig, they helped the Loup win their first-ever Derry county championship and go on to win Ulster while they were at it.

Next up they guided Errigal Ciarán from Ballygawley, where they both live, to a county championship to suitably crown Peter Canavan’s last year as a player.

The following year they won a Cavan championship with Cavan Gaels.

The next year they brought O’Rourke’s native Fermanagh to its first Ulster final in 26 years, only the fourth in the county’s history.

And then there’s been the miracle of Monaghan. Three Ulster finals in three years, winning two. Three All Ireland quarter-finals, including today’s against Tyrone.

But, as O’Rourke and McBride will remind you, they’ve yet to win any of them. And as McBride will never forget, in last year’s they were hammered.

For 25 minutes they’d put it up to Dublin, stifling them: the game was being played on Monaghan’s terms. It was 0-4 to 0-3, the Dubs just about ahead by a free that probably wasn’t.

Then Colin Walshe bust his leg and the dam burst with it, Dublin streaming in for two goals in as many minutes. By half-time the lead was out to nine. After the break Dublin poured on the pain, showing no mercy or sympathy. Which was why, with still 20 minutes to go, McBride did.

“I’ve seen it with different teams and there’s a manager standing on the line, and if they’re winning there are two or three men around him and they’re all smiles.

“Next thing they’re losing and he’s a solitary figure standing there and boys are slinking in the background.

“See that game against Dublin? Fifteen minutes into the second half the game was gone. Finbarr and myself were in the stand but I tell you, it’s a lonely place to be standing there as a manager, taking a hammering and know you’re taking a hammering.” So McBride and Fitzpatrick made their way down to the touchline, giving a bemused O’Rourke something to briefly smile about for the first time all afternoon. “What are youse doing down here?!” But sure when you’ve been someone’s best friend and right-hand man for almost 15 years, where else could you be, but by that right hand and taking the whipping, watching it become Dublin 2-20... Dublin 2-21... Dublin 2-22?

Ask Conor McManus what makes Malachy O’Rourke one of the best managers in Gaelic football and he tells you a story that O’Rourke once told them before a big game.

It was one about two falcons that a king had received as a gift. He’d handed them over to the head falconer but only one of them was flying into the sky. The other was rooted to the tree. Every day the king would look out and there was no change; one was soaring, one was stuck. Then one day a local farmer approached the falconer, and the way Malachy puts it, said to the farmer, “I’ll sort that.” Sure enough, a few minutes later when the king and falconer looked over, the second bird was soaring in the sky as well. They asked him what magic had he weaved.

“Och,” the farmer said, “I just cut the branch!”

The story tickled McManus but it tingled with his heart and his head too. Like all of O’Rourke’s stories, it had a real message: Cut loose! Like a lot of teams and people, Monaghan were made to fly. But like a lot of teams and people, they could cling fearfully to where they were. Now this weekend, just like the last couple of years, the rest of football watches them be the one team that flies in the same stratosphere as the other big birds like Donegal, Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone.

They just needed to cut the branch. They needed someone to cut the branch.

A bit like the farmer’s, O’Rourke’s methods aren’t overly-sophisticated.

“I suppose,” McManus says, “it starts off with that he’s a great fella, first and foremost.” Very easy to get on with. The reason he’s what you might term a great man-manager is because he’s firstly a people person.

“I don’t think one fella has fallen out with Malachy in his three years with us,” reckons McManus. “He’s able to get things done without ruffling any feathers.” And then there’s Dropsy. Wherever Malachy goes, he brings Dropsy.

What does Dropsy bring? “Well, his knowledge of the game is probably his biggest asset,” says McManus.

He remembers McBride coming quietly over to him only a few weeks into the job and saying that he could do with working more on his left foot. Nothing dogmatic or dramatic but no pussy-footing either. Now all of Ireland can see McManus is one of the best and most two-footed forwards around. And all the time he sees Dropsy have that quiet, impactful word with teammates, “just a small thing that would get you thinking and working harder on your game.” “And yet,” adds McManus,

“I don’t know a man who is more up for the craic than Dropsy. We could be in a video analysis session and he’ll drop in an old line about something someone did wrong and it’ll just relax the whole atmosphere. Then out on the field you’d see himself and Malachy and Ryan [Porter] staying on after, trying to hit the crossbar.

