Dick Clerkin has been knocking about Monaghan’s senior panel for 16 years and the veteran midfielder has little doubt that Conor McManus is the best player he has soldiered with in all that time.
It’s an eye-catching claim given, and not just the fact that he has been on the scene since the year before the millennium turned, but for the sheer volume of players who have worn the county jersey in that timeframe.
In recent years alone, Monaghan have benefited from the input of top-class forwards such as Tommy Freeman and Paul Finlay, but McManus has emerged in recent times as one of the most capable and consistent attackers on the inter-county scene.
On Sunday, McManus was the game’s chief marksman against Cavan in Kingspan Breffni Park in the Ulster quarter-final. Five of his points came from frees, but the two from play were sprinkles of genius on an afternoon bedecked with toil.
“In my opinion, he is probably the best Monaghan player I have played with,” said Clerkin who dodged the question of his own football shelf life. “This is when you see the difference between a good forward, a good player and a great player.
“He knew he was going to be tightly marked, he knew going out it was not a day that he would be kicking seven or eight points (from play), but he kicked them when he needed to kick them. That last point was a massive point for everyone. Teammates feed off that.
“He is at his peak now in terms of his fitness and experience and it is great to have an asset like him.”
Monaghan would not have squeaked through by a single point at the weekend without McManus and, though the performance was far from the side’s best, Clerkin was able to put it into its proper perspective. Seven years ago, Monaghan started the summer with thoughts of an Ulster title fogging their minds after an upbeat 2007 and were caught by Fermanagh – who meet Antrim next week to see who plays the Farney in the provincial semi-final.
When Malachy O’Rourke took over from Seamus McEneaney, the feeling was that he was assuming control of an ageing side on the wane, but O’Rourke has wrung every last drop out of his veterans’ legs and built an expanded squad capable of more.
The win two days ago was proof of that as the likes of Clerkin, Stephen Gollogly and Colin Walshe sprung from the bench to turn a four-point deficit into a one-point win inside the confines of the fourth quarter.
“Every big team has big players, that is why they are big teams. They have men who can come in and do what is required. We have proved that we have the men that can do that. It won’t work every day, but more often than not when you have those men out on the field, in good shape, it is just a case of getting the ball, getting the intensity right and everything will work out.”
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