Fermanagh out to prove 2015 was no flash in the pan
THERE is a buzz about Fermanagh after last season’s exploits but, as Eoin Donnelly tells Colm Bradley, the Erne men are determined to prove 2015 was no fluke...
IT WAS late 2011 and Eoin Donnelly was waiting nervously for the phone to ring. Peter Canavan had taken over as Fermanagh manager and extensive trials had been held to sweep the county for footballing talent.
The 22-year-old Donnelly was hoping he had made the cut: “I remember those trials like they were yesterday. I remember just working so hard to try and make the squad. That was my only goal at that stage, to get in the squad,” he recalls.
Donnelly was a rough diamond, but Canavan saw plenty he could polish and, within 18 months, the Coa man was a regular starter in the Fermanagh engine room. He also took over the captaincy duties when Ryan McCluskey was struck down with injury. It was a steep learning curve for the big midfielder, but one that he took in his stride.
Fast forward a few years and Donnelly is entering his third season as Fermanagh skipper, while he also captained Ulster in the inter-provincial series late last year. Not bad for someone who was waiting for a call to make a pre-season panel just over four years ago. Donnelly doesn’t see his achievements as anything special. Rather, he prefers to take things as they come.
“I think, as a player, you just have to work hard and try and improve. That’s what every player is trying to do, so you can’t afford to stand still; you have to just keep pushing on and try and make the best of every opportunity and always try and get better,” he added.
The 27-year-old may be talking about himself, but what he says is the perfect metaphor for the improvement in this Fermanagh team over the past number of years. Promotion to Division Two last season along with a run to the All-Ireland quarter-final may seem, from the outside, like something of a flash in the pan. Yet the truth is this squad has been making steady progress for a number of seasons. And they have no intention of stopping yet, with Donnelly revealing it is manager Pete McGrath who is setting the tone when it comes to delivering success.
“Pete has really thrown down the gauntlet. He wants to see some tangible success and he believes in us," he said.
“We know people probably think last season was a flash in the pan, but we want to prove it wasn’t. We want to show that a day out in Croke Park and a few pats on the back is not enough for us.”
2016 sees the Erne men compete in the second tier of the National League and Donnelly says maintaining this status is the bare minimum for the forthcoming campaign: “No-one wants to get relegated, that goes without saying, but for ourselves it is really important that we compete against quality opposition, so staying in Division Two is a must for us," he said.
“We need to test ourselves every week and it is good preparation for the Championship.”
The Ulster Championship sees them paired with Antrim again in the preliminary round but, while you won’t hear too many Fermanagh players speaking about what may lie beyond the Saffrons, there is a burning ambition within the squad to bring the first Anglo-Celt home to the county.
That desire has been mixed with some real belief since the arrival of Pete McGrath to the banks of the Erne, and the men in green see their league campaign as paramount to Championship success: “You don’t see teams winning the Ulster Championship playing in Division Three or Four, so it is important for us to play in Division Two or higher," he said.
"We need to mix it with the best if we want to get the best out of ourselves.”
This season, Division Two will take on a distinctly neighbourly feel, with five Ulster teams joining Galway, Laois and Meath. There are no easy games and, with Derry up first for Fermanagh, Donnelly says the squad will not be looking past that encounter.
“I don’t think we can really think about anything after that first game. Each game is going to be very difficult and, no matter who is playing, every team will fancy their chances of winning, so I think it will be a very tight league," he said.
“I know it is a cliché, but we can’t really afford to look past the first game. If we can pick up a result in Derry, then it will set us up nicely.”
A win against Damian Barton’s men would be a huge boost for Fermanagh. Sitting on two points with four of their remaining six games at home would put them in a strong position. Fermanagh won every home game they played in league and Championship in 2015 and Donnelly says the squad is keen to keep Brewster Park a fortress for the forthcoming season.
He added: “It has been a while, I think, since we have had four league games at home, so hopefully that is something that we can make use of.
“Obviously, it is going to be very difficult to maintain our 100 per cent record in Brewster Park, but it is something we are going to aim to do,” he said before adding that he hoped the Fermanagh faithful would continue to come out and support the cause.
“To be fair, there is a bit of a buzz about. The supporters have been fantastic and hopefully they keep coming out in big numbers to support us and hopefully we can give them plenty to cheer about.”
If Fermanagh are to succeed in 2016 in both their league campaign and their assault on the Ulster title, they will need a big season from their captain in the middle of the field. But if he and Fermanagh can keep improving as they have over the past few seasons, then who knows what may be possible. One thing is for certain, Donnelly and Fermanagh believe.
LOOK OUT FOR
Fermanagh are beginning to look like a very consistent, settled team and there may not be a lot of room for new blood to force their way in and gain some meaningful game-time.
One player who is expected to make an impact is Teemore’s Cian McManus. A MacRory Cup winner with St Patrick’s, Cavan, the combative defender is also an astute ball player and revels in either a free role at the back, as a marking wing half-back or as a wing half-forward dropping back into defence. This versatility is something which will no doubt please manager Pete McGrath and, in the modern era, McManus is the sort of player who will excel.
Elsewhere, look out for Ryan Hanna. Although strictly not fitting into the ‘young’ bracket, this is his first year with the squad. He has been operating at corner-forward in the Dr McKenna Cup, but is another player with a huge amount of adaptability and has played most of his club football as a creative centre half-back.
Kinawley’s Paddy McGovern has been performing well at corner-back to date this season and looks to have what it takes to compete at this level.
Everybody you speak to who is involved with the Fermanagh camp has been saying the same word about their upcoming National League campaign - mistakes.
From Pete McGrath and his backroom team to the players, it is a constant theme. The Erne squad know the mistakes they made during their impressive promotion push from Division Three last year will be punished much more severely this season.
Division Two represents a significant step up in class, but it is one that all involved in this Fermanagh team will relish. McGrath has instilled a real belief in the squad and, while it may come as a surprise to many outside Fermanagh, there is an anticipation from those within that back-to-back promotions is a possibility.
The reality, however, is that consolidating Division Two status will represent real success this season. With five Ulster teams in a division of eight teams, there will certainly be a neighbourly feel to proceedings. The fact Fermanagh have four of their seven games at home is a real bonus and they are a team who have been very difficult to beat at Brewster Park over the past two season.
From a tactical point of view, they have been mastering a defensive set up that offers protection to their full-back line. Typically, wing-forwards drop back and leave the centre half-back free to sweep and they look to hit teams on the counter-attack. From this perspective, the fitness of Tomás Corrigan will be vital to the team. Seán Quigley may be the marquee forward, but if Corrigan is not fit Fermanagh become very one dimensional.
One worry for McGrath may be that natural ball-winning and scoring inside-forwards are not especially plentiful, and he will need the one-two punch combination of Quigley and Corrigan firing at their maximum to repeat the heroics of 2015.