“With Dropsy and Malachy especially you can see that it’s more of a friendship than anything. I know from the two of them they wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t enjoying it. And that element of fun is a huge thing with this panel.” Laugh together and you’ll be doing a lot more winning than losing together: the secret formula of two men that make up one of the best friendships and partnerships in football.

Time to introduce you to them so. Pull yourself up a seat and listen in to a pair of real football men and friends talking.

KS: Malachy, your first gig managing a club team, you actually did it solo, without Leo.

MALACHY: “And it would be the last time. I’d just finished up playing with Errigal when Tyholland, an intermediate team in Monaghan, got in touch. I was there for two years while at the same time Leo was with Donaghmore with Paudge Quinn. I’d have been friendly with him from playing with Errigal and we’d have been chatting all the time, how were things going with Donaghmore and the kind of training and coaching he was doing.

And I remember when I finished up with Tyholland, I said to myself, ‘I enjoyed that, but it was tough work. If ever I’m going to take a team, I’m going to get someone in to help me.’ I was taking all the training; almost everything. And that winter when I met Leo I said, ‘Are youse going back to Donaghmore?’ He said ‘No.’ So I said, ‘Look, if I’m going somewhere, I want you to come along with me. What do you think?’ And that’s where it started.

KS: Where did you come across Malachy first, Leo?

DROPSYProbably in the pub. He’d just arrived from Derrylin in ‘92 when he’d married Judith, and I live in Ballygawley myself. A few years later then he started playing his club football for Errigal and I’d been helping Paudge Quinn and Marty McElkennon training the team. Malachy would have been maybe looking for the odd free in training that he didn’t get because I was refereeing! He always maintained that I never gave him no frees or nothing at training.

MALACHY: He used to give flippin’ Peter and Pascal [Canavan] the frees! (Laughs) You’d have to earn your stripes with him!

KS: You played a bit yourself, presumably, Leo?

DROPSY: A wee bit. I wasn’t great, to be honest! (Laughs) No point in saying otherwise!

MALACHY: The clue’s in the nickname, Kieran!

KS: Yeah, how did Leo become Dropsy?

DROPSY: I was doing goals this time and there was a fella playing centre-half back for us, Martin Farrell. Right witty sort of boy. Do you remember that time there was that Russian [Yuri] Andropov [former KGB chief and secretary to the Communist Party]? Well, this ball came into the square and I caught it and was heading out to the right when this boy came in and punched the ball out of my hands and over the line. I tried to scramble to keep it out but it was no use and when I looked up Farrell was there looking down: ‘And Dropov, that is unbelievable.’

That’s where it started. Andropov to Dropov to Dropsy. Now, technically, I didn’t drop it, the boy punched it out of my hands. But you weren’t long getting a nickname around our parts.

MALACHY: Only Dropsy stuck.

KS: Malachy, how did you become a coach? You went to The Ranch (St Mary’s Training College), played in a couple of Sigerson finals, winning one of them, which looking back was an incredible achievement for such a small college. Was it by going to St Mary’s that you got the coaching bug?

MALACHY: I remember when I was playing in Derrylin as a young fella I would have loved that side of things.

Even when I was 17 playing with the seniors in Derrylin I’d have been taking the training, involved in picking teams and so on. I was playing McRory Cup under Peter McGinnity at the time so the club would have been looking to me to help that way.

KS: The Ranch that time must have been some place for an aspiring coach. On the playing side you had Canavan, Jarlath Burns, yourself. On the training staff, the likes of Jim McKeever...

MALACHY: And Peter Finn. Peter’s in charge of the whole college now but back then he wouldn’t have been heard of but he took over the Sigerson training when we were there and he was just way ahead of his time. He was an athletics coach, had spent time in eastern Europe, and he had us doing fartlek when no one else was. Himself and Jim were a great partnership.

