At the recent Club Éirne Day at the Races at Down Royal, one of the guest speakers was Fermanagh manager, Pete McGrath.
Obviously the upcoming championship game was the main topic of discussion with Pete describing the current season for both players and managers as a “testing time for all”. Injuries, retirements, absentees and a dip in form all point to the fact that this weekend’s game with Monaghan is the biggest test in McGrath’s reign as Fermanagh manager.
Two years ago after a defeat to Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final, McGrath confidently stated that Fermanagh will still be “playing football in August”. It was stated with assurance because he knew that he had a full squad of players at his disposal. He was true to his word and a quarter final appearance increased our expectations for this team.
However, this year’s relegation and the loss of so many key players in one fell swoop as McGrath put it, has indeed led to a testing time.
Looking at the respective league performances this year, Monaghan seem like a team still on the upward curve whereas Fermanagh’s progress has taken a halt over the last year.
Since their last meeting in 2015, Monaghan have won another Ulster title, retained Division One league status with ease and still have the majority of their panel along with introducing some great new players into their ranks. In contrast, after running Mayo to the pin of their collar last year, the loss of so many players has left huge holes in the Fermanagh team that are proving difficult to fill.
Over the last few years Fermanagh built their performance around a strong defensive structure with men flooding back to close down spaces before breaking in numbers.
It seems that this defensive strategy has not been implemented this year as we have conceded twelve goals in the league; second overall behind Offaly across the four divisions in terms of goals conceded and bottom of the table in terms of goals scored with just one.
Against Kildare, Fermanagh conceded four goals, three against Meath and the two against Derry evidently cost us Division Two status. In 2016, Fermanagh only conceded six goals throughout the league, three of which came in the very first game against Derry.
The retirement of Damian Kelly and Marty O’Brien along with the loss Richard O’Callaghan and Ruairi Corrigan and later Ryan Jones to injury, meant that McGrath has chopped and changed throughout the league in an attempt to find a settled team to build his game plan around. A number of players seemed to be in and out of the team with some playing out of their strongest position. One or two changes may be required and enforced but constant changes to the team will not help in developing the system of play that helped Fermanagh improve over the last two years.
Declan McCusker’s energy and drive from wing back will be missed, along with Aidan Breen he provides a threat going forward.
Given that James McMahon is no longer available the panel is going to be at full stretch as Pete pointed out during the week: “Missing so many players has weakened the fibre of the whole thing. But you have to get on with it. I could spin a very sad story but that’s not going to get the job done.” Getting the job done is what Fermanagh do best when faced with adversity.
Monaghan are strong favourites but in a two horse race anything can happen. As the saying goes ‘it’s all on the day’.
The return of Tomás Corrigan for Saturday is a major plus. Without him on form Fermanagh do not carry the same threat up front. Would Fermanagh be in a different place if he had been playing against Derry in the final league game? I think so and we would be talking more confidently about Fermanagh with retention of Division Two football next year. Alongside Sean Quigley they will need to make the most of the scoring opportunities that come their way. If they can escape the clutches of the Wylie brothers, Drew and Ryan, then Fermanagh have a chance.
Up front Monaghan now possess two top class forwards in Conor McManus and Jack McCarron. McManus’s quality is well known and it’s likely that Mickey Jones will be tasked with curtailing him but it is Jack McCarron who has hit the headlines this year. With three goals and 29 points in five games during the league, he has taken some of the attention off McManus and will take some watching. The ever improving Che Cullen who, incidentally, was Fermanagh’s best player during the league by some distance, will likely face up to McCarron. Stopping these two will not be a one man task and the sweeping role of the hardworking Barry Mulrone and Paul McCusker will be key in doing so.
The championship brings out the best in players and if Fermanagh are to win, Eoin Donnelly’s performance will also be a key element.
With so many players and leaders missing for various reasons the captain will need to bring his A-game. He is often targeted by the opposition as the key player to stop which I am sure is no different for Malachy O’Rourke. The fact that Darren Hughes is not available may give Fermanagh the edge in this department.
Pete McGrath may not be speaking openly and with the same confidence as a year ago but he still has great belief in this team. Thoughts and opinions outside of the panel do not count, they only give you strength. When I was playing, the more people said we couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to prove them wrong. It’s just another test of character that needs to be overcome. The championship always throws up a surprise, let’s hope it comes this weekend!