By Shaun Casey
LAST December, Monaghan stalwart Dermot Malone stepped away from the inter-county scene following 12 years of service in the blue and white.
Known for his work-rate and his warrior-like approach around the middle of the field, persistent knee trouble meant Malone had to say goodbye and hang up the boots.
The Castleblayney Faughs man went through a torrid time. His knee problems started over a decade ago but began to flare up again last year.
“I actually got two operations in about three years (during the early days of his Monaghan career), removing a bit of cartilage, there’s not much cartilage left in my left knee,” he said.
“It just started to get sore January last year and I couldn’t get rid of the pain. I went in May to see a specialist and he basically told me, ‘Listen your days are numbered; you can try to finish it out for the season with a couple of injections.’
“I got a few injections which was great. I still had a glimmer of hope, and I went in for an experimental enough treatment with stem cell surgery in October. Unfortunately, two days later it went pretty badly. I got an infection in it and septic arthritis set in and I was in hospital for a full two months almost on an IV drip and in a pretty bad way.
“I’ve been on the mend since, but it can be a lengthy enough recovery from that. Where I am at the minute in regard to the knee, I’m not sure. I have a lot of work to do with rehab and that but whether I’m able to play football or not is another story.
“Mentally I wasn’t too bad. When I was first told I had to hang the boots up I was very disappointed. I’m fortunate that I have a wee bit of perspective in life, I had a good run at football there for a long period of time.
“You look at the likes of what happened Brendan Óg Duffy from Monaghan a year or two ago when he unfortunately died in a car accident. Being told that you can’t play football anymore isn’t the end of the world. At the end of the day, it really is only a hobby, and I had a good run at it.
“When I was in the hospital with the septic arthritis, it wasn’t a mental issue, it was physical. I was in a lot of pain for a long period of time. I was bedridden and on an IV drip four times a day for I think it was eight weeks nearly in total.”
Looking ahead to the future, ‘Bugsy’, a nickname he picked up working on the building sites years ago, states that it’s an “inevitability” that he will need a knee replacement at some stage.
“It’s not really a fear, it’s an inevitability. I don’t think I’ll be getting to 50 or 60 before I’m looking a knee replacement.
“I went in for a check-up there recently and the doctor said, ‘you might even need one in a year if things go really bad’. I don’t think I’m that bad yet but it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when I’m getting a knee replacement.
“I had a fair idea that might be the case even before the knee got sore. When you go in for knee operations, you’re told at the time that there is a good chance you’ll need a knee replacement.”
Gaelic football wasn’t the only sport Malone tried his hand at. He was an accomplished soccer player in his younger days as well. But the tradition of GAA in his family and the lure of the Monaghan jersey was enough to leave the soccer world behind.
“My father and my family in general were all diehard football people and I would have been going to games from a very young age. I would have played with a lot of development squads in Monaghan, my ambition all the time would have been to play and represent my county and my club if at all possible.
“I played soccer nearly all my juvenile years, from I was maybe 12 to I was 17, I was heavily into the soccer. I had to make a decision then at one stage it was either soccer or Gaelic and I thought I’d go with the Gaelic.
“Dundalk had actually offered me a contract at the time to play with the seniors, I was only 15 or 16. Then the county minors were coming rapping on the door, when you’re trying to play both of them and whatever else I was doing, it was an eight days a week job.
“It was a tough decision, but I think ultimately the fact that I came from a Gaelic background, my parents loved it and all my friends were all playing Gaelic football, I think that’s what nudged it. When you’re playing away with Dundalk and Monaghan United, they’re not your local friends and I think that had a large say in it.
“Our county minor managers at the time were actually ‘Mousey’ (Paul) O’Connor and Bernie Murray and they were a great help. Pete McMahon in Castleblayney was very helpful in making that decision for me.”
That minor team reached the 2008 Ulster final but lost out to eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone, a constant running theme throughout Malone’s career.
“We played the year before (2007) and Derry hammered us by something like 2-12 to 0-1. That was before a senior game with the big crowd, that was a real, real low point.
“The next year we gathered a bit of momentum and got to the Ulster final. Tyrone had pipped us; they probably were the better team. Then we got to the All-Ireland quarter-final and Mayo just pipped us after extra time as well. That was a real tough one to take, both teams going on to the (All-Ireland) final.”
Only Conor McManus and Darren Hughes have recorded more senior appearances in the last decade than Dermot Malone and it all started under Seamus McEnaney back in 2009, when his first knee injury kept him out of championship action.
“’Banty’ brought me in in 2009 and funny enough I actually started the first couple of games in the league, I played every game in the league that year.
“The week before the championship there was a training game against Laois and I went over on my knee, I was out then for about eight months. It was a long road getting back, there were a lot of mistakes made when I was that age until I got back into recovery.
“I didn’t do much rehab at the time. I would have listened to an awful lot of stuff growing up, ‘you’re young and fit, you’ll get it back without doing much’. I didn’t do too much rehab and it was a long recovery period to get myself back to where I was.
