To date, it has not been the ideal first year as Fermanagh manager for Ryan McMenamin but he is hoping that his side can grasp the opportunity when they face Down at Brewster Park on Sunday.

A disappointing league campaign, which was stopped for seven months due to the Covid-19 situation, has resulted in relegation to Division Three and the former Tyrone All Ireland winning defender admits that it has been a learning curve for him and the players.

A regular failing of not converting chances has played a role in Fermanagh dropping out of Division Two while the manager has not been helped by the loss of a number of players with injury, moving abroad and retirements among the reasons.

On a positive note though he has been able to blood a number of younger players over the course of the season, especially in the last two league games and he is happy with where the squad is at present.

“You could have wished for better years but we’ve took a lot of learning from it. I know it is hard when you look at the last couple of games but when you look at any of the performances in the league we haven’t been that far away. It is just unfortunate that the way it is in inter-county football, especially when you are playing in the top two divisions, that you will be punished when you make mistakes.

“The only game that we were well and truly outclassed was against Armagh, every other game was coming down to the last five minutes or so.

“Our problem this year though is that we haven’t been ruthless enough at both ends of the field. We had chances to put teams away and didn’t take them and then we had chances to maybe stop scores and didn’t take them. It is a big learning for me and for all the boys,” he said.

Fermanagh have struggled with being clinical in front of the posts for a number of seasons but McMenamin states that it is something that they have looked to address.

“I think we have tried to maybe get a structure into the attack and the way we play going forward, it is something we have tried to bring in at the start of the year.

“We were hampered due to the weather at the start of the year and then Covid struck and the lockdown and when we did start up again we were behind because of the club championship and then the Covid outbreak. So it is only in the last two or three weeks that we have been really able to work and see what the players can do.

“The Laois game, I know we lost by seven points, but up to 65 minutes it was the most controlled performance the lads gave this year. I know Down is going to be a tough game but I think we are going in the right direction,” he commented.

McMenamin, who was part of Rory Gallagher’s backroom team in 2018 and 2019, has had to deal with the loss of key players this season too as the squad goes through something of a transition.

“You don’t really like to use the word transition because there is still a lot of good players in Fermanagh but we have to look at where we are at. From the squad that played Monaghan in the Qualifiers last year we are missing eight players. We don’t have the two Cullens, Sean Quigley, Barry Mulrone, Ryan Lyons, Ultan Kelm, Shane McGullion and Ciaran McBrien, who would all have been involved on that day and it is a massive chunk out of any squad. The two Cullens were our best defenders last year and people from the outside didn’t appreciate that. In saying that, the young lads have come in and have stepped up.

“The boys are working hard and as a management we are happy with where they are going,” he added.

The disappointment of that relegation was quickly put to bed by McMenamin and his players as they look forward to the first straight knock out Championship in 20 years.

“It is a unique championship now, the first in 20 years that is going to be a straight knockout. Once it is done it is done, there is no backdoor for teams, when you are beat the season is over and none of the squad will have had that before.

“It is a very different year, look at the club championships this year, a lot of teams caused surprises, you had a number of counties that had surprise winners,” he said.

Fermanagh will be coming into Sunday’s game under the radar and McMenamin stresses that all the pressure is on Down.

“I know the game is in Brewster Park but the pressure is going to be on Down. Paddy has been building there for a while and they are looking to grow and get to an Ulster final.

“They will be favourites and they deserve the right to be coming in as favourites. They have a talented squad, there is six or seven of the Kilcoo boys, they have Caolan Mooney back and they were able to rest their key players last week and give run outs to fellas that hadn’t played much football.

“Down are always happy to be the favourites and no doubt they have bigger fish to fry than us but, as I say, we are happy with where we are at.”

It’s not summer time but championship is championship and the Fermanagh boss senses his players are ratcheting up things ahead of Sunday.

“You can sense that everything has lifted and even at training in the warm up you could sense that there was more intensity and things have moved up a notch. I think every team looks forward to championship,” he said.

So, what is going to be the key ingredient on Sunday?

“It is like everything else, it is about hard work. If we can keep it simple, whether that is coming out of defence or putting the ball over the bar - if we can get a few more scores on the board I do think we can give Down problems.

“At the same time, with Down’s scoring power we have to also limit them as much as possible.

“But at the end of the day, it is the Ulster Championship and tactics go out the window and it is about the team that wants it the most. I have been about long enough to see in Ulster Championship matches that you can have all the tactics you want but if the other team wants it more you’re in trouble.”

The game may be behind closed doors but the fact that it is in Brewster Park should favour the home side, agreed Ricey.

“We had a trial run against Laois two weeks ago without a crowd so we know what to expect and also the way the logistics will work and what is going to happen.

“We are happy to be playing at Brewster and I think there is always an extra bounce in the step of the Fermanagh boys when they are going out to play a championship match at Brewster Park.”

And with an Ulster semi-final spot against the winners of the Antrim v Cavan clash up for grabs, McMenamin wants his side to seize the opportunity.

“You have to enjoy it and you have to see an opportunity in it as well and hopefully we can take the opportunity,” he concluded.