2019 was a much different world than the one Dessie Mone started in as a young rookie in 2004. By the end of his career, retirement statements came through Twitter and Mone kept his short and sweet. ‘Sin é #noregrets’.
Looking back on his rags to riches career, there may be no regrets, but there were plenty of lost opportunities and heartache.
The Ulster final 2007, the Kerry clashes of 2007 and 2008, the chance of three in a row in 2014, the All-Ireland semi-final in 2018. But from where he started, it wasn’t a bad innings for the Clontibret man.
Mone epitomised the change in fortunes for the Farney County. He developed many different roles within the squad, excelled in various positions and by the time he was ready to say goodbye, he’d become an all-time great.
From a young age, life was only going to go one way for Mone. His father and uncle both played for Monaghan, as did his four older brothers, so it was always a burning ambition to pull on that blue and white jersey.
“All the brothers would have played for Monaghan. When you saw your older brothers playing (for Monaghan) it’s a thing that you always wanted to achieve.
“Monaghan got to Croke Park a couple of times and when you first walk into that stadium, you think you’d love to be back there some day with your county. I think the first time I ever played there was at half time in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final between Tyrone and Meath.
“I still have the jersey from that day actually, hanging up in my wardrobe.
“I suppose from that day when you got to play in Croke Park, you got a taste for it, and you wanted to pursue it. Lucky enough I got back a good few times with Monaghan.”
Mone starred on the Clontibret minor side that won three county titles in a row as well as an Ulster crown. He played for Monaghan at both minor and u-21 level and even lined out against Tommy Bowe during his youthful days.
It was Meath legend Colm Coyle who introduced him to the senior ranks in 2004, handing him his debut against Carlow in the league that season.
“The team I liked growing up was Meath, when Colm took it over, I was delighted to hear that he was going to be along with Monaghan, one of my favourite players that time when Meath were winning All-Irelands.
“He gave me my opportunity against Carlow. It didn’t go too well. I was going well in challenge matches but when it came to my first game for Monaghan, I got the bent finger at half time.
“I started half-forward, and things just didn’t go right for me at all. Colm gave me an outrageous eating at half time but things like that stand to you. It only makes you work harder and you always take the likes of that stuff on the chin and never take it to heart.”
Mone persisted and a good performance in an in-house game saw him make the championship team to take on Armagh in Clones. Like his outing against Carlow, it wasn’t one of his happier memories.
“I think I played well the week before that, we had a challenge game up in Gormanstown, an in-house game and I was on ‘Jap’ (Paul Finlay) at the time. I think I got a couple of scores off him and that got me in the starting position against Armagh.
“It wasn’t one to remember but again that’s all the learning process. Just to experience that, it was the first time I’d experienced the crowds in Clones, the heaving and the pressure of the game. But all that stuff would stand to you in the end.
“They (Armagh) were eyeing the big prizes at that stage, they had Steven McDonnell, Paul McGrane, Aidan O’Rourke, they had all the big players playing at that time.
“I just coming up against them, it definitely was a valuable lesson for me, where I was and where I needed to get to, to make inroads as an inter-county footballer. I worked hard and knew what had to be done to get to that level.”
He was out of the squad as quickly as he was in it. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with new manager Seamus McEnaney and missed out on Monaghan’s famous Division Two league success against Meath in Croke Park in 2005.
Club form however meant he was essential to the county team, and he was recalled after his performances helped Clontibret to the championship title in 2006, one of seven Mick Duffy medals Mone won with the club.
He helped Monaghan reach the Ulster final on his return in 2007, but like a lot of his career, Tyrone stood in the way of Monaghan’s success.
That summer is fondly remembered in the Oriel County for their display against the All-Ireland champions Kerry, who they pushed to the pin of their collars in both 2007 and 2008.
Monaghan showed they could compete with the big boys, and it was under ‘Banty’ that Mone found a new role in the team. He’d be McEnaney’s go-to man-marker. The guy entrusted with stopping the opposition’s main scoring threat. In an era of man-on-man football, Mone faced them all.
“I had a half-back role under Banty then and in the league semi-final (vs Meath) I went back in to mark Stephen Bray and then that certified me as a man-marker. That started my corner-back days for Monaghan.
“I was marking all the top-quality corner forwards. You had Paddy Bradley, Brendan Devenney, Owen Mulligan, ‘Gooch’ (Colm Cooper) that year (2007).
“You were picking up all these top corner-forwards and at times you felt the weight of the world on your shoulders going into those matches, knowing that they were the main men and you had to put a stop to them getting their 1-3 or 1-5 or 1-6 in a match.”
It brought the best out in Mone, who thanked the “unseen work” for his success against some of the best the game had to offer.
“All of those games were just tough battles against those types of players. They were at their prime too, it was a massive experience picking up all of them players but again you were marking the best, it took out the best in you and the bit of mischievous in you as well.
