Promising partnership of Monaghan’s McCarron and McManus set to flourish

March 22nd should really be renamed Monaghan Day. In the happy aftermath of Monaghan’s spine-tingling – and latest – great escape against Dublin on the final day of the league, Paul Finlay described it ranking alongside “the most momentous days in Monaghan’s history”.

Whether he meant Monaghan football or the county in general didn’t matter: in the moment, the two were indivisible. Afterwards, Séamus McEnaney waved to the crowd, justifiably exultant. The GPA-led media ban could not have been more ill-timed – denying Banty the opportunity to reflect on the day’s events was, as Sean Moran observed on these pages, “akin to silencing Churchill on VE Day”.

It should have been no surprise, really, that central to game was Jack McCarron. Has there been a more elusive, brilliant and unreadable footballer over the past decade? It was McCarron’s late, long-range free that condemned Dublin to what would have seemed unbelievable at the start of the year: relegation to Division Two. But the Currin man hit 2-6 over the hour and was consistently brilliant in a game defined by the wild fluctuations of a cryptocurrency fad.

His performance echoed his turn a year ago, when he landed a last-gasp extra-time point to sink Galway in a tense relegation play-off. But because this was Dublin and because Monaghan tends to shine when the odds are stacked against them, the game felt like a special, standalone moment. It transcended league – and even championship. It tapped into everything Monaghan football believes itself to be.

“No Conor McManus on the pitch. It speaks volumes for the Monaghan squad and the strength in depth they have. What a player,” marvelled Paul Finlay – no slouch himself – on the radio afterwards. “We’ve seen the skillset that he has. He’s been dogged by injuries all through his career. The last couple of seasons, we’ve really seen him coming into himself. He’s just a delight to watch.

“That chipped goal was something to behold. That free at the end. It’s one Rory Beggan might normally come up and kick for Monaghan. We’ve seen him kick it so many times. Jack was having such a good game, you could see his hand going up: ‘I’ve got this one, Rory’. He kicked such a beautiful, beautiful score. It wasn’t easy, it was from 45 metres out, a little bit of wind behind him.”

It was an accurate summation of a football talent that has flickered brilliantly but intermittently. McCarron has been part of Monaghan senior football since he was called into the squad in 2012. The family name is Monaghan royal stock: his father Ray was an All-Star and twice provincial winner with the champions; his mother is Patricia nee Clerkin, his sister Ellen played on the Monaghan ladies’ teams which contested the All-Ireland finals of 2008,2011’ and 2013 against a Cork team then on an unreasonable winning spree.

Virtuoso talent

So McCarron’s arrival was well flagged but he essentially spent six years either suffering or recovering from injury, beginning with surgery on his shoulder in 2012 and a ligament rupture a year later, when Monaghan won a stunning Ulster title. He made five championship appearances in 2014 but after that, he battled through a dismal series of recurring hamstring issues and then tore ankle ligaments in 2017. Through it all, Monaghan fans could only wonder what a white-hot McCarron and McManus might do to opposition teams if the partnership was given a chance to flourish.

At last, a clear picture is beginning to emerge. McManus is now 34 years old and while he remains a virtuoso talent, Monaghan have moved on from the era when he was their lone star up front.

The 4-17 Monaghan piled on Armagh in the blazing sunshine of last year’s Ulster semi-final was probably the truest glimpse of the potency of the McCarron-McManus combination. McManus finished with 1-6. McCarron had 1-1 and also set up the two other goals. In retrospect, moving the Ulster final to Croke Park was a novelty Monaghan could have done without. Limiting the pair to just 0-5 and just one point from play (McManus) was the starting point of Tyrone’s unexpected All-Ireland run. It was quickly forgotten by everyone outside Monaghan that just a single point divided them from the ultimate winners last year.

There has been a sense of unfinished business about them. McCarron hit 0-7 in Monaghan’s comfortable dismissal of Down, 0-5 of those from play. At long last, it seems as though the Monaghan crowd look set to see two of the best attacking talents in a generation work their magic.

The typical report sheet on McCarron details a brilliant left-foot oriented attacking talent with natural playmaking facilities and perhaps an absence of elite-level forward speed. The speed issue has always seemed a bit overstated: McCarron’s style of play is so relaxed that he often appears unhurried. Oddly, his game mirrors another player who managed to work magic out of unpromising situations; the current Derry manager Rory Gallagher.

The Belleek man often poked fun at his own lack of speed. But it never prevented him from creating the space he needed to thrive and stand apart in Ulster’s amphitheatres. Devising a plan to stop McCarron from doing just that will be one of his key priorities for an Ulster semi-final that has an old-fashioned, heavyweight aura about it.


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