KS: In the Sigerson you won, you beat in the final a UCC team with Maurice Fitzgerald.

MALACHY: And the following year we beat them again in the semi-final. I was actually marking Maurice that day. I was just hanging out of him, annoying him, there was no point in trying to play football on him.

KS: What kind of player was he [O’Rourke], Leo?

DROPSY: He wasn’t a bad player, to be fair. A good, solid.... player! (Laughs). Listen, no point in saying otherwise: we won the county in ’97 with Errigal and we wouldn’t have won it without him. He was a leader. I’ve been in a lot of changing rooms over the years and you see where once some men start talking, other boys heads go down and they’re not listening. When Malachy spoke, they were all looking up.

KS: Malachy, you played 12 years with Fermanagh, during which time the only team you beat in championship was Antrim (twice). How do you look back on your time playing county?

MALACHY: Loved it. And it goes back to this thing of a B competition. It’s hard to believe this (smiles) - but every year we went out [thinking] ‘We could win Ulster this year.’ Now everyone else was saying ‘Are you mad in the head?’

But you wanted to play with no other team and you felt, ‘If we get a break this year, we could beat these boys; you’d never know.’ Even when you were getting beat, you always wanted next year to come around and try again. You never thought in terms of wanting a second-tier [competition] that you might win.

KS: Fermanagh though did win a B All Ireland in late ’96 that probably kick-started the good run the county had for the next dozen years. But when those good times started, you were gone. How did your county career finish up?

DROPSY: What did Judith used to say to you? (Laughs).

MALACHY: That’s right! When we were going out and our first few years married, she’d say to me heading out the door, ‘Best of luck, I hope you play well today.’ By the end of it she used to say ‘C’mere, wrap up well, don’t be getting the flu out of that!’ (All laugh) So that’s how it ended up: sitting on the bench and realising, ‘Here, you’ve had a good run; enough is enough.’ And as I say, I loved every minute of it. Well... If I’m honest, the one that always stayed with me when I processed it all was: You know what, we accepted it though. [There’s a smile but a hurt as he says this.] We accepted being beaten too easy. It was almost ‘’Lookit, that’s part of it. You play, you get beat, that’s it.’ And it’s probably one of the things that’s influenced me the most since. That no matter what team I’ve been with since, I’ve always said, ‘Never accept that.’

KS: You’d coached at schools level before you’d take a club gig.

MALACHY: Aye, in St Joseph’s [Enniskillen]. I’d still take teams there. When we started I would have nearly treated it like a county job. We would have got to four Ulster [vocational schools] finals which would have been serious going for a school our size but then we’d end up meeting a St Ciaran’s [Ballygawley] where Mickey [Harte] and Marty [McElkennon] would have been coaching and we lost them all. But I’d put in serious preparation. Just having the training right and talking to boys and the whole psychology of it, getting them ready for games.

KS: Then at the start of 2001 you set out with adult teams: your first team, Tyholland.

The first thing on your CV says you helped them win promotion to senior football.

MALACHY: Well, there’s two parts to the Tyholland story. The first part is the good part; the second part I sort of conveniently forget! And most people do!

The first year, we were intermediate. The club had never played senior football in its history. And we’d a really good year. We were top of the league, won the championship semi-final; then in the final we were playing Ballybay - Paul Finlay and them boys.

We’d beaten them fairly well in the league but in the final I’ll always remember, they didn’t kick their first wide until halfway through the second half and by then they’d already 13 points from play. Finlay was stroking them over; his brother Kevin as well. They beat us by about five points. Wild disappointment.

DROPSY: It was at that point I realised he needed help, Kieran! (Laughs).

MALACHY: But we still had a chance of going up to senior if we won the league final. So at this stage this was a big one for me. And I tell you, the difference between winning and losing and the difference a point can make... We won it with a point in the last minute.

DROPSY: Good man, Malachy! Tell him about the second year then!

