In the TV show Breaking Bad, a scene where Jesse Pinkman realises the horrors of crime partner Walter White’s actions over the years culminates in him being distraught and yelling “he can’t keep getting away with this!” As Armagh lost to Tyrone at Healy Park on Sunday, they could have been forgiven for feeling the same way about Monaghan, as the Farney County got away with it once more.
Again, they had avoided relegation from Division One of the football league – this time by winning away to Mayo, previously unbeaten in the league.
It was their sixth survival on the final day of the league season in nine years, four times by winning, once by drawing and once despite losing, in 2019, but still surviving as Roscommon were also beaten.
Of this year’s Division One teams, only Kerry have been in the top flight longer, after Monaghan relegated Dublin by beating them on the final day last year. Division One status is a source of great pride for Monaghan folk, a county of just over 60,000 people, and they are in no hurry to give it up.
The senior players in the squad remember the days of Division Three, and when manager Vinnie Corey began his career, Monaghan were mid-table in Division 2B. Now they’ve got a taste of top status, they will do everything in their power to preserve that position, says former Monaghan coach and selector David McCague.
“Monaghan people and our psychological make-up definitely comes through in our sporting performance. Even our geographical location, as south of the border there were times when we were looked at disparagingly from Dublin,” McCague says.
“That’s innate in our make-up, we like to battle and win against the odds.
“The leaders in the squad were an extra year older this year, which makes it even more remarkable. Conor McManus and Karl O’Connell started their first national league games on Sunday against Mayo. One of them is 35 and the other is 34, in a game that is dominated by young players. That these guys can keep themselves in shape to play such a big part, it was massive for Monaghan.”
McManus, arguably the county’s finest ever forward, was vital on Sunday, scoring 1-7, five of the points from play. The previous two years it was Jack McCarron that saved the day. In 2021 he rescued them with the last kick of the game against Galway. Last year, with his team level with Dublin in the 75th minute, McCarron saved the day again from 40 metres out, part of a personal 2-5 total that day.
On Sunday, McManus and McCarron started together for the first time this year, saving the big guns for last.
In 2016, they lost four games in a row, went seven points down to Donegal on the last day and took the lead for the first time in the fourth minute of injury-time, thanks to a score from cornerback Colin Walshe. It was Walshe’s only score of the whole league. Never say never.
Monaghan forward Shane Carey joined the panel when Monaghan had just won Division Two and has played through their many escapes. He said thinking about relegation is not a thought at the beginning of every campaign, they go out to win every match of the competition, but once priorities shift, they are not ready to let standards drop.
“When I arrived in the panel, the standards were set then by some of the more experienced players and that passed on to the next group that came in. And you saw how the experienced players made a difference,” Carey said.
“When we’re backed into a corner, we definitely come out fighting. We’ve done that on all those occasions, the Galway game [in 2021] was very similar to this one.
“The standards you have to hit at the level of Division One are really important for the development for any team. League football’s brilliant, it’s top teams week on week and when you have to be on it every week or you find out very fast.
“We’ve all grown up watching Monaghan and it’s all about that work ethic and fight, your performance on those days is the big part, performing when it matters.”
Monaghan’s final day escapes:
2016: Monaghan 1-10 Donegal 1-09
2019: Mayo 3-15 Monaghan 1-18 (Roscommon also lost on final day)
2020: Monaghan 2-14 Meath 1-17
2021: Monaghan 1-21 Galway 2-17 (aet)
2022: Monaghan 3-13 Dublin 1-18
2023: Mayo 0-14 Monaghan 2-14