DAVID BYRNE INTERVIEW: FORMER MONAGHAN FOOTBALLER
By Daire Walsh
After bridging an enormous gap at Pearse Stadium last weekend, the Monaghan footballers have another in their sights at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon. An overwhelmingly comprehensive 0-16 to 0-8 success over Galway in their final Super 8 game helped the Farney Army to progress to an All-Ireland SFC semi-final for the first time in 30 years.
While the Tribesmen were already guaranteed a place in the last-four of the Sam Maguire Cup (ending their own 17-year quest for a penultimate round spot), Monaghan set about their business in a thoroughly professional manner.
This set-up a mouthwatering showdown with Tyrone, as they bid to reach an All-Ireland decider for the first time since 1930. Their sole appearance in the final stage ended in a 3-11 to 0-2 defeat to Kerry – and when you examine some of the biggest defeats in Monaghan’s recent history, it is the province of Munster who have provided them with the great level of heartbreak.
Ger Power and Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston goals gave the Kingdom a 2-9 to 0-9 victory in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final replay and it was Cork who got the better of Sean McCague’s men on their last visit to this stage three years later.
An agonising 2007 quarter-final reversal to eventual champions Kerry was the closest they had come to upsetting the apple cart in recent times, even more so than their losses to Tyrone at the same phase in 2013 and 2015 – when they entered the All-Ireland series as Ulster champions.
Iniskeen midfielder David Byrne was a regular fixture alongside Hugo Clerkin (father of noughts star Dick) on the Monaghan team throughout the 1980s and featured in that disappointing 1-14 to 0-6 defeat against the Rebels on this weekend 30 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, he views the 1985 drawn encounter with Kerry as more of a missed opportunity that the semi-final that followed.
“The team three years prior to that drew with Kerry in a semi-final and were subsequently beaten by that great Kerry team. That’s probably, when I look back at that era, more of an opportunity missed. Monaghan didn’t really played particularly well in the  semi-final against Cork,” Byrne recalls.
“It would be an opportunity missed and I think for this set of players, some of them have been around for quite some time. It really is a question of seizing the moment and emptying the tank on the field.
“Because they really need to leave that field on Sunday knowing in their hearts of hearts that they’ve absolutely given everything that they can give. Not to have any regrets about it.”
Given their similar levels of success – like much of the current crop, Byrne is a holder off two Ulster SFC titles – it is understandable that parallels have been made between the present squad under Malachy O’Rourke and their 80s equivalents.
Though reluctant to directly compare the individual players that have dined at the top table of Gaelic football all of three decades apart, Byrne can nevertheless see where the comparisons come from.
“As is evident, the game has changed considerably now and there’s very, very little kick it up the field and hope that the full-forward will get it. With the odd exception, it’s about retaining possession now. Perhaps the players now… I don’t think it would be fair to say that they’re more mobile, but they’re a big emphasis now on the running game and retaining possession, and not giving it away.
“How would they compare? It’s a difficult one to answer. I suppose, the similarities would be in that we got to three All-Ireland semi-finals. We were a kick of a ball away from it. In terms of comparisons, it’s there and it’s so close.
“I think players, especially players from the lesser counties like Monaghan in terms of population, you want to believe this will come around next year or the following year.
“It mightn’t necessarily work that way, so what they really have to focus their minds on is ‘this is it, it’s all about this game Sunday’. The opportunity may never cross your path again. The comparison is there, perhaps not in terms of what team would beat the other or who has the better players.
“It’s quite a similar set-up in the sense that they’ve been knocking at the door for quite a while. In fact, even longer than the team I was on, trying to make the breakthrough. This is the furthest stage now that they’ve got.”
Despite being a regular fixture at the business end of the Championship for quite some time, Monaghan’s prospects for the year were decidedly glum when they were ambushed by Fermanagh in an Ulster semi-final on June 3rd.
Following a very positive league campaign that saw them narrowly missing out on a place in the Division One final, this was an undoubted set-back for Malachy O’Rourke’s charges. With a 2016 qualifier defeat to Longford still lodged in their memory banks, they had to be wary of a similar fate through the back-door.
However, thanks to triumphs over Waterford, Leitrim and Laois (all of whom operated in Division Four during the springtime) they advanced to the newly-created Super 8 round robin with minimal fuss.
Given the level of opposition they had faced up to that point, it was unclear what kind of challenge Monaghan would pose. Subsequent performances against Kildare, Kerry and Galway helped to restore confidence within the county, however, and Byrne believes last week’s emphatic showing against the latter ranks as the best of 2018 thus far.
“The Super 8s, especially, to come out top was a fantastic achievement. I think everyone was pretty much gobsmacked and flattened by the loss to Fermanagh. Having beaten Tyrone and feeling there was a possibility of getting a good crack at the Ulster title by getting into the final. I think that was a huge disappointment, the manner of the defeat as well.
“They’ve re-grouped and got themselves together. Even though you’re playing some lesser teams in the formative stage of the qualifiers, they still have to be beaten. Monaghan lost to Longford two years ago. Not running down Longford, but you can only play who’s in front of you.
“They’ve done well, and again getting back to the Galway game, I thought it was a very, very polished performance. Irrespective of whether Galway had already qualified. I think for both teams, winning the group and avoiding Dublin, that was the carrot. If you factor in all those things, it was a pretty good performance. One of the performances of the year from Monaghan I’d say at this stage.”
As Byrne alludes to, Monaghan have already earned bragging rights over Tyrone in this year’s Championship. In addition to their thrilling two-point success (1-18 to 1-16) at Healy Park, Omagh in the Ulster quarter-final, they also beat the Red Hand on home soil in a February league clash.
Coming out on the right side of two titanic struggles gives Byrne cause for optimism heading into tomorrow’s game – while also acknowledging that Tyrone will be a tough side to break down.
“Given the fact that Monaghan have already beaten Tyrone in both league and championship this year. It is certainly a brilliant, fantastic opportunity to advance, but they can only take one game at a time.
“I think if they adopt the same mindset as they had in the last game on Sunday against Galway, and play with that intensity and aggression, I think they’ve a very, very good chance. Albeit, Tyrone are a very difficult team to beat at the best of times.”
With history set to play such a big part at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon, the pressure on both sets of players is expected to be high.
The attention paid to inter-county players is at a different level to what he experienced, but Byrne (who was named on the Monaghan 125 team in 2009) is confident that Monaghan can put all of that to one side – and focus on the task at hand.
“There’s a lot more media attention now than there was in that day in the sense with social media. All the matches now, every single one is recorded. There were even Championship matches back then, there might not have been a recording of them. Players are a lot more in the spotlight now,” Byrne acknowledged.
“Obviously at semi-final stage a match is televised, but I think this group of players are well used to playing big matches and are level-headed enough to put all that to the side. I think when you’re used to that, you sort of put that out of your head while you’re playing. You have it in your mind’s eye that the crowd is there.
“You can take in the atmosphere, but when the whistle blows you really need to get your mind knuckled down. It’s like another game, it just happens to have more people watching it. You have to dispel the occasion from your mind when the ball actually is thrown in and treat it as if it’s like another game.”
With the reputation of this Monaghan continuing to grow, another victory in GAA HQ would serve as a further string to their bow.