A year to remember: Niall Garland on Monaghan’s success story

Niall Garland bagged two goals for Monaghan in the Lory Meagher final. He talks to Shaun Casey about the story of their season.

HOW many players have bagged a brace of goals in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day? Monaghan’s Niall Garland is a member of a very exclusive club.

The Castleblayney corner-forward was on song for the Farney hurlers as they claimed their first ever All-Ireland crown – the Lory Meagher Cup – back in June with a two-point win over Lancashire.

As modest as you’d expect, without the aid of his teammates, Garland says he wouldn’t have raised two green flags in the biggest sporting encounter of his life.

“It all looks well and good on paper, scoring two goals in Croke Park but I’ll never forget the first goal,” reflected Garland. “I was after making a couple mistakes beforehand and my head was dropping a little bit.

“Declan Hughes gave me a good big shout to cop on, I’ll not say the actual quote he came out with. He wanted me to get my head up and that was the boost I needed. I needed teammates to grab me and pick me up after making a mistake or two.

“If Declan hadn’t have shouted that, I probably wouldn’t have had the drive to make that run and it turned out a lovely wee break, but you need that element of luck in a final too. You need the ball to break nicely for you and you need to take advantage of it.

“With the second goal, Stevie Lambe did all the hard work as well as the boys at the back. Hugh Byrne was after pulling off a save too so there was an awful lot of extra work.

“Fair enough I finished it off, but I wouldn’t have got that chance if the boys out the field hadn’t done their bit and done it so well, so every player plays their part to what happens on the pitch.”

It’s the pinnacle of anyone’s career, to climb the famed steps of the Hogan Stand, and just six weeks previous, that dream seemed dashed in the lashing rain of Kingspan Breffni Park.

From the opening two rounds of the Lory Meagher Cup, Monaghan had gathered a single point following a draw with Leitrim and that loss to Cavan. But three wins on the bounce saw their fortunes turn and they finished the group stages in the number one spot.

It was a role reversal from the league form. Arthur Hughes’ side made a flying start to their Division 3A campaign, defeating Fermanagh, Armagh and Louth. Losses to Mayo and Roscommon, however, meant Monaghan only qualified for the league semi-finals.

And Armagh exacted their revenge in the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds, with a 13-point win to proceed to the decider.

“The league was positive,” said Garland. “It didn’t finish so positively because we started off like a hare and then we died off. Division 3A is effectively a Nickey Rackard competition so we know that we’re well able to mix it with those teams.

“We pulled off some scalps, yes, the Fermanagh one was lucky, and then we’d a good win over Louth and a great win over Armagh. A lot of the boys have battled with Monaghan for years and never had any success over Armagh so that was a massive win.

“And then, I suppose there was a lot of hype around us, and we probably listened to that and got carried away. We started thinking ahead a wee bit too much and we got caught up in that a bit. We were flying fit and maybe teams had only started, and they didn’t have the work done that we had at that time.

“On a whole, we banked on our opportunities, we got a system of play that we knew was working and then come the summer, which was your goal, it all paid off then. Yes, some defeats were tough, but we learned a lot about ourselves and that was the important thing.

“We were building, and we were bitterly disappointed to not make a league final, but it was still a massive step forward compared to the last few years of maybe just staying up and, avoiding relegation, so we knew you were well fit to push on.”

Monaghan’s misfortune carried through to the championship however and after suffering a tough defeat to Division 3B winners, and nearest neighbours Cavan, hopes of claiming the Lory Meagher Cup quickly faded.

“It couldn’t have started off any worse to be honest. We let a seven-point lead slip in the dying minutes against Leitrim and as much as you have to give Leitrim credit for that, it was a disaster from my point of view.

“At inter-county level and when you have ambitions of winning it, you really shouldn’t be doing that. To be fair we asked ourselves a lot of hard questions the week after at training.

“We said that we could sit down and huff about this or we can turn it nearly into a blessing in disguise. We had nothing won, ever. We had nothing on paper or no reason to ever get carried away or take our foot off the gas at any stage.

“Realistically, we had done nothing to have earned that credit, so until we earned that right, we can’t be doing that, so we were well up for the game in Breffni Park.

“I remember it was a wet Saturday evening and it turned into a bit of a shootout, and we made a couple of mistakes at bad times and in fairness to Cavan they took their chances.

“It just showed what a mad tournament the Lory Meagher is. We looked down and out and then we looked at the results that weekend. We knew that we weren’t full out of it, but we were definitely on our last legs.”

Monaghan turned things around the next day out against Warwickshire before further victories over Lancashire and Longford set them on their way to Croke Park, where they would face a surprise.

“We probably had to put up a score against Warwickshire and we were like men possessed that day. We managed to do so and that kick-started our campaign. That gave us confidence and we played our system to a tee. We just had to stick to the basics and thankfully everything turned around. It was maybe a shock that Cavan weren’t in the final, but we didn’t get carried away, we knew the threat that Lancashire were from playing them in Birmingham.”

For a few of the ‘Blayney boys, they’d experienced Croke Park before, but this marked the first time Garland stepped foot on the hallowed turf. June 3, 2023.

“Croke Park can either make a hero out of you or you can near quiver in its surroundings, you have to try and get the whole situation out of your head. At the end of the day, it’s a game of hurling for 70 minutes.

“You have to get Croke Park out of your mind, which is easier said than done because it’s a lifelong ambition. When you run out of the pitch and hear the crowd, we had a massive Monaghan following that day.

“We ran out and we said that we would take the first few minutes to have a good look around, puck around and look around and get all the awe of the place out of us in the first minute or two and then when we blow the whistle for the warm-up, that’s it, show time.”

Garland, who nailed 2-3 in the final, joined Kevin Crawley on the podium and held aloft the Lory Meagher Cup. “Some say I’m still up there trying to finish the speech!” laughed Garland. “I didn’t want to come back down; I was trying to get my money’s worth.

“But you see people around you, past managers, selectors, people that had coached you, it doesn’t just happen in ten months, it takes years to win an All-Ireland. It was nice to see the joy in their faces and how proud they were of Monaghan hurling. Even the homecoming, the reception we got was unbelievable, it was emotional stuff.”

As Lory Meagher Cup champions, Monaghan will compete in the Nickey Rackard Cup next season. As they showed in 2023, they can mix it with anyone at that level. It’s just about stepping on now and doing it on a consistent basis.

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