GAA Football

It's all about winning at this level: Fermanagh's Declan McCusker

Fermanagh's Declan McCusker (right) will be a key player in Saturday's Ulster Championship duel with Armagh

DECLAN McCusker came after the halcyon days in Fermanagh. He was 14-years-old in 2004 and remembers storming Croke Park and embracing Eamonn Maguire after the Ernemen shocked Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Four years later, he recollects a crowd of boys from Ederney driving ‘Herbie’ through Clones on their way to an Ulster final.

“I remember 2004 and the final whistle going and running onto the pitch and grabbing Eamonn Maguire. He’s still on the panel now. He was like a hero back then,” says McCusker.

“Then, in 2008, we should have won the first game against Armagh. We’d a bus up from Ederney and we’d a great day’s craic. I remember walking up the street in Clones and a few boys from Ederney had a car they called ‘Herbie’. It was painted up from 2004 and they got it going again and everyone just moved out of the way and we were singing songs…”

Those years inspired another generation of footballers to wear the green jersey.

But, by the time McCusker arrived on the inter-county scene in 2011 the party was over. The hangover was nightmarish.

John O’Neill had stepped up to the senior ranks and 11 players walked out.

The makeshift Ernemen bowed meekly out of the Ulster Championship to Derry that discordant summer. And even though they’ve had Peter Canavan and Pete McGrath at the helm since, Ulster Championship victories have been as rare as hen’s teeth.

In the seven years McCusker has been around the senior panel, Fermanagh have recorded just one provincial win – beating Antrim in 2015.

In other years, they’ve fallen to Monaghan (twice), Donegal, Cavan, Down and Antrim at the first hurdle.

Former Erne star Rory Gallagher has returned to his roots and has already sealed promotion in his first season.

An Ulster Championship run is the main objective now.

“I love it,” insisted McCusker.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it. But, at the end of the day, I’ve no trophies to show for it… It’s all about winning. You do get a lot out of it and you enjoy the camaraderie of the boys and great nights out and when you get a Championship run you see how it lifts the county and those things are brilliant. But at the end of the day you want to be winning trophies and winning games. That’s what it’s about.”

As Fermanagh continue on their search for a first-ever Ulster title, this year’s draw could have been worse.

Armagh. A Division Three team. On their level. At home. A winnable opener.

Of course, the Orchard men pipped them to the Division Three title at the end of March and, on the day, looked an imposing outfit.

Armagh also defeated Fermanagh in last year’s Qualifiers as they battled their way to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

There is nothing that Fermanagh and Armagh don’t know about each other as they prepare to face the a familiar puzzle at Brewster Park tomorrow night.

“We’d something similar a few years ago when we met Antrim in the Championship a couple of times and you felt you were studying the same team the whole time,” says the 27-year-old centre back.

“When I came on the panel we played Cavan three times in two years and you just try and learn every time you play against them. You start counteracting each other’s strengths but I suppose now with video everybody is watching each other and everybody knows how each other play.

“I suppose when you play each other you get more of a feel for it and you’re trying to maybe stop their strengths and expose their weaknesses. It’ll just be the same again.”

One of Fermanagh strengths is their midfield – but even the imposing pairing of Ryan Jones and Eoin Donnelly fell under the weight of Armagh’s quartet Stephen Sheridan, Niall Grimley, Charlie Vernon and Ben Crealey.

“In the League final they dominated midfield so we have to try and counteract that in some way. We’re strong in midfield but their kick-outs were brilliant and their movement was very good, and they’ve a lot of big men there so we’re going to have to work on that.”

Armagh can expect something similar from McCusker. Although he wears number six, the Ederney clubman will be given licence to attack tomorrow night while James McMahon, a more conventional defender, will mind the house in his absence.

McCusker was constantly on the front foot in the League final but he breached enemy lines only once to grab a score that evening.

“I just think that’s the modern game in general,” says the St Joseph’s, Omagh Primary schoolteacher.

“Corner-backs and full-backs are up and down the pitch and you’ll find half-forwards and even full-forwards back more. I just think it’s become a more fluid game where you’re expected to attack and defend and be more of an all-round player no matter what number you have on your back.”

With Gallagher’s arrival, there is a renewed intensity about Fermanagh this year. Had they not lost Sean Quigley to an early black card, the Division Three final narrative might have been different.

“We are a small county but at the end of the day, it is 15 players against 15 players and the same number on the bench. I think we’ve a very good squad at the minute and if we get a bit of luck and things go our way you just never know.”

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