“’Banty’ was over us at the u-21s at the time and he gave me the captain’s armband and he gave me my debut with Monaghan in the league and he probably would have given me my debut in the championship only I got injured.
“I started out with ‘Banty’, and I finished with ‘Banty.’ An absolute top man, he has a top-quality team round him, and I still be speaking to ‘Banty’ on a regular basis, giving him a bit of guff and a bit of bad manners.”
It was under the watchful eye of Malachy O’Rourke that Monaghan finally broke into the top tier and in 2013, they ended a 25-year wait to lift the Anglo Celt Cup.
They beat Jim McGuinness’ seemingly unbeatable Donegal team that were the reigning Ulster and All-Ireland champions.
“People would ask me which was your favourite and the first one probably was,” Malone added.
“I remember growing up and supporting Monaghan and they were absolutely starved of success. I still remember them winning the (Division Two) league in 2005 in Croke Park against Meath. I still remember my old man clearing across the fence in Croke Park and mowing through a security guard just in pure elation and going straight to the field.
“That was the only success we ever had and starting out at the time I’d have been thinking if I can win one Ulster title with Monaghan, I’d be happy. That first one against Donegal, against all odds, I think we were 61 at the time. When the final whistle went, I think I was hanging on to Drew Wylie at the time. That was a good emotion.
“It was an interesting one from Malachy O’Rourke, he said it numerous times even before the championship started, that there was one big performance in us. This was before we even kicked a ball.
“That was the sort of mindset. There’s one big performance in us, this is it, do or die. Donegal maybe had a slight bit of complacency as well; they probably didn’t expect us to play as well as we did.
“Our tactics that day were absolutely spot on from the management team. They had us mirroring Donegal’s attack. They identified at the time that Donegal maybe weren’t as good at playing against a blanket defence and we were ravenously hungry as well on top of that.”
As expected, the celebrations were wild. Monaghan had just ended a quarter of a century of hurt and they were going to enjoy it.
“The partying was good craic. He (O’Rourke) told us to have a drink today and the next day and most of us took a day three out of it, we went at it hard and heavy. We were in Monaghan, we were in Dublin, then we were back in Monaghan, we were pretty much all over the county.
“When you win things like that they should be celebrated. There’s a lot of GAA stuff where there’s no drinking and drink bans galore for young fellas, but I think you have to celebrate the wins as long as you don’t get too carried away.”
That ignited an intense rivalry with Donegal, who gained revenge in the 2014 provincial showpiece before setting up a trilogy decider in 2015. While the 2013 final was celebrated, the 2015 success brought more satisfaction to the squad.
“Donegal beat us in 2014 and we were motoring even better in 2014 than we were in 2013. Maybe we had a small bit of complacency going into the final,that ’14 was going to be the same and Donegal beat us that day.
“2015 was a level playing field, both teams went at it. That was a satisfying one for that reason, it (2013) wasn’t just a one trick pony, it wasn’t just a fluke. We won that final purely on merit.
“The Donegal fellas would hit you hard and they’d walk through you but they’re not afraid to shake your hand at the end of the day and walk off. I wouldn’t say there’s any hatred there, for me personally between any Donegal man. It was just literally two teams were going to war, very evenly match and it just so happened that we came across each other a lot.”
The Tir Chonaill side weren’t the only team that Monaghan developed a rivalry with, as Tyrone left a huge imprint on the Farney story of the last decade.
Back in 2013, it was Tyrone who halted Monaghan’s progress in the All-Ireland series off the back of their Ulster Championship success. The same day of Sean Cavanagh’s rugby tackle on Conor McManus and Joe Brolly’s now famous post-match rant.
“I know that we didn’t expect to win Ulster and we won it for the first time, it was a huge relief, but we definitely regathered as a group and said ‘listen, these opportunities don’t come too often, let’s go after it hell for leather.’
“I don’t think we were complacent; I just think Tyrone had the hoodoo sign over us at that stage and in Croke Park, they just got us on the day. That was the day Cavanagh pulled down McManus, if he had have rounded him that day, God knows where we would have been.
“At the time you just thought McManus was in and he was pulled down, standard enough. No one had any gripe against Sean Cavanagh, I think if any of us were in the same position, we would have done the exact same thing ourselves.
“Joe Brolly made a bit of a meal out of it in the end, but I think if any Monaghan man was in the same position, he would have done the exact same.”
The Red Hands repeated the feat in 2018 as the sides locked horns in the All-Ireland semi-final after a dramatic Super 8s campaign that saw Monaghan overcome Kildare and Galway as well as earning a draw against Kerry.
The Kingdom, in a sun-soaked Clones, in the championship. That’s what dreams are made of and it’s up there with the best days of Malone’s career.
“It was energy-sapping, there wasn’t an air around Clones that day. There was a lot of talk of Monaghan, they’d never beaten Kerry in a championship game, and I think that still stands to this day.
“They were coming up and it was a real hostile environment in Clones, Clones was very full. The ball was really dry, the ground was hard, the fact it was that hot, defences couldn’t get set in place and it was basically man-to-man all over the field.
