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McManus has always had a touch of magic

McConville and McEnaney hail Monaghan star as one of the best in the modern game ahead of Ulster semi-final battle with Donegal

By Declan Bogue

Further confirmation of where Conor McManus resides in the pantheon of marquee forwards came over the RTÉ radio airwaves yesterday morning, with no less a judge than Tomás Ó Sé saying that he is the "best forward in the game now".

That kind of praise has been knocking around among the Monaghan players ahead of tonight's Ulster Championship semi-final with Donegal, and they challenge journalists regularly to name one better. But when the praise comes without local prejudice, it means more.

Oisín McConville believes it too, subtly pointing out that when Bernard Brogan left the familiar confines of Croke Park for the first time in his career a few weeks ago, he was scoreless after 51 minutes and substituted by Jim Gavin.

In last year's Ulster final, McManus had not touched the ball in the first 25 minutes. Three minutes later, he and his marker Neil McGee were awarded yellow cards. McGee is a fearsome marker and two stone heavier than McManus but by half-time, the Monaghan captain had four points and stuck his head in the jaws of the lion by playfully tapping McGee's chest after winning the physical stakes to net one particular point.

Last Tuesday, the 28-year-old Clontibret man was in Croke Park for an Electric Ireland launch, promoting minor football. The irony wasn't lost on him that he was omitted from Paddy Bates' minor squad in 2005. Two years later, he was playing a senior Ulster final.

"When you are that age, all you can envision is being a county minor and your sole ambition is to get on the team. Whenever you don't make it, it can set you back," said McManus.

His club made it to a league final. In 2006 he was wing-forward as they beat Scotstown. As luck would have it, they were drawn against Crossmaglen in the Ulster Club Championship. He played wing-back with the explicit instruction to keep McConville (above) in his own half.

McConville, frustrated after being sent off for two yellow card offences, came back on the field to have a word with this pale and skinny youth.

McConville recalled: "I went back onto the pitch to speak to him. I knew he was a young lad and I just said, 'keep at it, it will happen for you'.

"I am not sure whether it was his dad or somebody else, but someone said to me that they appreciated me doing that.

"I knew he was pretty special, he put me on the back foot and he scored a point that day too. But he was nine or 10 stone wet through. He wouldn't have been physical, but he had the ability to go on."

On the back of those performances, Seamus McEnaney called him into the county Under-21 training panel. Before long, he had leap-frogged that level and into the world of senior football.

McEnaney recalls tracking him as a youngster coming through the under-age levels.

"Myself and Adrian Trappe who was my selector in 2007, watched him and felt he was the best young fella coming up in Monaghan at 16-years-old," he stated.

"I remember he was injured for a game and I sent him to look at Cavan, who we were coming up to play the next week. He came back with the stats on the opposition and it was brilliant. That's the kind of trust I had in him when he was 21 years of age.

"He is, in my opinion, probably the best forward in the country at the minute and probably the most modest footballer I have ever known."

When he was dragged down by Sean Cavanagh in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final as he was heading for goal, McManus gave an honest response and didn't make much fuss; if he had have been in the same situation, he would have done the same thing.

He works for the MCR group in Dublin, consulting over the biggest construction jobs in Ireland. He is no slow dozer.

McConville said: "I think the standout forwards in the country are himself and Bernard Brogan. Brogan has only just developed into that.

"It's easier to find space in Croke Park. Try and find it in Clones. The strange thing is that on that evening in Portlaoise, Bernard Brogan was taken off with the game played in Nowlan Park.

"It's a lot easier to operate in large spaces, but when you are operating in small pockets of space, in Clones when you are being double and treble marked…"

Tonight, there will be plenty of that. McManus might have Paddy McGrath for company and Karl Lacey can double up on him. The best thing is that it won't faze him.

McConville agrees. He added: "He is ballsy as anything. You can talk to him, try and intimidate him, but he will keep going and going.

"The 12 points he scored against Dublin were from ridiculous angles. And on a s****y February night! It was just an amazing bit of forward play."

Forward play that Donegal have to stop if they are to reach the Ulster final.

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