Monaghan, it could be argued, were once included in that clichéd GAA grouping of the “so-called weaker counties” as the nineties turned into the noughties and the new millennium dawned.
1988 was the last time the Anglo-Celt Cup spent it’s days in the Farney county, and as Ulster had dominated the All-Ireland roll of honour in the early 90’s, Monaghan were left behind clutching to their what could have beens, and if onlys, of All-Ireland semi-final defeats to Kerry and Cork in ’85 and ’88.
Yes, Monaghan were completely outclassed by Cork in 1988, going down by 11 points but, 1985 brings pangs of regret to any of their loyal and long suffering supporters. Eamonn McEneaney’s long range free at the death forced the mighty kingdom to a replay and that feeling of hopeful enthusiasm, which envelops all potential finalists, visited Carrickmacross and Clones and every town and village in between.
However, two weeks later that hopefulness was to dissipate, as Mick O’Dwyer’s ruthless side put paid to any ticket hunting expeditions in the border county. A 7 point victory on their way to their penultimate All-Ireland title resulted for Gaelic footballs greatest ever side. As mentioned above, Monaghan returned in 1988 but Kerry’s arch rivals were to overwhelmingly dispel any similar notions of further success, which they might have harboured.
Monaghan rolled on throughout the nineties, and an Ulster under-21 title was annexed in 1999. As the noughties peeked its head around the corner, as did hope that this young side could provide the backbone to future success.
The opening game of any year’s football championship is always highly anticipated, especially in Ulster where the fire and brimstone of its provincial championship is one of football’s greatest assets. Ulster Championship 2003 was no different and that year, an extra caveat was added as the 2002 All-Ireland champions would be taking part in its opening battle. Armagh travelled to Clones in expectation of success.
The previous year, their hosts had only partaken in two championship encounters; losing to Fermanagh in Ulster before crashing out to neighbours Louth in the opening round of the qualifiers. However, the 11th of May 2003 could have gone down as a turning point for Monaghan football. A young Paul Finlay provided a masterclass as Monaghan strode to a four point win, to consign Armagh to the scenic route throughout the summer.
Yes, a two point defeat to Down in the quarter-final followed and Meath eventually knocked Monaghan out of that year’s qualifiers in Round 2 but, the signs of progression were there. A young side with no fear, led by Finlay, prepared to take on the mountainous men of champions that Armagh were and beat them quite convincingly.
Heavy defeats to Armagh and Longford in 2004 ended their championship ambitions that year and, over the next 3 years they were consigned to that cluster of sides with unfulfilled potential; those who could go a long way, but always seem to become stuck in the qualifier quagmire.
By 2007, Monaghan supporters must have felt that 2003 was just a freak result brought about by one solitary good performance, preceding a fade back into the background of Ulster football. However, if 2003 could have been the beginning of a turn in Monaghan’s fortunes, 2007 was the apex of that initial bend in the long road.
An Ulster final appearance featuring a narrow defeat to Tyrone was followed by an abolition of Donegal in Round 4 of the qualifiers. Next came Kerry, and all the memories of ’85 that it brought with it.
A Kerry side that in 6 weeks would demolish Cork in the All-Ireland final, were put to the pin of their communal collars, as Tommy Freeman jinked and shimmied his way around Croke Park and Rory Woods bustled his way past startled Kerry defenders. Monaghan led by 5 points half way through the second half and it looked like they could dethrone another All-Ireland champion.
However, in that inimitable Kerry way, experience won the day and they ran out one point winners. A defeat might never have been taken so positively however, going by the performance, and Monaghan had taken their leave from that “so-called” group. The sun that dawned in 2003, seemed to only have stuttered and Monaghan were beginning to shine once again.
Kerry were to prove Monaghan’s masters once again in 2008, this time by 3 points in a Round 4 qualifier, the kingdom not being at all enamoured by the sight of a white and blue jersey in those two years. Monaghan however, were now well placed in that collection of second tier sides who could find themselves pests to teams with All-Ireland ambitions.
Tyrone were proving to be the aching thorn in Monaghan’s side.
Defeat to their neighbours to the north in the 2010 Ulster decider was followed by a quarter-final defeat in 2011, before Offaly sprung a shock on them in the opening qualifier salvo. 2012 was shaping up nicely; a win over Antrim, followed by a one point loss to Down but then, Monaghan were caught on the hop by Offaly’s midland counterparts Laois, in the qualifiers.
At the close of 2012, Monaghan might have felt compelled to be frustrated at the stop start nature of their development. Was 2007 then just a teasing glimpse into the higher echelons of Gaelic football? Some supporters and players alike may have been wondering if occasional outbursts of near misses were to be a hallmark of Monaghan sides to come.
2013 opened with a humdrum win over Antrim in the opening round in Ulster before Cavan were eventually pushed over the edge, by the slimmest of slim margins. Then came the Ulster final. Donegal were All-Ireland champions and, Monaghan’s propensity to pick the pockets of such privileged teams came to the fore once again.
A blistering start from the challengers to the throne was then followed by an all-out Monaghan retreat as they played Donegal at their own, much-maligned game. Dessie Mone brought all of Monaghan’s hopes with him as he crashed his way through that fabled Donegal rearguard and dispatched a score in the final minutes to end Monaghan’s Ulster famine.
The breakthrough had finally been made after a quarter of a century.
In the wake of Sunday’s Ulster final victory, much has been made ahead of this year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals that Monaghan might have enjoyed the end of their famine a little too much. Tyrone were once again to prove the dream destroyers as they put out the lights on Monaghan’s dawn once again.
Unlike previous years however, Monaghan’s 2013 campaign did not prove to be an occasion of passing glory, followed by crushing disappointment the following championship season. 2014 began with an extermination of the Tyrone ghosts which had haunted Monaghan’s past; culminating in a one point victory in the Ulster quarter-final.
It took a replay to be rid of Armagh before Donegal were again the opponents in the final. Monaghan’s search for successive Ulster titles for the first time since 1930 however, was to be called off. Donegal winning by three points.
Kildare were dispatched in the qualifiers and then Monaghan were steamrolled by Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The task of assessing where Monaghan stood at the close of last season, was not an easy one.
And so, we come to 2015. Cavan and Fermanagh fell foul of the Monaghan machine before last Sunday. Donegal might not have been as overwhelming favourites for this Ulster final as they were in 2013, owing to curious, un-Donegal like displays against Tyrone, Armagh and Derry but, nevertheless, were expected in most analytical circles, to come out on top.
Conor McManus had other ideas. The Clontibret man was colossal and proved a fountain of inspiration for those around him as he led Monaghan all the way up the steps of the main stand in Clones and, in front of a sea of white and blue, lifted the Anglo-Celt cup.
Monaghan move on to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and another big day out in Croke Park for their supporters. Whoever it may be that they face and, whoever they may face afterwards, will be well outside today’s group of weaker counties but, Monaghan yearn for a chance to prove to themselves and to everyone else, that this dawn is one that will keep rising.