MALACHY: So went back the next year, started off well in the league, but then we started losing games, a couple of key men got sent off, and before we knew it we were relegated. And at that I just thought, no, between one thing and another, I won’t go again. And it was at that point I thought, next time, I’m going to need some more help.

KS: So why Leo?

MALACHY: Well for starters we were good friends. We’d have played golf together. Just a lot in common. I’ve two daughters, he has two daughters...

DROPSY: We travelled up and down from Sligo that time, Mal, was it in ’97, before we played the county final?

Went for an overnight stay, took cars, players had to pay £15 a man. There was no such thing as heading away at that time. And I remember I said ‘I’ll go down with this man here.’ And Ciaran McNally.

MALACHY: Farrell was with us too.

DROPSY: So next thing this Toyota Corolla started off. [Mimics spluttering sound]. I thought ‘Ah sure, she’s probably just warming up.’ Dead on, like. Next thing we were going through Enniskillen and she was still going the same! This man never blinked an eyelid! (Laughs) Same all the way to Sligo and back. The sound that car made... But we did some laughing in that car.

MALACHY: I suppose from talking to him on things like that I’d have known he was sharp when it came to football. Even now in Monaghan people wouldn’t appreciate how strong he is on the tactical side of things, spotting players. I know when we go to games after five minutes he’ll be able to say to me ‘the left half-back is good.’

KS: How did you become a coach, Leo? You run a bathroom ceramics company, you’re not from a PE background like all the other top coaches in and around Ballygawley like Mickey, McElkennon, Malachy...

DROPSY: Did you ever hear that line of Dennis Taylor’s? He reckoned he was a good commentator because he got plenty of time to watch it! I always remember early on someone saying to me, ‘You couldn’t train a team!’ But I remember thinking ‘

A lot of boys can train a team. But how many can coach one?’ I’m not one for drills. I like the game-related stuff, taking something you weren’t good at on the Sunday, breaking ball for example, and say, listen, this is what we’re doing to try to fix it, and then go through it with the players. People say to me then ‘Why don’t you manage your own team?’

It would be my worst nightmare. I couldn’t stand up in the dressing room and talk to 30 people. There are people who do it and can’t do it. I’m always thinking: Do you see if you can’t do it? Don’t do it!

MALACHY: I remember when we were in the Loup coming home one night after a team meeting, ‘God, was I rambling there?’ You were talking for only about 30 seconds! (Laughs).

KS: But Leo, you’re totally at home talking to players on the training ground. In ’08 I’d have seen you at work there. You’re at home there. The players hear you plenty there.

DROPSY: The situation we now have in Monaghan, Ryan [Porter] has taken more of that over, and gladly so on my part. If I’m honest, training methods have moved on that bit more and players want figures. Ryan’s excellent at all that whereas I’d be saying ‘Get away over there!’ What I’d be doing more now would be going round talking to players about their own individual games, and systems and working on blanket defences, and how to break them down, and kick-outs...

MALACHY: Another thing I’d say which is a massive thing... Leo and myself have been together for 13 years now. And in that time there were times where I might have seen him do something on the training ground and think ‘I wouldn’t have done that.’

And I’m sure he’s thought the same about me. But never once in those 13 years would a player have picked up from one of us ‘I wouldn’t agree with what he did just there.’ That loyalty is a massive thing. There’ll be good days, there’ll be bad days and you stick together through it and that’s it.

KS: When you were over Fermanagh there’d be both. What way do you remember it now?

MALACHY: At the start anyway it was great, getting to an Ulster final. Would have been lovely to win it. People say it must have been the biggest disappointment not winning it but for me it was that the following two years we didn’t drive on.

KS: Maybe because I didn’t come back myself for ’09 due to other commitments, and no longer had any sense of control, but I’ll be honest, I had nightmares about those Ulster finals for a few years after. About one of the missed frees that would have made the difference, was there something else we could have done...

MALACHY: I don’t know. I never really look back at it. People say you must have regrets. I don’t really. The following two years annoyed me more.

