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Monaghan ace McManus homes in on final win

By declan bogue

Some day soon, the wrecking balls will swing high in west Belfast and we will know that the new Casement Park is on its way.

 

On the receiving end of that cause-and-effect action lies a stadium 70 miles away that has been the home to Ulster final day since 1970 – with the notable exception of 2004 to 2006 – St Tiernach's Park, Clones.

Anyone under 50 would be doing well to remember the Ulster final at any other venue.

As a boy, Monaghan's Conor McManus would hardly miss one of the finals played only a half hour up the road. By the time Monaghan landed their last Ulster title he was only six months old, so he admits it "didn't bother me too much."

Instead, his youthful mind was fired by the greatest forwards of their generation. When Tyrone played three consecutive Ulster finals in the middle of the 90s, he kept an eye on Peter Canavan.

Down played in four finals the same decade. He recalls Mickey Linden's scorching pace cutting through defences, and Tyrone's Paul Donnelly trying to put a halt to James McCartan's gallop by tossing his boot into the crowd after it came off.

The more sentimental among us would maintain that Clones is still fit for purpose but all the same, it's hard to part company. McManus would be one of those.

"It's great that Casement is getting that new stand and it's a great addition to Ulster," he ponders. "But it's sad that Clones will lose them. It's a pretty special day in Clones with the buzz around the town. It has a certain feel to it."

Monaghan will look to tap into that certain feel when they bound out of the Clones tunnel to meet All-Ireland champions Donegal in the Ulster final on Sunday.

A funny thing. Prior to the semi-final win over Cavan, Monaghan have only played Ulster Championship football in the ground twice since the 2007 final; losing the 2010 final to Tyrone and scraping past Antrim last year.

In the two seasons previous to this, they plummeted from being the side in Division One that nobody liked to play, to a team with that most un-Monaghan of qualities – a soft centre.

Eamonn McEneaney presided over a transitional period and can be said to have been unlucky.

However, the stark facts were that the players found themselves in Division Three at the start of the year.

Some tough talking between themselves, the appointment of Malachy O'Rourke as manager, and they got themselves on the right road again.

"When we were in Division One we were competing and we ran the likes of the Dubs to a point, lost a game in Armagh we should have won, possibly should have stayed up in Division One two years ago," recalls McManus.

"To go from there to Division Three was disappointing."

He adds: "Getting out of Division Three was our main target at the start of the year.

"We achieved that, and winning breeds the winning mentality. It gives any team confidence and has taken us to an Ulster final."

In the diminishing fitness and contributions of Tommy Freeman, McManus is without question the main man in the forward line.

Injury kept him out of the National League last year but he returned to hit 12 points in the Championship.

This year the graph has gone upwards.

With a new system of play getting the most out of him and being entrusted with more free-taking duties, he chalked up 2-32 in seven starts.

In the Championship against a flooded Antrim defence he managed 0-4, three from frees, and when the Ulster semi-final hung in the balance against Cavan with both sides level and only eight minutes remaining, he took a pass from Stephen Gollogly and, despite being double-marked, still managed to squeeze it over.

By the end he had 0-6, three of them from frees.

He knows that Donegal like to play mind games against opposition freetakers.

He already had a taste of it this summer, converting a free against Antrim before turning round and making the universal hand-signal for 'yapping' at an opposition player standing close by.

He's not that bothered by it all though.

"You will try anything to try and get a man to kick it wide I suppose. You could make a case every team is doing it, but I don't think any team are instructed to go out and do it, insofar as individuals take it upon themselves," he says.

His mettle will be tested, but he knows that. "You just have to look at your own game and see where that takes you."

All of Monaghan will hope that will be the steps of Clones at around 6pm on Sunday.

Belfast Telegraph

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