GAA Football

Pete McGrath optimistic about Eoin Donnelly and Che Cullen

Fermanagh captain Eoin Donnelly (above) and team-mate Che Cullen are doubts for the Ulster SFC opener against Antrim  
Gerry Maguire

FERMANAGH manager Peter McGrath is “hopeful” that two of his top performers will win their fitness battles for the Ulster Championship clash with Antrim on Sunday week in Brewster Park.

Talismanic team captain Eoin Donnelly and Che Cullen are in a race to be fit for the May 15 clash after sustaining injuries on the same evening while playing for their respective clubs, Coa and Belnaleck. Midfielder Donnelly, who has also captained Ulster, had a recurrence of a hamstring injury 11 days ago, while Cullen sustained a broken thumb.

But Erne boss McGrath said Donnelly was expected to be back in training on Wednesday to test out the injury: “Eoin pulled a hamstring and Che has a broken thumb and they happened on the same night,'' he said.

“It is unfortunate as Eoin missed last year’s opener against Antrim with a hand injury and then had a hamstring injury and played against Dublin a week later. Fortunately, he is a quick healer, so we would be very hopeful that he will be able to take his place against Antrim. He will be back out training with us tonight and, of course, he is so important to us and he had a really great league campaign.”

Donnelly has blossomed into one of the finest midfielders in the country since he was made captain in 2014 and was a key figure in the Erne county managing to stay in Division Two. Full-back Cullen, meanwhile, is slowly recovering from a broken thumb.

But McGrath said Cullen was confident it was the top joint of the thumb that was affected: “Che thinks it is the top joint of his thumb and, if that is the case, then there is every chance that he might be able to make it,'' he added.

“He is a big, strong athletic and mobile lad and has slotted in to the full-back slot very well.''

The potential loss of a strong central spine would be very worrying for Fermanagh. If Donnelly and Cullen don’t make it, then it looks like the equally towering Ryan Jones of Derrygonnelly Harps could fill the vacant midfield slot, while his brother Conal and Tempo’s Damian Kelly are also potential replacements.

The versatile and speedy Devenish veteran Marty O’Brien or Roslea veteran Niall Cassidy could man the edge of the square in the absence of the ever-improving Cullen: “We do have options here as both Marty McGrath and Niall Cassidy have played at full-back before,'' said McGrath.

“But the modern game is all about the squad. It is a 19-20 man game and many teams know who will be coming on beforehand."

McGrath has been gradually building a strong bench, as Fermanagh showed in an entertaining challenge match with Mayo in Roscommon on Monday evening. The westerners won by 1-15 to 0-13 thanks to a late goal in a match where a number of fringe players were also tried.

“We had a good run-out against Mayo on Monday night and they won in after getting a goal late on at a time when we tried out a number of fringe players,'' said McGrath.

“We have been gradually building up our bench and that was very noticeable against Tyrone, when we were able to put on guys who made a real difference, but that is what you need to succeed these days.''

However, if Donnelly is not able to face Antrim, like last year, then the Ernesiders will be under that little bit more pressure against an improved Antrim side, who were unbeaten until they contested the NFL Division Four final recently.

“Antrim had a very good run in the league and had the chances to win that match against Louth. They will be rightly buoyed up for the match against us in Enniskillen and it could be a quite a battle,'' concluded McGrath.

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