By Niall Gartland
EVEN if some would say it’s been diluted in recent times, the GAA still has a strong community ethos and things have a tendency to come full circle.
Take the Monaghan minor team of 2008. One of their key players that year was a young Dermot Malone, a promising soccer talent who threw his lot in with the GAA. He’s now manager of the Monaghan minor side that are 60 minutes away from winning the Tommy Markham Cup for the first time in their history.
His right-hand man is Paul O’Connor, the county’s long-standing Games Development Officer. He helped manage the Monaghan minor team when Malone was coming through the ranks. The ties that bind.
The Monaghan minor team of 2008 is an interesting story in itself. They were hockeyed by Derry on a scoreline of 1-10 to 0-1 in the Ulster Championship of 2007 but they avenged that defeat a year later en route to a narrow Ulster final defeat to the eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone, a team with youngsters like Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Kyle Coney in their ranks.
That Monaghan team fared even better when it came to producing future senior stars. Dermot Malone, Colin Walshe, Fintan Kelly, Kieran Hughes, Christopher McGuinness and their current captain Kieran Duffy were all part of that side.
Their manager at the time, Bernie Murray, a former Monaghan player himself, says the common denominator in all this is Paul O’Connor, one of the unsung heroes of Monaghan football.
Murray said: “Everything changed when Paul became Games Development Officer in 2007. He got involved with the county minors, was involved with the county’s Vocationals team that won three Ulsters and an All-Ireland. He was involved with the u-20 team that reached the Ulster final a couple of years ago.
“He’s in charge of all the development squads right now and he knew we’d a good group coming through this year. Dermot Malone had just finished up playing with Monaghan and was keen to get involved, and he said he’d take the manager job if Paul would guide him through as a right-hand man.
“It’s amazing to think that 15 years on, Paul is back in as coach having seen these players come through the development squads while one of our main players in 2008 is now the manager.”
The manager of the current Monaghan minors, Dermot Malone, had a stellar inter-county career and retired last November citing medical reasons because taking the reins of the minors, and doing a damn good job with it. Murray recalls that it could’ve been very different for him.
“Dermot is a great lad. There’s an interesting story with Dermot. I’d have gone along to schools matches when I was appointed minor manager and I’d heard he was a very good soccer player.
“Monaghan United were keen to sign him. I introduced myself and asked him what’s the story, and he said ‘you’d better talk to my dad’. I spoke to his dad and explained I was over the minor team with Paul O’Connor and we’re keen for Dermot to be involved.
“His dad rang me back on the Friday and said he wanted Dermot to go with the Gaelic. I remember in 2013 when they won the Ulster title, everyone invaded the pitch afterwards, and who comes over crying only their mother and father, who said ‘only for you Dermot would never have played Gaelic Football.’
Another player from the 2008 minor team who could have starred for Monaghan at senior level but did, however, take up soccer was Mark Connolly. Murray takes up the story.
“We had Mark on our panel in 2007, he was only 15 and never played. He went over to Wolves in January 2008 and we asked him if he’d come in for the Derry semi-final and he did, he played midfield and was one of the reasons we beat them.
“He went back to Wolves ahead of the Ulster final against Tyrone but had the weekend off. I said if he could get back to Ireland, we’d play him.
“One of the physios at Wolves told him if Mick McCarthy, Wolves manager, got word of it, he’d be blocked from coming back.
“I told Mark we’d get flights organised and have someone to pick him up at the airport, and he came back without anyone knowing. The downside is a super Tyrone team beat us by 0-13 to 0-10. We played Mayo in the quarter-final and they beat us after extra-time. Their centre-forward was a guy called Aidan O’Shea and their ‘keeper was Rob Hennelly.”