KS: That was a big difference I found between Fermanagh and Mayo [from working as a sport psychology performance consultant in 2012 to 2014]. People think it must be depressing to lose an All-Ireland. The mentality we had in Mayo was ‘If we’re good enough to win it, we’re good enough to come back, so we’ll come back.’ With Fermanagh I immediately sensed from boys once the 2008 season finished, ‘That was our chance’.

MALACHY: That was it. And maybe looking back I didn’t realise that there was such a serious hangover from the Ulster final loss.

I was immediately thinking ‘right, come back next year and we’ll win it.’ But I remember after the [last-12] game against Kildare on the way back up from Croker when I put that vibe out to some of the boys, one of them said to me, ‘But Mal, you have to say that, don’t you?’

KS: It seemed to unravel after that all right. Mark Murphy headed to Australia, when he’d looked set to establish himself as one of the best midfielders in the country. A couple of boys went playing soccer for the winter. The same sense of mission and focus didn’t seem there. How were the last two years with Fermanagh for you, Leo?

DROPSY: When this man [O’Rourke] was nominated for the Monaghan job and says ‘You’ll go back in with me?’ I said, ‘God, I don’t know.’ Fermanagh had left me mentally scarred!

KS: Did you have a lot to process from how Fermanagh finished, Malachy? Was your confidence dented at all? Did you look at those two years as a chance to heal some wounds and use it as a sort of sabbatical, just biding your time to go at inter-county again?

MALACHY: I don’t think so (smiles). To be honest in those two years I played more golf. And I tell you what it [the break] did to me.

When I’ve been involved in football I do become consumed by it. I put serious time and effort into it. And when I was out of it, I was thinking, can I survive without it? Is this my life, am I always going to be pining to go back? And you know what, I enjoyed the two years away from it and I was delighted, because I realised, ‘You know, I can do without this.’ There are some people and they crave the profile that goes with it. Other people would say to me, ‘Oh you’ll need the buzz, you have to go back’.

What I found out was that I didn’t have to go back to it. I would still have kept reading up [coaching material] and that. But probably the biggest thing I learned from that time was that I didn’t need it.

KS: A big part of coaching is dealing with mistakes. What is your approach when someone’s not executing?

DROPSY: The way it is, mistakes will happen. What you don’t tolerate is lack of effort.

MALACHY: Personally, I wouldn’t be into going, ‘For f...’s sake, what the f....?!’ That wouldn’t be the way we’d work. If someone is doing something wrong at times, you might bring the group in and say, ‘Listen, that’s not good enough, you’re better than that, you know that yourself’. And they’ll [invariably] go, ‘I know that’ and you find boys respond better that way.

KS: So you hold them accountable without making it personal, and imply that they have it in them to lift it or improve it?

MALACHY: That’s it. And the one thing I would say since myself and Leo have been together and with Ryan and Finbarr there now is there’s always a bit of craic in the thing.

The players know we want certain standards and they want certain standards but I always say, you see any of these jobs and if there wasn’t a bit of craic in them? I wouldn’t be bothered with them. I just think life’s too short.

KS: But what about years like in ’09 and ’10 with Fermanagh, when both seasons Fermanagh got relegated. Were you still cracking jokes then?

MALACHY: You have to! I remember in school one day around Christmas the year we finished up with Fermanagh. Sean Donnelly, who used to play for Tyrone works with me in the school, and I was saying to him, ‘I tell you, Sean, I put in some work this year to try to get us out of that division...’ He says with a straight face: ‘And you did!’ Division Three to Four!’ Sure I could only laugh. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Because you see with football now? It’s gone to an awful level where people take themselves too seriously.

KS: It looked from the outside when you took over Monaghan it was a team that had missed its window to win something. They were coming off two consecutive relegations and had only won one championship game over those two years. What way did ye see Monaghan?

DROPSY: There had to be something in them. They didn’t get to two Ulster finals not having something in them. When Latton won the [2011 Monaghan] county championship they wanted someone with experience of the Ulster club championship to give them a hand so we went in and in that time we got to know Owen Lennon and the standards he’d set.

