JACK MADDEN: Out with the old, in with the new

“He’s the most driven man and footballer in Monaghan.”

THE above sentence jotted down by Brendan Crossan in May 2018 was quite the compliment from Séamus McEnaney. It’s the kind of thing that Vinny Corey probably appreciates deep down, not that he’d tell you that. You don’t become the most driven man in Monaghan if you’re driven by sentiment and kind heartedness.

Self-praise is no praise at all, and a steely determination becomes paper thin in absorbing the pats on the back like Roz Purcell would the rays of summer sunshine. You almost have to ignore them altogether, or at least convince the outside world you’re oblivious to your own excellence. That’s the GAA way, and it’s a culture that Corey would know better than most.

The summer of 2018 was one of the sunniest the Farney County had ever seen in both metaphorical and meteorological terms, but a Qualifier defeat to Armagh a year later was to be the end of Malachy O’Rourke’s glittering era at the helm.

Untypically burned out at the height of summer, free to join Purcell on the beaches. Free to go wherever and do whatever, the boundary-less off-season tends to entail when the sun is still high in the sky.

O’Rourke was likely at a loose end without at least one trip to Jones’ Road. Likewise Vinny Corey.

That November the loose end was to be looser still, when Corey announced his inter-county retirement.

Those words of the manager-to-be McEnaney, and likely many more, were not to be enough to coax the Clontibret man into one more year. Done and dusted, out the gap at 36.

Back then they said he was experienced, a veteran, a great servant, and all the rest of it. If you were on a train journey from young to old, then any of those words could be the name of the station at the second last stop.

Isn’t it ironic after his managerial debut, he is now inexperienced, young, and learning his trade, 74 months down the line?

As the Harp ad says, it’s all about perspective.

It is so typical of sport that that line of McEnaney’s holds more weight almost a full four years later, with the Corduff man’s second spell in charge having coincided with the first Vinny Corey-less spell in white and blue since 2002.

That is not to say the two-time Anglo Celt winner has been in hibernation in the short years between player and manager. Indeed in 2022 he remained one of Clontibret’s key men in their senior championship campaign.

His presence on the pitch exudes some sort of contagious confidence, with his coaching capabilities striking in his clear, concise, and constant instructions to his teammates.

Constant, but never ever unnecessary.

Indeed if you would require that from any position on the pitch it would be centre-back, the man who steers the ship. He is also experienced at full-back and full-forward, knowing what each and every teammate requires, and what each and every member of the opposition detests, down to the finest details.

Clontibret’s SFC campaign only ended a little over 13 weeks ago, with Corey having mixed it with the best the county had to offer only a matter of months before his management team faced the task of selecting his first Monaghan panel.

Perhaps the most interesting selection of them all is his teammate Francie Hughes’ inclusion, a man who has opted out of panels in the past.

Hughes is well established at centre-field, often partnering fellow county man Killian Lavelle, but for all his experience he remains relatively young.

Neither of last year’s first choice pairing of Darren Hughes and Niall Kearns were on the panel for the defeat against Down in the McKenna Cup opener, with the former now 35 years of age. Their midfield could definitely do with uncovering a few hidden gems.

The Farney men have been boosted however by the return of Carrickmacross ace Stephen O’Hanlon, who burst onto the inter-county scene with a goal against Dublin in a league win in 2019. 21-year old Sean Jones seems to have come of age in the full-forward line, while Karl Gallagher could be another to freshen up the attack having dazzled for Emyvale in the intermediate ranks this year.

If McEnaney’s second coming was dealing with a team in transition, then this is a new era altogether. Last week saw the retirement of stalwarts Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe, with the links back to the 2013 Ulster winning side now down to four, in the shape of 2018 All-Stars Conor McManus and Rory Beggan, as well as the Hughes brothers, Darren and Kieran.

For Corey, it is tough to know what will constitute success in 2023. After the turbulence of Covid-19, calendar changes, and a new championship structure, it seems that for the first time in almost half a decade, we may have some sort of stability.

For Monaghan, it is always tough to look too far ahead, and they will be keen for some early league points to avoid a repeat of last year’s great escape. The added incentive of qualification for the All-Ireland last 16 based on league standing places all the more impetus on those first few fixtures.

Like the McKenna Cup, the league will commence in Castleblayney, this time against Armagh. At a glance however it appears as though there will already be a crunch clash with Tyrone in Clones in the penultimate round on March 19th. A trip to Omagh then awaits for a championship battle just a matter of weeks later.

On Corey’s last championship trip to Healy Park, he scored Monaghan’s only goal to dethrone the champions on their home patch.

It is a good omen for the Farney men, but one which Corey will keep locked away until the time comes, in the heat of championship battle.

For now, it is back to the McKenna Cup. Even in a new era, one of such change, some things stay the same. And with the most driven man in the county at the helm, Monaghan will undoubtedly take it one game at a time.

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