Martin McElkennon was a trusted member of Seamus McEnaney’s backroom team having spent time in the Derry camp under the late Eamonn Coleman. He looks ahead to Sunday’s showdown.
By Michael McMullan
A TEN-MINUTE chat with Martin McElkennon was way more, closer to an hour. But when you’ve been in a dressing room cocoon with both Seamus McEnaney and Eamonn Coleman, Sunday’s Monaghan and Derry showdown holds more appeal.
“A genius, a total genius,” he describes Coleman, a man who was Derry to the core. A manager who installed a champion belief.
In the case of ‘Banty’, he set the ball rolling in Monaghan’s revival and played a seismic part in the rise of Monaghan from the ashes to the team that took Kerry to the brink in Croke Park. Now, back for a second coming he has reinvented the Farney County into the team that are dining at the top table and relegated Dublin on the final day of the league.
Coming into Sunday, the theme of McElkennon’s interview is one of difference of origin between the current Derry and Monaghan camps.
He uses the Oakleafers’ 11-point toppling of the All-Ireland champions as an example.
“I heard in some of the interviews about the win being three years in the making,” McElkennon begins, referring to Derry’s progress.
A Tyrone man by birth, he is now living across the border in Lissan where he has been involved in underage coaching. Ferrying his son Luke to development squad coaching sessions gives him the insight into the changing face of Derry football.
He feels Tyrone had a more difficult preamble. Hunger is a powerful ingredient and no matter what was said inside the Red Hand camp to dilute it, dismissing the vision of driving up Clones hill or running out at Croke Park will still tinge any build-up.
“The surprise element is now gone from Derry,” McElkennon said. “I would have to say, I thought they were superb. It is as good a performance from a Derry team that I have seen in years.”
McElkennon sums their performance up as “clinical”, with 10, 11 or 12 of the most telling performances beating inside a Derry jersey. Conor Doherty and Gareth McKinless caught his eye. So too the “amazing” workrate of Paul Cassidy on Tyrone Duracell bunny Conor Meyler.
“Benny Heron had his best game I’ve ever seen in a Derry jersey,” he added. “They had all the big performances all over the pitch and tactically they were very good.”
But, it’s yesterday’s news. The two weeks ahead of Sunday’s trip to Armagh will have helped garner expectation among Derry fans.
“They’d have gone to Healy Park hoping more than anything, now all of a sudden they’ll be expecting the team to do well and that creates its own problem for Derry.” McElkennon warns.
Can Derry rise to that level again? He thinks so. Year by year they have improved under Rory Gallagher.
An All-Ireland Minor title has been the pinnacle of an underage conveyor belt now bidding for a sixth Ulster minor final in eight seasons. Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan were the key cogs when they ended a 13-year wait in the 2015 decider.
Now they are in the real world and will carry the hopes of many this weekend.
“You have to give a lot of people credit, from underage up, there is a lot of hard work being put in and it is reaping benefits of players coming through,” said McElkennon, who was involved with Tyrone minors when Mickey Harte was making a name for himself.
Now comes the warning. Sunday brings a totally new challenge. Tyrone had success last year, with Monaghan left to endure the politically correct ‘hip, hip hoorays’ in Croke Park last season after coming within a whisker of beating Tyrone. It’s one of those moments losing finalists cringe at, but can motivate deep into the winter.
“Monaghan didn’t achieve what they set out to achieve,” McElkennon states. “Monaghan will come with a lot more in preparation than Tyrone and I don’t mean that the wrong way.”
Barring Darren McCurry, McElkennon can’t think of a Tyrone player who got in any way close to their potential.
“The best performances came from Derry players all over the pitch,” he adds. “Monaghan are not going to be going in with their guard down. I think they are going to be really well prepared.”
Seamus McEnaney was appointed as manager in 2004, but by autumn of 2006 he decided to shake up his management team with Martin McElkennon coming on board. The following summer they reached an Ulster final.
He steered them to Division One in 2009 and survived the following year. After he stepped down, Monaghan plummeted to the third tier with back to back relegations under Eamonn McEnaney’s watch. Malachy O’Rourke took over, winning their last Ulster title in 2015 and elevating them back to the top flight just as quickly, a level they’ve maintained ever since.
When ‘Banty’ returned to the county to oversee the minors’ e 2018 Ulster title win and later the u-20s he had designs on the senior post.
“The senior players were training at the same time up in Annyalla,” McElkennon said of his involvement with their recent underage success.
“There was the like of Conor McManus, Darren and Kieran Hughes still there from the early days.”
From that minor winning team, Sean Jones, Aaron Mulligan, Karl Gallagher and James Irwin have featured in senior action during 2022, with Jones making his championship debut in the win over Down.
McElkennon throws in the name of Rory Beggan, who he rates as “as close to second” behind Niall Morgan as you can get in the rankings of goalkeepers in Ireland. He talks about Ryan McAnespie’s engine, the presence of the Wylie brothers – Drew and Ryan.
“The big plus for Monaghan now is that they are not reliant on Conor McManus. Since Tommy Freeman left, McManus sort of more or less carried that scoring threat up front,” he said.