And he was telling us about the likes of Conor McManus, Dick, Collie Walshe and the way they trained. So you just felt ‘listen, maybe these opportunities don’t come along often’.

MALACHY: I always rated them. They’d a lot of big championship performers. And the big thing from the start was that they were so open-minded. They had got so close and could easily have been saying ‘Here’s these boys coming in from Fermanagh; what did they win?’

But there was none of that. From day one they were like, ‘Whatever you say, we’ll do.’

KS: But did you see a wave of talent below the team that got to the Ulster final in 2010? None of the rest of us knew then who the Wylies were.

MALACHY: In fairness to Eamonn McEnaney, he had done some really good work.

DROPSY: That man was very unlucky. The year they were in Division One (2011), the two of us went up to Monaghan when they played Armagh. And they were beating Armagh the whole way through and then Armagh got a few points near the end to sneak it.

KS: But at the start of 2013 you were hardly talking about winning Ulster that year, the way we did with Fermanagh from the very start of ’08?

DROPSY: Oh, we did that in Monaghan too!

MALACHY: But it started with the McKenna Cup. We won the first game and the boys said ‘God, great, we hadn’t won a game in 10 months.’

Then we beat Donegal in Donegal and the boys said ‘We hadn’t won an away game in two years.’ So you were just hitting these wee milestones and knocking down wee barriers along the way. In the final Tyrone put four goals past us but it was just another step in the journey.

DROPSY: We played Meath then in our first league game. Beat them well [1-18 to 2-3].

MALACHY: But the second game was against Cavan, our arch rivals, and bang, they beat us well [1-10 to 0-5]. We got a few men sent off. Manzy [Conor McManus] was sent off after 10 minutes, getting involved with somebody. Dessie [Mone] was sent off with a second yellow.

DROPSY: Gavin Doogan too.

MALACHY: And they haven’t been sent off since. We learned an awful lot from that game. Conor realised ‘I’m going to get that [attention], I have to stay on the field.’

KS: The Ulster final last month and the way he gently rapped Neil McGee in the chest after he kicked a point showed how he deals with it now.

MALACHY; That’s it. And Dessie learned as well.

DROPSY: See these head-high tackles and you’re picking up a yellow card and next thing you’re on edge the rest of the game? Along with Ryan, we would have worked a lot on our tackling around that time.

KS: As it would turn out, you’d beat Cavan later on, in the Ulster semi-final. Then ye shocked Donegal. No one else saw it coming. Was there much aura-stripping to do going into that Ulster final?

MALACHY: See, the boys had a great record against Donegal over the years, so they would have been confident going in against them.

And we just felt that Donegal were looking a wee bit tired. It was a combination of all that, creating the right vibe and the boys just wanting to attack it.

KS: The other notable thing about 2013 was that Tommy Freeman was about the only veteran that finished up, because of work commitments. Did you have to do much persuading to stop other senior players from thinking, ‘We’ve had our one moment now; thanks and goodbye’?

DROPSY: They couldn’t wait to get back.

MALACHY: After we were beaten by Tyrone at the end of 2013, I remember saying on the bus, ‘Boys, don’t anyone be announcing retirements or talking about that sort of thing’. And in fairness no one did.

DROPSY: You see Dick [Clerkin], Jap [Paul Finlay], Jinxy [Stephen Gollogly]? Mighty, mighty men.

MALACHY: Exactly. Vinny Corey, Owen Lennon... Jeez, them boys - all the boys - they’ll train hard, they’ll do everything you want.

KS: Where has that attitude come from?

DROPSY: To be fair, you’ve got to give the Banty [Seamus McEnaney] great credit.

MALACHY: Banty set a great standard with them. And now they’re setting great standards for the lads who are joining the panel. They’re not coming in and there’s older boys coming and going and doing as they please.

The other thing was that Ryan [Porter] would have made it clear his training is very much all about progression. Each year you’re getting stronger, building on the previous season. So it wasn’t like at the end of ’13 that it was the end of the process.

KS: You rate him highly, as anyone who comes across him tends to do.

