By Niall Gartland
MONAGHAN minors have reached their first All-Ireland final in 84 years and yes, it didn’t just happen by chance.
It’s a relatively small county population wise (28th in the country in fact) but they have their house in order when it comes to gaelic football at all levels. Their flagship team – the senior inter-county footballers – are in the last four of the race for Sam – while their minor counterparts are even closer to getting their hands on the All-Ireland title.
Good footballers aren’t hatched ready-made but nurtured over a course of many, many years through schools, clubs and development squads. A key figure behind the scenes (and that’s understating his considerable influence) is Paul O’Connor, who has been the county’s Games Development Officer since 2007.
He’s also Dermot Malone’s right-hand man, and his infectious enthusiasm for all things Monaghan football was clear as day when we caught up with him for a chat earlier this week.
“The buzz is through the roof and it’s great. Every county craves it and we’re in a very fortunate position, it’s brilliant and all everyone wants to talk about. It’s one of our strengths – we’re a very passionate county as you know, and we’re very supportive of our county teams. You know, parents, clubs, they push their kids to get involved with development squads and you see the benefit of it, that’s a massive strength we have.”
Monaghan traditionally have a reasonable if unspectacular record at underage level but have made steady strides in recent seasons. They won a provincial minor crown in 2019, won an u-21 title at the same level in 2016 and fell short against Down in 2021, a desperately difficult occasion following the death of their captain Brendan Óg Duffy just hours after their semi-final win over Donegal.
Now their minors are on the cusp of a historic All-Ireland title and O’Connor outlines the schools have played a particularly significant role in their underage surge.
“I’m the Games Development Manager in Monaghan and have been since 2007. In terms of our secondary schools, there would have been a period where we would have had enough staff on the ground to send them into secondary schools to assist them and help them.
“Now since Covid, we have lost staff and wouldn’t have the numbers that we did have. But we do roll our initiatives specifically targeted at our secondary schools. We have blitzes catering for first, second and third years, boys and schools, giving every child an opportunity to represent their school.
“To be fair, most counties would do that, but when you talk about our secondary school structures, the biggest advantage we have is that we have key people at key roles in our schools with a genuine interest in and passion for GAA and they drive it and they push it on. Whether it’s the Principal or Vice-Principal, they have a genuine interest in developing Gaelic Games and have a passion for Monaghan.
“We’d assist in various ways, between taking a session, strength and conditioning or bringing in high-profile coaches to come in doing a workshop. For example we’d Donie Buckley and Liam Sheedy in over the last number of years and encourage our secondary school teachers to come to those workshops.”
O’Connor also points out that their secondary schools are playing at an extremely high level in their respective schools competitions, and that’s without mentioning the work done by the clubs as well.
“Our secondary schools are playing at the highest level they’ve ever been. We’ve three teams at MacRory level, and a number of schools in the Rannafast at u-16.5 level. All our schools are doing sterling work no matter what grade it’s at. It’s hugely beneficial to us at intercounty level.”
“A lot of work has been done on the ground and our club structures are very good, they’re investing in the youth and putting good coaching structures in place. There’s huge emphasis on developing coaches and improving the standard. We work closely with the clubs to try do that, and that collaboration is ensuring the players are coming first and they’re reaping the rewards of having high quality people involved in them.”
As for Sunday’s All-Ireland final clash against Derry, O’Connor is counting down the hours at this stage and he’s enjoying being able to lend assistance to manager and clubmate Dermot Malone.
“Ah it’s great and obviously I knew the level Dermot Malone was at from his involvement with Castleblayney, he was heavily involved with the team that won a u-15 double and a minor double. I knew how good he was and they were very keen to get him involved.
“He also wore the Monaghan county jersey for a number of years so the minors have a huge respect for him, and I think it’s very fortunate that most of these Monaghan players who are retiring from inter-county duty become involved with coaching the new lads coming through. We all look up to and admire what they did for Monaghan.”