“They now have Jack McCarron and the likes of (Conor) McCarthy. Jack has been super this year and we saw the point he put over with the last kick of the game to relegate Dublin.”
There is also the factor of Monaghan’s management team that includes former skipper Vinny Corey, Donie Buckley as football coach and Liam Sheedy as performance coach.
“One thing I can say to Derry now, there will be zero complacency coming from Monaghan, that’s one thing they won’t have,” added McElkennon.
Where does that statement come from? It’s not just related to having Sheedy involved or the infectious enthusiasm of ‘Banty’.
“I think Monaghan is a small county and when you talk about achieving what you can, I think they are that sort of people,” McElkennon replied.
“I was blessed to have work with them for seven or eight years, they are just very committed and honest. When you put them out, you almost always get 100 per cent. They maximize everything they have.
“I don’t see any way Monaghan can come into this game not really physically and well prepared in terms of a game-plan.”
There won’t be the same level of fear of Derry as Tyrone, something that comes from winning just twice in the last ten outings in the championship, twice the ratio from their five meetings with the Oakleafers in the same timeframe since 1999.
“I mean that in a respectful way,” McElkennon stressed. “They’ll have looked up Tyrone as a team that they’ve always found difficult to beat in big games.
“The one thing Eamonn Coleman always instilled in a Derry team was that when you went out against Tyrone.”
In 2001, the first year of the Qualifiers, Stephen O’Neill, Gerard Cavlan and Brian Dooher ran amok against Derry in a 3-7 to 0-14 Ulster Championship win at Clones but the sides met eight weeks later in the last chance saloon.
Coleman addressed the squad in a Monaghan on their way to the Clones rematch in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“He gave a team talk and it would’ve made the hairs on the back of your neck stand,” recalls McElkennon.
“He didn’t raise his voice, he just spoke and you knew what he meant to him to beat Tyrone and you knew what it meant to Derry to beat Tyrone.
“You just knew there was no way you were going to be beaten because they had so much they wanted to win and Coleman was able to nearly pull that bit more out of them.”
As he plonked beside fellow selector Damian Cassidy on the bus outside afterwards, they both were in no uncertain terms convinced of victory.
McElkennon likens it to a phone call he received from a member of the 2006 team after Coleman addressed the Derry squad at the Elk restaurant on their way to toppling Tyrone in Omagh. The excited voice just had to tell someone, a call that came minutes after Coleman had told McElkennon.
It was the same earlier this month when Derry showed a desire Tyrone couldn’t match.
“You saw what it meant to the Derry players after the game,” McElkennon points out. “You saw what it meant in every 50-50…when there was a ball to be won there was a Derry player ready to put his neck on the line. There was a sense of pride and you have to give the management team credit, they got everything right going into that game.”
It’s the same characteristic that is woven into the Monaghan DNA. They’ll “relish” the talk and hype surrounding Derry’s win and the upward trajectory under Gallagher’s tutelage.
That’s an Oakleaf concern McElkennon feels. Have the management team managed to press home to the group of players that they’ve only won one game?
He backs Derry in a physical, technical and tactical sense. It’s the zone between the ears that will demands the most diligence this week.
“It’s whether these guys still want to give as much and even more now because they are going to have to against Monaghan…Tyrone didn’t come back with anything,” McElkennon states.
“Seeing if they can they reproduce that mentality and work, that’s going to be the fascinating bit…to see can they do it again.”
McElkennon compares Monaghan and Tyrone, football mad counties side by side. The difference is how Monaghan have squeezed more out of the smaller number of clubs by comparison.
“There is a lot of good work being done in Monaghan football,” he adds. “It’s all about the conveyor belt through underage to u-17s with the hope of u-20s bridging on into senior.”
Derry have turned the corner he feels, but it hasn’t always been like that with a litany of changes in personnel from one management team to another. The Owenbeg revolving door was in full flow and the lack of continuity was stifling any chance of progress.
“Now, they have got a committed group of players who have said they are going to stay loyal through thick and thin and give everything to the jersey. By all accounts and from chatting to the odd Derry player, they are very committed at the minute. There is a team coming in Derry and we haven’t saw the best of them and they might need to be given a bit more time.”
When Derry dipped their toes into strength and conditioning at the turn of the millennium, McElkennon unwrapped the qualifications gained studying in New Zealand on the squad.
He knows they won’t get much fitter or stronger and tapering the programme will be key. He gives huge credit to Rory Gallagher and his backroom team of Enda Muldoon, Ciaran Meenagh and Peter Hughes.
It’s about getting the focus again and ready. Did Derry go to battle in Healy Park and win the war…without a doubt.
Can they do that this Sunday and are they are prepared to go into that battle again, to go to war, like they did against Tyrone?
That’s the million dollar question.
Will they have the intensity and desire to do it all again and when the chips are down, to make all the good decisions like they did in Omagh?
“It is a fascinating game,” McElkennon concludes. “You have one team that is very experienced and you have another team coming for the first time and it is a really hard game to call.
“It is a very young team and people need to give them time. There is a conveyor belt starting to come through in Derry which they should be very proud of and I can see first-hand the work they are doing.”