MALACHY: Ryan is a type of fella who again, like Leo, doesn’t seek the profile or the limelight. He just gets the job done and he’s as cool about it and even though he’s a qualified sports scientist, he’s not spouting his knowledge about the place. He’s a massive all-rounder.

On most teams the S&C is separate from the coaching. Ryan can both train and coach the boys. We have a weights room by the field, so Ryan can do a S&C session before training, during it, after it, whatever. He’s top class.

DROPSY: And he’s fitted in well with us to be fair. He’s not down your throat, he enjoys the craic.

KS: How did you view 2014? As further progression?

MALACHY: We did. The league again went really well. In the championship, beating Tyrone was a massive one because Tyrone would have been seen as a bigger mental hurdle to overcome for the boys than Donegal.

But the big difference between 2014 and other years is that we had only two weeks to prepare for an Ulster final after two really tough games against Armagh.

The first week after the Armagh replay was just all recovery. We really had only one week to prepare for Donegal, while Donegal had four weeks to prepare for us. Whereas this year we had four clear weeks to really concentrate on Donegal. It was just a far better run-in.

DROPSY: Last year we didn’t cry about it but Conor McManus had diarrhoea all that week and no one knew about it. Hughesie (Kieran Hughes) was carrying an injury, Owen Lennon and Owen Duffy as well. It’s hard to beat a side as good as Donegal with that.

KS: Could you have held out against Dublin if Colin Walshe hadn’t broken down injured that time?

MALACHY: To be fair, I don’t think so. We had two weeks to prepare for the [last-12] Kildare game, it went to extra time, and though we got through it, it was a tough one. By the time we got back to Monaghan it was 1am.

Later that evening we were meeting up again to try to put a plan together to beat Dublin the following Saturday and boys were just hanging.

It was a tough place to be because Dublin were really zoned in for that one.

It was supposed to be their first test of the year, coming up against the blanket defence.

KS: This year you played in Division One in the league. Is its value overplayed?

DROPSY: I think it’s helped us, to be honest.

MALACHY: The one thing we noticed very early on was we were made to pay for nearly every mistake. The Cork game in particular.

We went three points down, got back, went three ahead ourselves and then one slip at the back, Colm O’Neill got the ball and stuck it in the bottom corner. You’re thinking, ‘Frig me, that’s a good goal there.’ Like, no one from Sligo could have done that. Then we went again, got on top, played some great football, until same thing: two passes in, O’Neill - bang, corner of the net.

DROPSY: Ryan Wylie was marking him. And Ryan would have been man of the match.

MALACHY: Ryan had a great game. Kept O’Neill to something like just five touches. Yet O’Neill managed 2-2 from play. That was the day we thought, ‘it’s ruthless here.’ But it was great in another way because it showed your mistakes were magnified at this level.

KS: It’s forgotten now but you were favourites for relegation. I remember the first game against Tyrone on Setanta and the sideline reporter was basically asking you how were you going to stay up!

DROPSY: We just said to the boys ‘We’re here on merit. We should be in this division.’ And I think what also helped was we said to them, ‘listen, we’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some.

That’s the reality of this division; no one is going to win seven games. So don’t be getting carried away either way, we’ll keep the middle line. If we win, great, we know there’s another tough one coming next week; if we lose, right, we just go again the next week.

KS: You’d reach the league semi-final and you’ve now won another Ulster title. Yet the doubt remains whether ye have enough scoring power, especially for Croke Park.

MALACHY: Well, that is the challenge, there’s no doubt. People are saying that if Conor McManus is marked out of it Monaghan won’t win. And there’s no point in disagreeing or complaining. People are going on what’s happened in the past, so the challenge for us is to see if we can.

KS: Even if it’s against your old rivals, Tyrone.

MALACHY: I think our mentality every day at this stage is ‘here’s another great test, another great challenge’. Again, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You’re beat and you go back up the road and we’ll regroup and go again. But while you have the opportunity, GO FOR IT.

As a man once would have told them, why not? The branch has been cut.

He and his friend cut it some time ago. Laughing, together, while they were at it.

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