“Especially during Banty’s time, I always picked up the marquee forward and it was something I enjoyed, I love a challenge on the pitch, and he used to always give me a challenge every week, it was something I loved doing and loved working on in training.
“I remember going down numerous times at club football, taking some young lad out. I wanted to replicate the Paddy Bradley solo or the ‘Gooch’s’ movement; the way Brendan Devenney moved for the ball.
“It’s something that I really worked on, not just at training or with videos but actually doing it, their movement, what they would do, I’d try to replicate it with some club players down at the pitch. The unseen work.”
He recalls preparing for dealing with the deadly duo of Kieran Donaghy and Cooper ahead of those 2007 and 2008 clashes when the Mone brothers, Dessie and John Paul, went to war with the Kingdom’s brightest stars.
“We did serious work, especially the full-back line of myself, John Paul and Colm Flannagan or Dermot McArdle, we would work seriously hard at training on the types of balls that were coming into us.
“We would work very hard, we would get a few forwards down. Donaghy would like the long ball into him, and Gooch would like the ball popped into him. We worked on that in training a lot.
“When you do things like that, trying to replicate what the Kerry players were trying to do, it does give you confidence going in. You know what’s going to happen and you know what to do in these situations.
“When you’re going into these games, yes, you’re playing Kerry, Kerry are always favourites to win the championship but when you do that type of work, that unseen work, it does help you a lot.
“I always felt we went in confident, especially with the forward line Kerry had back then. It was fantastic, but we always went in confident that we could handle them and when you keep players like that down to a point or two points minimum, you’re having a good day.
“There’s a lot of unseen work. You can be hyped up; you can shout and roar but at the end of the day you have to be thinking, ‘if we’re in this situation how can we handle it’ and that’s the way we approached them type of games.
“That always stood well to us and probably always stood well for me going forward when I played for Monaghan.”
Being in the last line of defence, being the man who had to put out the fires to give Monaghan a chance. always brought the best, and the worst, out in Mone.
The lonely full-back line was dog eat dog and the tight marking defender had to play close to the edge.
Monaghan and Tyrone games were always surrounded by controversy. Sean Cavanagh’s rugby tackle, Darren Hughes ruffling Tiernan McCann’s hair and Mone was involved in his own when the sides met in Croke Park in 2013.
Seconds after the half-time whistle sounded, Mone got entangled in an altercation with Martin Penrose that resulted in the Tyrone attacker picking up a red card.
“You don’t set out to get yourself involved but when the time comes, when those situations arise you have two teams there that don’t want to back down from each other.
“That happens, it can probably spiral into a wee bit of needle on the pitch, and you just have to be a strong person at the time, try to not let it affect you.
“You can laugh and joke at it and you can smile, every player is different in how they perceive a bit of sledging.
“I know you if you sledge you’re off these days, but I enjoyed the moments.
“You talk about memories and a couple of those things that happened, it’s probably not nice to look at but when you’re involved in these things, sometimes you’re blocked out from the crowd or the people around Croke Park and you can only see one thing.
“We want to win, you want to be a winner and both Tyrone and Monaghan at those times wanted to win so much and sometimes you’d do anything to win, and you might just have to do that in matches.”
Monaghan endured many heartaches at the hands of Tyrone, but eventually they tasted provincial success. It followed some of the worst days, but it’s always darkest before the dawn.
The Farney County under Malachy O’Rourke finally got their hands on the Anglo Celt in 2013 but they had suffered back-to-back relegations in 2011 and 2012 and fell the whole way to Division Three.
The championship didn’t bring much joy either, losing to Offaly in the 2011 Qualifiers and squandering a 0-11 to 0-2 half time lead against Down in the 2012 Ulster semi-final. Yet through it all, Mone always believed.
“The Down match, we lost that big lead, but I think if we had have been in the Ulster final, we wouldn’t have been ready for it. Donegal were on a crest of a wave that time, they were very strong.
“After that year, the older players did chat and we did question it, can we do it? Should I just walk away now? But listen, it’s an easy thing to do, the harder thing to do is to go back to the winter trainings in October and November and get yourself back in that position.
“I’m always a big believer in Monaghan football. If you can get all the good players together in Monaghan we are always going to be a very hard team to beat.
“ I think Malachy took just put that self-belief into the players, that we can go on and achieve great things with this squad. We weren’t just hard to beat, we had the players to go ahead and succeed as well.
“So, we did over those few years. We won a couple of Ulsters; we were regularly in Croke Park, but we just couldn’t get that Croke Park win.”
O’Rourke transformed Mone to an attack-minded wing half-back. While he loved the thrill of man-marking, he was more relaxed around the middle third.
“I actually could get to sleep that week! It was a different role Malachy had for me, it was a different challenge and when you’re set a new challenge you want to achieve as best you can.
