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O'Rourke has inside track

Farney boss plots fall of native Fermanagh

By Declan Bogue

It's just over 12 months since Monaghan bridged a 26-year gap by beating Tyrone for the first time in the Ulster Championship since the 1988 final.

It was the latest statement from a team that was getting used to making them under the management of Malachy O'Rourke.

This week, we have heard protestations from various Armagh interests telling us that their defeat to Donegal should be taken in the context that they played their league football in Division Three this year.

When O'Rourke took over Monaghan in 2013, they had suffered successive relegations. They won four competitive games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Yet by the summer of 2013, they had won Division Three and an Ulster title, completely upending All-Ireland champions Donegal in the provincial decider. No excuses needed here.

After that win over Tyrone, Monaghan's Dick Clerkin stood in the tunnel talking to reporters and said with typical humour: "Malachy said to us during the week, there's one and a half billion people in China who couldn't care less about that game. That puts things in perspective."

I must confess to a smile of recognition at this revelation.

Five years previously, O'Rourke was managing his native county Fermanagh and brought them to the Ulster final. In dealing with the anxiety brought on by facing teams with far greater reputations - Monaghan, Derry and Armagh - O'Rourke would throw out the old 'one and a half billion people in China' line.

Clever boy, O'Rourke. Wastes nothing.

There is a sense that as a manager, he is not rated as highly as he could be when the conversation comes round to great managers. Part of that comes from his reluctance to become a public figure.

While there are many managers who actively seek and encourage media coverage of themselves, O'Rourke would rather avoid it if at all possible, yet he is engaging company at press evenings and post-match quotes harvesting.

His body of work as a manager is astonishing, with county titles with Cavan Gaels, Errigal Ciaran of Tyrone and Derry's Loup - who he led all the way to a highly unlikely Ulster Club title. He is seriously decorated without even having to touch on the Monaghan Intermediate he won at the start of his coaching journey.

In terms of ranking managers' reading of games, as things stand now, Rory Gallagher might have to share Eamonn Fitzmaurice's pedestal. Right behind them would be O'Rourke. It is an experience hard-won with countless hours spent on the sidelines managing several teams for St Joseph's school in Enniskillen, where he is a PE teacher.

And now, he will manage against his native county in the Championship for the first time on Sunday.

In a couple of years, he will turn 50, so consider his life in the context that he played for Fermanagh for 10 years from the mid-80s to mid-90s, in an era long before county football was fashionable, winning only two Championship games. That says something about the man's staying power.

And he came back to manage them for three years, putting in a serious shift in the face of ever-decreasing circles of success through critical injuries and loss of form and appetite.

He came up against Peter Canavan's edition of Fermanagh in the National League in 2013 and got the better of them that time with the Farney County.

Managing against your own county is not exclusively an Ulster thing, but it is certainly more prevalent around these parts than it is in other provinces. When we look for examples, they are obvious.

Eamonn Coleman managed Cavan against his native Derry in 2004. Mickey Moran, his successor as Derry manager in 1994, managed Donegal against the Oak Leafers in 2002.

Charlie Mulgrew and Pat King both faced their native counties whom they had served with distinction, as manager of Fermanagh.

There is a bit of that going on in Connacht, where John O'Mahoney of Mayo has managed Leitrim and Galway, inevitably coming up against his own, while Luke Dempsey has faced Kildare twice.

But there is a coach-sharing culture in Ulster like none other, which trickles down into the club scene. Like in Tyrone this year, where five from 16 senior clubs, and four from 16 at intermediate level, are managed by Derry men.

It's a tricky scenario O'Rourke faces. He knows all the opposition players. He handed debuts to some, re-invented the careers of others.

Knowing him, they will also know, fear and respect his abilities in the opposition dressing room.

The personal relationships, the loyalties and the shared times he had in the other dressing room provides spectacular mood music.

It creates a dramatic backdrop to what lies in store at Kingspan Breffni Park.

Belfast Telegraph


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