John McEntee: Fermanagh's nasty streak loses them respect
There was a time when I’d place a wager, thanks to an anonymous tip, on a horse which invariably turned out to be a donkey.
I had more interest in athletics and would study an athlete’s form for years leading up to the Olympics thinking my 50p eight-bet accumulator would return a handsome profit.
It would become my first of many failed attempts at becoming a millionaire. Regardless of the sport, the outcome would be the same.
Suffice to say I could never pick a winner and, with a little foresight and the sorry sight of friends squandering their money and chunks of their lives to the ravages of gambling, I kicked that habit for good.
When I began penning contributions for this paper I was introduced by one friend to another as “an Irish News pundit” – to which I replied: “no I am not”.
You see, while a pundit is an expert in his chosen field, a pundit is also opinionated and often correct, whether the reader likes it or not. The pundit will indicate who is most likely to win and have evidence, or at the very least interesting observations, to support their argument.
If I were to be considered a pundit, I would be in the running to win the title of the pundit who backed the most losers in a year – but I would probably even be pipped to that by Danny Hughes.
Even with a track record as outlined, I must admit to being captivated – if not surprised – by Fermanagh’s rise under Rory Gallagher.
They roundly beat Armagh in their first Championship encounter and backed it up by trampling over Monaghan’s ambitions of provincial success.
Let’s not forget that Fermanagh were beaten by nine points by both these teams in the Championship last year.
In the build-up to this year’s Championship, word on the street boasted improvements in the Armagh and Monaghan camps in terms of their scoring prowess and team conditioning.
But on the days when it mattered most, it was Fermanagh who were fitter, stronger, hungrier and more accurate. So what has changed beyond the management?
There is no doubt Fermanagh were well set up. They are in peak condition – even the Quigley brothers have shed their dart-throwing builds for trimmer, athletic bodies.
They are defensively solid, with each man capable of negating his opponent.
Their attacking options are limited yet they have an uncanny knack of winning frees within the scoring zone. This is not accidental. If a top 10 of forwards in Ulster was chosen it is unlikely that a Fermanagh man would feature.
Gallagher knows this so he plays to their strengths of hard running and committing forwards to the tackle.
It is clear they have worked on earning frees, whether that be falling upon feeling the lightest of contact or ducking into the long-arm tackle, as was seen when Kieran Hughes picked up his yellow card.
They also have a darker edge to them other Fermanagh teams lacked but which has formed part of their winning formula.
Not since the 2005 Ulster final in Croke Park have I seen a player being dragged around the pitch like Che Cullen did to Conor McManus. And the punishment? Both men received a yellow card. At some point the welfare of a player ought to be the referee’s priority rather than slapping both players on the wrist.
I know people will say it takes two to tango, but if you revisit the footage you will see that McManus is more like a yard brush than a dance partner.
What surprises me is that these traits were not evident in the Donegal teams coached and later managed by Rory Gallagher.
The honesty of effort and play, as epitomised by their talisman Michael Murphy, is what made them so attractive to neutrals.
Perhaps Rory has developed a ruthless streak. This was evident in his decision to sideline Seamus Quigley, which was a big call and which stamped his authority on the team.
At the end of the day, Fermanagh won the game and have reached the Ulster final for the first time since 2008.
For their followers it matters not how they got there, only that they’ve made it. But for the sake of football, and Ulster football in particular, I hope the traits they’ve displayed don’t catch on again.
Attendances at Ulster Championship games are lower than in previous years. The Fermanagh faithful – and perhaps even Arlene Foster – will come in their droves to the Ulster final in the hope they achieve their first ever provincial Championship.
Normally the underdog gets all the neutral support – but I wouldn’t bet on it on this occasion.