Donal Keogan has Ronan Ryan in support as he is challenged by Rory Beggan during Meath’s NFL Div 1 clash with Monaghan in 2020. Photo: David Mullen /

Litany of injuries have severely hampered Monaghan

MONAGHAN VIEW Plenty of twists and turns expected in tight group

Monaghan will be hoping that the All-Ireland SFC can kick-start what has been a season fraught with difficulty, with a seemingly endless barrage of injuries testing their panel to its limit, writes local Monaghan sports journalist Colm Shalvey.

Having already lost Kieran Hughes, Conor Boyle, Shane Carey, Fintan Kelly and AFL recruit Karl Gallagher during the off-season and with Niall Kearns also remaining Down Under for a second year, Monaghan also had to go through the league without NFL hopeful Rory Beggan. The 2018 All-star goalkeeper returned to the fold for the championship opener against Cavan, but after spending last weekend undergoing a trial in Carolina, his status remains up in the air, despite not having been signed up by the Panthers.

Vinnie Corey’s side threatened to confound the consensus once more when they began their 10th consecutive Div 1 bid with a bang and a win over Dublin, but the chief architects of that result – Stephen O’Hanlon and Mícheál Bannigan – were hamstrung for much of the campaign, with O’Hanlon yet to feature since going off at half-time of the loss to Derry in February. 2023 All-Star Conor McCarthy, Dessie Ward, Seán Jones and Ryan McAnespie have also sat out chunks of the year to date.

Relegation and a tame showing against the Breffni men in the Ulster opener has left expectations on the floor for Monaghan fans, but the optimists will hope that the six-week break since the early exit from Ulster will have given ample opportunity to regroup and get some players fit and firing.

Kerry enter Group 4 as runaway favourites, but it’s anyone’s guess who emerges on top from the trio of north-eastern counties looking to make a mark, all of whom will ply their trade in NFL Div 2 next year.

Corey and co got Monaghan upping their performance levels throughout 2023 as they fought tooth and nail to eke out a place in the last four of the All-Ireland; they will need a similar rate of improvement over the next number of weeks.

That run to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final will have enticed some of Monaghan’s longest-serving campaigners to commit to another crack at it, not least Conor McManus and Darren Hughes, who both battled with Meath as far back as 2007.

Sadly, Hughes has seen his 18th season in the white and blue cut short by an injury that forced him to be stretchered off early in the second half of the loss to Cavan. The veteran sweeper, whose absence was felt as Cavan sliced through for three goals to decide the derby, has admitted that his season is “a write-off”; Monaghan supporters will hope that theirs as a collective doesn’t face the same fate.

The games between Monaghan, Louth and Meath look set to be pivotal in shaping this group. Monaghan haven’t met either of the Leinster sides often in recent years – except for a topsy-turvy draw with Meath in 2020 – but they will be facing teams at different stages of upward curves.

Widely regarded as one of Gaelic football’s sleeping giants, Meath are climbing the ladder again. Winning the second edition of the Tailteann Cup last year won’t feature too highly on the roll of honour of a county that has won seven All-Ireland SFC titles, but more importantly, it ensured that Meath would be back where they belong in the Sam Maguire Cup this summer.

An All-Ireland MFC victory in 2021 and a provincial u-20 title this year has added to the sense that Meath are on the way back, even if a heavy Leinster SFC defeat to Dublin added pressure on Colm O’Rourke to show some signs of progress this summer.

There will be plenty of Monaghan interest in the form of James Conlon, son of Mickey, who gave years of service to Rockcorry before joining the St Colmcille’s club. Eoghan Frayne, Mathew Costello and Jordan Morris are among others to have caught the eye up front, although the latter (who kicked seven points off the bench in Clones in 2020) joins Shane Walsh in a race against time to recover from injury. Having succeeded the ever-present Dónal Keogan as captain, Ronan Jones will be a key player at midfield, an area where Monaghan have struggled for a consistent partnership this year.

While the new structure is likely to lead to another ‘slow-burning’ championship, Group 4 has the potential to produce its share of twists and turns.