Daragh Ó Conchúir talks to Seamus McEnaney who is desperate to bring Ulster final success back to Monaghan.
SEAMUS McENANEY is leaning forward as he rattles off the details. He’s getting slightly animated, eyes wide with the excitement of a child.
The Monaghan manager may be looking forward to the challenge of trying to topple Ulster kingpins Tyrone in the provincial final in Clones on Sunday, but right now, he has entered the time machine of his mind and ventured back 22 years.
That’s how long it is since the Farney men have got their hands on the Anglo-Celt Cup and McEnaney’s recall of those days, and their controversial loss to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final is instant.
It reminds you that he may be the boss right now, but first and foremost, he is a Monaghan supporter.
“I’ll never forget it,” he tells you. “It was absolutely brilliant. I was at every match. I wouldn’t have missed a National League or championship match that Monaghan has played in for 25 years prior to going into management. I could bring you through it.”
So he does.
“The first round of the Ulster championship was against Cavan in Clones. I remember well a Cavan corner-back, Damien Reilly, who progressed to be a fantastic footballer, but he was only 18 years of age and Nudie Hughes was in the prime of his life and I remember him slipping in for a goal that day.
“Then in the semi-final it was Down in Breffni Park. Down had a serious full-forward line — Mickey Linden, Ambrose Rogers and Brendan Mason — and the entire line was taken off that day.
“I remember the Ulster final on the hill in Clones. (Tyrone goalkeeper, Aidan) Skelton dropped the ball and Nudie stuck it in the back of the net and Monaghan won by two points.
“When we played Cork in Croke Park, Brendan Murray got his jaw broken and no free given and Cork went up the field and got the goal. Hey, I could go through match after match.”
You don’t doubt him but this current crop of players are hoping to write their own history. It has been too long. They had an opportunity three years ago but it was too late before they realised that Tyrone were there for the taking.
Philip Jordan plundered an early goal for Mickey Harte’s men and Monaghan soon fell eight points behind. McEnaney made an inspired switch at that juncture, moving full-back Vinnie Corey to full-forward where he caused havoc.
Tommy Freeman goaled midway through the second half and Monaghan heaped incessant pressure on Tyrone. Numerous opportunities were wasted though and despite a spirited fightback, they were two points adrift at the final whistle.
The spine of that team remains and McEnaney expects what happened that day should stand to his men.
“The core of the squad is the ‘05-’06 team. Maybe nine or 10 of the team that will play in the Ulster final played U21 in 2002 under me. So it’s a pretty experienced group of players that hasn’t been as successful as they would like to have been but they haven’t gone away. There’s great resilience about them.”
Many pundits were happy to dismiss Monaghan this year because it was felt that they had missed the boat. Yes, they were experienced, but quite a few observers felt that a clearout was required.
McEnaney considered his own position at the end of last season after overseeing significant improvement. His mantra has always been about realising potential rather than gathering silverware and he had to decide whether he could move things on, or should he just move on.
Paul Grimley was pinpointed as the individual who could help Monaghan get to the next level and McEnaney got his man when the Pearse Óg giant brought his two-year stint with Kildare to an end and lost patience with his native county board when looking favourite to take over the reins in Armagh.
“There was plenty of people that wrote us off but they would have wrote us off at their peril. I’ve always had great belief in this group and this group has great belief in the set-up this year and in themselves.
“We’ve introduced four or five new players that have not alone enhanced the whole panel but they’ve left it very competitive to get into the 20-man playing squad in a Sunday. You can imagine what games in training are like at the moment to get into that.
“Martin McElkennon came in in 2007 and brought professionalism. He brought strength and conditioning and coaching over the last three or four years. We sat down at the end of 2009 and decided we’d need to freshen it up if we were to go back as team management. I targeted one person I thought could freshen it up.
“I targeted, in my opinion, the best coach in the country. If he was coming, we were staying on. If he wasn’t, it was possibly time to move.
“Definitely Paul Grimley has freshened things up. Himself and Martin has a brilliant combination in training and the dressing room.”
McEnaney’s willingness to give credit to the likes of Grimley and McElkennon shows an impressive lack of ego. But it all goes back to his love of Monaghan. All he wants is for them to perform and he will do whatever it takes for that to happen.
His forensic analysis of his set-up and his panel is legendary, and it is no surprise that he is a very successful businessman. Practicality is key.
But the buck stops with him. He has never feared making the hard call, clearing out his entire backroom staff before the 2007 season. And let’s not forget the decision to put full-back Darren Hughes in goal before this year’s quarter-final against Armagh, rather than substitute custodian, Sean Gorman, when Shane Duffy failed a late fitness test.
The following reply was to a question about Grimley coming into the structure but it could easily have applied to any of the sometimes ruthless decisions he has made.
“You have to make calls as you go along. There is a great trust between the players and myself and they trust that anything I would do is for the best of Monaghan football.
“This is not about me, this is not about the management, this is about these players maximising their potential.”
There must be a certain amount of pressure to end the 22-year drought. There is a feeling that the likes of Paul Finlay, Corey, the Freeman brothers and Rory Woods deserve something tangible to show for their efforts.
And with McEnaney in his sixth season in charge, that there could be a lot of change over the next couple of years. Is it now or never?
“We’re playing the best team this decade in Ulster. We’ve no divine right to beat any team. We have a right to be in an Ulster final and we’ve worked hard to get to that scenario and we’re looking forward to what the challenge of an Ulster championship and especially an Ulster final against the cream of the crop throws up to us.
“We have a great belief that we can maximise the potential within the group. Progress has been the most important thing and the day that we’re not making progress is the day for me to step outside. I believe that we’ve made progress every year and at the end of 2010 we will be judged on whether progress is made.
“These lads are focused on putting in a serious performance in the Ulster final. This group of players has given unbelievable entertainment and enjoyment over the last six years. You can focus on whatever you like but it’s about performance. We don’t underestimate the task we’re up against. We’re up against a Tyrone team that has available to them, 18 players that played in the All-Ireland final of 2008. So that’s a huge task. But it’s a task we’re looking forward to.
“We respect a Tyrone that won three All-Irelands and are possibly the best team I have seen leave Ulster since I started to watch football. But we don’t fear them. We don’t fear anybody.”
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