“It was just a shootout out; it was a very enjoyable experience, but we should have held on. It was deflating, Kerry were definitely a lot happier coming out of Clones with a draw that day than we were.”
The next day out was do or die. A win would see Monaghan head to the last four for the first time since 1988. In true warrior fashion, Malone was awesome and put in a Man of the Match display against Galway.
Once again there was cause for celebrations, but the Monaghan players were aware it was ‘only’ a quarter-final. No trophies were handed out that day.
“I remember going to Galway and we definitely knew ‘we have to win it, this is it.’ That was one of the best performances. We played collectively as a team, we were so crisp and so sharp, and Galway were going well at the time too.
“There was a lot of sheer joy of winning that day, but we definitely tried to keep our heads down because the supporters were streaming on to the field and we were very much aware that there was no other team going to be streaming on to the field after winning a quarter-final. We were definitely very conscious not to be celebrating only winning a quarter-final.”
2018 is the one that got away however and again it was Mickey Harte’s Tyrone that dampened the Farney dream. As always, nothing much separated the teams at full time, but Tyrone headed home with another All-Ireland final appearance in the bag.
“There’s only ever been one point, maybe two points in it, but morale victories don’t count for too much. As much as I hate to say it, I have to give them credit, when it came to it, they were fairly good on the day.
“Even when you see them winning the All-Ireland last year, as much as you might have a bit of a rivalry with them, you really have to say ‘well done.’
“If I look back at it now it (2018) probably was one of our best times. ‘18 or maybe 2014, I thought we were going really well even though we lost. I feel it personally, 2018 was our best chance of getting to an All-Ireland final and even though the Dublin team were arguably the greatest team of all time, you just never know. On any given day anybody can beat anyone.”
It was against Tyrone that Malone last entered the field draped in blue and white as he featured for five minutes in last year’s league encounter. An ankle injury picked up just two weeks before the 2021 Ulster final ruled out a further appearance.
“I was only back, I got the first injection and I said, ‘throw me in for a while’. I wasn’t full at it to be honest; I wasn’t full at it.
“Funny enough coming up to the Ulster final, I had a good two week’s training, I really did, the injection had kicked in. I was togged out against Armagh, but I don’t think I was ready to come into the action.”
“I had a good two weeks’ training and just before the Ulster final, I rolled my ankle and I missed training and although I was togged out for the Ulster final, I don’t think that ‘Banty’ had too many plans to throw me in at any stage.
“As bad enough as my knee was, my ankle was a separate injury. That was really that. I played five minutes last year, got another injection and got playing the latter end of the championship with my club.”
While there were plenty of soaring highs, Malone witnessed the devastating lows that Monaghan’s mixed performances sometimes led to.
Their Qualifier defeat to Longford in 2016 along with their last-minute loss to Fermanagh in the 2018 Ulster semi-final were big surprises.
“It’s very hard to put your finger on it, that was a sore one against Longford. It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde sometimes with Monaghan in a couple of games because a couple of years later we beat Tyrone in the first round and then Fermanagh beat us in the semi-final, and we would have been heavily favoured.
“There is an element of a Jekyll and Hyde sometimes and it’s very hard to put your finger on it because I don’t think it was our preparation. I think it was down to us as players, individually, maybe a slight bit of complacency set in at the back of the head, I don’t know.”
Malone has adapted to the life of a supporter now, although the draw of the battle is still something he’s coming to terms with.
“It was something I was concerned about; I didn’t know what it would be like. The first game I went to was Armagh and Monaghan (McKenna Cup) and I was in the crowd, just behind Kieran McGeeney.
“It was interesting, there was a bit of verbals going on between McGeeney and a couple of the Monaghan players and I did find myself edging out of the seat. I was almost going to get involved but I thought to myself ‘don’t be that sort of person’.
“It’s dodgy getting into verbals in the stand, it can be a different story, it’s different than being on the field. I could get a slap round the ear and there’s no referee to protect me in the stand, so I had to keep my small man syndrome to myself and just kept my mouth shut. I’m a very active supporter let’s put it like that.”
He’ll miss the craic, the dressing room, the friendships, the journeys, but Malone will continue to be a part of Monaghan’s future. After removing himself from the senior squad, he took up a coaching role.
While it’s different, and not something Malone had really envisioned for himself, he’s enjoying the prospect of helping the youth along.
“It’s not something I would have planned on or would have foreseen. When I got the news that I wasn’t able to play, I was going to have to hand in my notice with Monaghan. David McCague reached out to me and asked would I be interested in going in with the u-20s with himself.
“I had to sit back and have a chat with herself and go through it, there’s a lot of time involved. I’m in, I missed the entire first half of it, I’ve only been in since early January because of my knee, I was in hospital before Christmas and I’m only really getting stuck into it now.
“I’m really, really enjoying it, the Monaghan players are a really fantastic group of lads. They have a great attitude. I wasn’t planning on being a coach this soon, but you can’t always plan for these things, and I’ll just take it as I see it.”