As much as the longevity of Michael Murphy’s career in a Donegal jersey is celebrated and recognised, consider the following about another of the finest players of his generation.
Conor McManus is 34. Yes, 34. 34 years old. Two years older than the retiring Joe Canning. Almost three older than Murphy. When Murphy made his Championship debut in 2007, McManus actually played in that year’s Ulster final, coming on as a sub for Ciaran Hanratty.
And there he was, almost a fortnight ago, facing a Championship exit while two points down with six minutes remaining of their Ulster semi-final against Armagh.
There are no second chances. There is no backdoor. Considering his age, McManus might be playing his final Championship. So he bent the game to his will, being fouled for three late frees that he dusted himself off to convert and kick down the door to another Ulster final.
This will be his sixth Ulster final. He hasn’t been there since they won his second in 2015. There hasn’t been a forward like him since Nudie Hughes. And they might never have known, having only been switched to the attack for the 2008 Ulster Championship defeat to Fermanagh.
In summing up what he brings to the Monaghan team, David McCague, the de-facto manager since Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney was banned after a training breach during lockdown, reaches for his mental strength.
“Conor brings that fantastic skillset, it’s an exceptional skill set really, and a very strong mentality as well,” explains McCague.
“He has that strength of character that he can take on responsibility in clutch moments of games.
“But it’s no good having that strength of character if you can’t back it up with the skillset and Conor is a fantastic example to all of our young players in the county as to what is possible if you put your mind to honing your skills.”
Never more so than in those closing moments in Newry. For one of the frees, McManus had taken a heavy knock. His opponent then put him into a headlock on the ground, for whatever reason.
When he got up, he was clearly a little groggy. Goalkeeper Rory Beggan was close by and there might have been a belief that he could take the pressure kick. McManus would not hear of it.
“We were sitting in the stand in those moments in Newry the last day, sort of the question mark (of) who takes this free?” explains McCague.
“Look it, the line we have is whoever wants to take it. Conor never wavered. He stepped up. There was no discussion with Rory. He was the man to take the free.
“That’s fantastic that we can rely on somebody with that strength of personality in those clutch moments.
“He is a phenomenal footballer and a phenomenal guy.”
McCague has been thrust into the spotlight because of McEnaney’s absence.
A club footballer with Scotstown, he has been coaching with McEnaney since his second coming with the minor squads.
“In terms of taking the reins for the National League I didn’t really see it that way,” says the reluctant manager.
“I was part of a management team and our role is very much as a facilitative group for the players.
“I was blessed to be joined by Vinny Corey and Donie Buckley on that part of that process this year and also we are backed up by a fantastic backroom team.
“I don’t really know how it has helped me so far. Only time will tell. But look, it’s a fantastically enjoyable experience because of the people you get to work with and the men you get to know.”