Ryan Jones: It's high time for Derrygonnelly to progress
WINNING the Fermanagh championship in 2015 against the backdrop of Damien McGovern’s tragic death was a remarkable achievement for Derrygonnelly.
The Harps outfit was shaken to the core when McGovern – the life and soul of the club and its chairman and minor manager – died in a building site accident just two days before they were due to tangle with reigning county champions Roslea Shamrocks.
The sudden death put football into stark perspective, but the close-knit rural community came together to bury their club stalwart and the Derrygonnelly players found the energy and focus to win the championship in his honour. That title was Derrygonnelly’s first in six years but there was little time to celebrate it because Slaughtneil – the reigning Ulster champions - waited in the first round of provincial competition just six days later and it was no real surprise when the Derry outfit won a one-sided affair at Owenbeg.
“Damien was a great clubman so there was a lot of emotion around the club,” Derrygonnelly’s Ryan Jones explained.
“We wanted to win the championship for him and the celebrations probably went on a bit longer than sometimes you would want. But it was a great relief to the club and when we went out the following week Slaughtneil buried us off the pitch. We had no excuses.”
Derrygonnelly made it two in-a-row in Fermanagh last year and when they were paired with the Oak Leaf kingpins again (this time at Celtic Park); they must have felt that the footballing gods had forsaken them. The Ernemen closed the gap, but once again the Emmet’s were comfortable winners.
Fast forward to this year and Derrygonnelly rubberstamped their status as Fermanagh’s best with a comfortable win over Devenish that completed the club’s first three in-a-row.
Ulster waits once again and while Derrygonnelly have avoided Slaughtneil and an away draw, they have another tough test against Armagh Harps at Enniskillen’s Brewster Park.
The Cathedral City side ended a 26-year drought when they dethroned Maghery to win in Armagh a fortnight ago. Ulster will be new to them, but Jones says Derrygonnelly won’t make the mistake of expecting some of their players to travel believing they are in ‘bonus territory’.
“They are the best team in Armagh or they wouldn’t have won the championship so I would say it’s going to be a massive test for us,” said the inter-county star.
“You can talk about Slaughtneil, but Armagh Harps are going to be just as difficult for us when you look at the players Armagh Harps have in their squad. The Armagh championship would be a lot more competitive than Fermanagh – without a doubt – so they have been exposed to games like that where they’re playing Maghery or Cullyhanna or Ballymacnab and these teams.
“Any of those teams would be a serious force in Fermanagh football so they’ll definitely be a massive task for us and our boys realise that.”
John Toner’s Armagh Harps went into their county final as underdogs against a Maghery side that had beaten Crossmaglen twice on their way to the decider. Jones wasn’t at that game, but he well versed on the Armagh players.
“I know that Armagh Harps have been in three championship finals in the last four years so they have been knocking on the door,” he said.
“They’re probably like ourselves, we felt a couple of years ago that we had a team that could challenge within Fermanagh but it took a year or two for us to actually mature and be able to properly challenge for semi-finals and finals.
“I think they are at that stage now where they have a good age profile. A lot of their team are in their mid-20s apart from Charlie Vernon and Paddy Morrison in goals who are slightly older. Look at Joe McElroy, Decky McKenna, Ultan Lennon, Brian McShane, (the wing half-forward), Mark McConville (wing half-back), Conor White…
“They have a lot of boys who are at the right age and have been playing football at a high level, whether it’s the Armagh senior team or at club or college level or whatever it may be.
“They are going to be a very strong team. Anybody that comes out of Armagh is a serious outfit.”
If the Orchard county Harps do win at Brewster Park on Saturday they will certainly have to keep up with the Jones’. Ryan is one of seven in the Derrygonnelly panel.
There are his brothers Conall and Garvan, their cousin Lee, another Leigh (no relation) and then Mickey (the former Fermanagh defender) and his brother Steven. There is plenty of experience and quality and the ranks including playmaker Paul Ward and 42 year-old deadeye finisher Kevin Cassidy.
“Kevin gives hope to every man,” said Jones.
“He came back from a cruciate injury and I suppose once you hit 40 and you get a setback like that a lot of lads would throw in the towel and say ‘that’ll do me’ but in fairness to Kevin, he came back and he’s still a very important player for us.
“He started the championship final and came on in other games for us and he has been a great servant to the club.”
Cassidy was already an established player the last time a Fermanagh side reached the Ulster final. 15 years ago Enniskillen Gaels were the dominant force back then and they ran Tyrone’s Errigal Ciaran close, having lost a cracker to Crossmaglen by a point three years earlier in 1999.
“We are under no illusions of the task ahead and we aren’t going to get carried away,” said Jones.
“With the personnel they have, Armagh Harps are going to be a serious force. We want to go and give the best account of ourselves and I don’t think the lads will be daunted because we’ve already played in Ulster this last two years.
“It would mean a lot to the club to get a run in Ulster because we have won six Fermanagh titles in the club’s history and never got a win in the Ulster club. A win would be a massive achievement for Fermanagh club football because we haven’t been competitive in Ulster club football at all apart from the Enniskillen Gaels team of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Roslea got a win in 2014 against Ballinagh of Cavan, but apart from that we’ve been way off the mark.”
Victory on Saturday would set up a semi-final against the winners of the quarter-final between familiar foes Slaughtneil or Tyrone champions Omagh St Enda’s, but Jones is far too experienced to look past Armagh Harps.
“It would be stupid for us to look any further,” he said.
“We’ll just be looking to go out and try and give a good account of ourselves. We are representing Fermanagh and we want to go out and try and improve on what we have achieved so far.
“The first year we went out and played Slaughtneil and we got hammered, last year we were more competitive but we still fell short. This year we want to be competitive, play to our potential and try and push on.”