“In fairness he let me do my thing on the half-back line and that was something that I relished, up and down the pitch. You got involved more in the game in around that middle third and that was something I enjoyed very much.”
They finally reached the promised land and all the sacrifices and hard work paid off. Monaghan defeated Jim McGuinness’ all-conquering Donegal side in the Ulster final, when Mone rattled over a point, to end a 25-year wait for provincial success.
“We were coming up from Division Three and nobody was giving us any value for money that day, but Malachy had built in a self-confidence, a self-belief that we could overturn them.
“We probably did a bit of a Donegal, what Donegal would do on other teams tactically wise, he (O’Rourke) got his tactics right. Some players were fantastic that day and you needed to be against Donegal.
“That game was unbelievable. The crowd that turned up for it, the colours, when you walked out that day. The players got a great buzz from that, that the Monaghan support believed in us. And with the Monaghan minors winning before the match as well, I think it was a good omen and it just gave us great confidence going into that match.
“We knew we had the match-ups, we knew player for player we could mark them, and lucky enough things went right for us on the day. Things went right for us in the first half, we got a good lead and we held on to the lead.”
It was the Monaghan fans, the Monaghan people, that made it all worthwhile.
“The joy on people’s faces after the match and throughout that evening. Just seeing the people of Monaghan so proud of putting on that jersey and the young people of Monaghan.
“I had family members at it as well and to see them with genuine joy and happiness was fantastic, that’s what I took from that day. It was just a joy to behold.
“Walking up the street, I think the country music festival was on as well, the streets were aligned with people just with joy and happiness, that Monaghan were finally back to winning an Ulster final.
“Yes, you have memories from the match itself – Tommy Freeman kicking that point at the end, I was delighted for him and different wee things like that but overall, it was just such a great thing to see happiness back in the eyes of Monaghan people.”
Monaghan ended the Tyrone hoodoo, beating them in the 2014 Ulster Championship, before once again toppling the toughest province of them all 12 months later. This time, there was no question of a “fluke”.
“When you win one, you had pundits and people saying it was a fluke, that you caught Donegal off, and I never believe if you beat a team that you get them off guard.
“You beat them fair and square, but it was always a thing that Monaghan had to prove with pundits and different people. We just wanted to show for ourselves that it wasn’t a fluke, we were hungry, we were back in 2014, we wanted another one.
“2015 showed that we were up at the top table and that’s where we wanted to be and that’s where we felt we should be with the quality of players we had. Winning in 2015 was great and we were hungry.
“When you get one and get another then you want more. That’s the thing with the team, we wanted more, we wanted success, it was just getting that success now in Croke Park.
“We’d won a couple of victories in Croke Park in championship. We had beat Kerry (league) and we’d beat Tyrone and all those little, small victories starting to add up. Sometimes it might take another year or two but things like that always stood to us.”
While Monaghan no longer feared Tyrone, it was in Croke Park that the Red Hands began to dominate. The one that got away was the 2018 semi-final, but it convinced Mone to give it one more go with his beloved county.
“The biggest regret was the 2018 one. I just felt Monaghan were playing such super football that year. I know we got pipped by Fermanagh (in Ulster), but we still firmly believed we were on form, boys were playing the football of their lives that year.
“It is very annoying in 2018 that we never achieved seeing out that game. We met Tyrone in 2013 and ’15 and same story, pipped by a point or two.
“Why not go another year when we were playing such good football? You’ve always got to believe, you’ve always got to think in the back of your mind, let’s go again.
“I always say that if you get to the wintertime and you’re healthy and your injury free, sure why not give it another go, you’ll be long enough sitting watching from the stands.
“If you can play as long as you can, do it. Because it’s something to enjoy and it’s something, going out to play in front of thousands in Clones or getting to Croke Park, it was something you have to enjoy and something that you’ll always have.
“That’s probably the reason that a good few of us came back in 2019, believing that maybe we could go that wee step further and unfortunately it just didn’t happen for us.”
When the end eventually arrived, it felt fitting that Mone stepped away with one of his Clontibret teammates and another Monaghan legend. Just days apart, Vinny Corey also announced he’d given as much as he could to the Monaghan cause.
“I think we retired a couple of days apart; we’d won the club championship and there’s never a good time to retire, there’s never a right time to retire but we just felt after winning the club championship, we could finish on a high and it probably was the right time and just let the younger lads go at it.
“Maybe sometimes you could be in the way if there’s some young boy coming through. It’s always important to develop young players and let them get their chance.
“Unfortunately, when I said ‘Sin é’, that was it. It was a hard tweet, but life goes on, you have to move on. You definitely do be in a bubble when you’re playing football, you think there’s nothing else going on outside that bubble of football.”
Mone carried the fight and was part of a sensational group of talented footballers that brought the county from also-rans to top contenders. He fulfilled his childhood dreams and more and will go down in history as a Farney legend.