TWO YEARS ago, in the days after Monaghan won their first Ulster title in 25 years, Kieran Shannon touched on Malachy O’Rourke’s influence through his column in The Irish Examiner.
Shannon is one of the country’s top sportswriters who also dabbles in sports psychology.
Most recently, Shannon worked with the Mayo footballers during James Horan’s tenure as manager, but in 2008 he was involved with Fermanagh.
O’Rourke was the Erne County boss and they came within a whisker of winning the Anglo-Celt for the first time. Fermanagh had Armagh on the rack, but the Orchard shook their heads clear and took victory in a replay.
Former Fermanagh player O’Rourke almost broke the mould for his native county and in 2013 he Monaghan to where no Farney team had gone since 1988 – winning an Ulster title as they stunned Jim McGuinness’s Donegal.
“For each of those games, and no doubt for last Sunday too, Malachy had his team suitably focused, suitably confident and – critically – suitably relaxed,” Shannon wrote two summers ago.
“The stereotype of a new-school manager is someone meticulous but essentially humourless. O’Rourke only fits half that profile. ‘Keep Cool’ was his mantra and that became one of the team’s, even when they were barely hanging onto that championship high wire.”
Rory Gallagher, the Donegal manager and a fellow Fermanagh native from Belleek, recalls O’Rourke from when they both donned the county jerseys.
“While he was quiet – he wouldn’t have been a big talker back then – from a playing perspective, he was exceptionally committed,” Gallagher said last week.
“I remember seeing him training on his own at the Lakeland Forum, practising his frees. He has a good personality, he’s very witty.”
As a manager, Derrylin native O’Rourke has won senior championship titles at club level wherever he’s gone; in Derry with Loup, in Cavan with Cavan Gaels and in Tyrone with Errigal Ciaran. For good measure, he steered Tyholland to an Intermediate crown in Monaghan.
It was to O’Rourke that Monaghan turned to in 2012. In succeeding Eamonn McEneaney, who had tried to move them on from Séamus McEnaney’s reign only to see them go backward, there were hopes that O’Rourke could steady the ship.
Not only has he managed that, taking Monaghan back into Division 1 and now steering them to a third Ulster final in a row, but it was a measure of their standing that they topped the bookmakers blackboards for the Anglo-Celt at the outset of this summer.
Merely making it to this stage certainly won’t suffice for O’Rourke this weekend.
“They have won games when they have been favourites, they have won games when they have been underdogs , they have experienced every emotion and experienced different build-ups to games, but the type of fellas that they are – they are not going to looking back and congratulating themselves on getting to at third Ulster final, they want to go and finish it out and win the game,” he says.
“You try to learn as you go along. Last year in the final, we didn’t prepare as well as we would have liked, we didn’t get the performance we wanted and Donegal were deserving winners.
“We have to learn from that and we have to bring a better performance and do things better all over the field.
“We also have to learn from the championship matches we played this year.”
Monaghan haven’t hit the high notes to date. They just got past old foes Cavan 0-16 to 0-15 in a quarter-final, when Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan spurned two late frees.
Against Fermanagh, they were more than flattered by the ten-point winning margin on a day when Owen Duffy, Christopher McGuinness and Stephen Gollogly contributed six points off the bench.
With the likes of Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay also appearing as substitutes, O’Rourke has plenty of strength in reserve.
He says: “It is very pleasing, and that is something we are trying to do all the time, grow the panel.
“During the national league, a number of younger fellas were getting meaningful game time and were comfortable playing with the team.
“It meant come the championship, we were able to throw them in as well as that, make sure the more experienced lads were up to speed.
“Obviously, everyone wants to start the game, there is no point in saying otherwise, but it is just about getting that understanding within the panel that even though everyone wants to start, that’s not possible.
“It’s about having fellas who are not starting, that are coming in with the right mentality and they aren’t coming in carrying a load of disappointment but they are coming in, chomping at the bit to make an impact.
“We are very pleased with the way the subs have come in and the impact they have made.”
“It is great that you have guys on the bench who have been there before and you know it is not going to faze them. They want to get on the ball, so it is nice having that luxury, having experienced fellas that are there.
“We’re creating that environment where everyone knows they have a role to play.”
After Donegal thumped Armagh in their quarter-final at the Athletic Grounds, Orchard manager Kieran McGeeney suggested that he had noticed chinks in the Tír Chonaill armour.
“I might just ask Kieran where they were, I didn’t see that many of them in fairness,” O’Rourke says.
“I thought Donegal were set up very strong and gave the Armagh forwards very little room. There were very chinks there and going forward Donegal were very clinical.
“I thought one of the big things that day was their decision making. I though their decision making on the ball and off the ball as well … the fellas off the ball were making runs at the right time and making the right angles. That was crucial to their success.
“Armagh probably had the same amount of attacks but Donegal made much better use of them. The right person usually took the shot and from the right position.”
Back in March, Monaghan overcame Donegal 0-9 to 1-4 in O’Donnell Park. That National League fixture was derided in the days and weeks afterwards with Jarlath Burns subsequently proclaiming ‘the death of Gaelic football’.
For the men patrolling the sidelines on Sunday, the scoreboard at the sound of David Coldrick’s final whistle is all that matters.
O’Rourke says: “When you are in charge of a team, you want that team to win and if Monaghan win this game two-one, I don’t think there will be too many people in Monaghan complaining about the game as a spectacle.”