Paul McCusker: Fermanagh players have never been pushed as hard
IT is 11 years since Paul McCusker first set foot in a Fermanagh dressing room, but he says the Ernemen have “never been challenged as much” as during Rory Gallagher’s time at the helm.
The former Donegal boss took over the reins in his native county months after Pete McGrath’s acrimonious exit, and has so far led them to promotion from Division Three and seen them topple bookies’ favourites Armagh in the Ulster Championship.
A provincial semi-final date with high-flying neighbours Monaghan awaits this Sunday, and Fermanagh once again find themselves cast as outsiders.
That is nothing new to McCusker or anyone else in the group. Other than when they faced Antrim, the Ernemen have always played the role of underdogs in Ulster.
But the belief gained from spring months working under Gallagher and his assistant Ryan McMenamin sees confidence high, with McCusker insisting the new management team have taken Fermanagh to a new level.
“We’ve never been challenged as much - every player, it doesn’t matter who it is,” said the Ederney forward, who plays alongside brother Declan as part of an industrious half-forward line.
“Rory has made it quite clear he’s only going to pick boys on what they produce at training so that’s driving boys on.
“The two of them bounce off each other very well and they’re very hands on. Their enthusiasm for the game is unbelievable; the knowledge the two of them have between them is starting to rub off on us. All of us are learning a hell of a lot.
“Obviously Ricey’s success with Tyrone and Rory with Donegal, St Gall’s, St Brigid’s down in Dublin, they’ve both been in winning dressing rooms plenty of times. Their know-how is second to none.”
Unlike several of his team-mates, McCusker wasn’t at Healy Park the day after their victory over Armagh to see Monaghan pull the rug out from under Tyrone.
But there was no sense of surprise that it’s Malachy O’Rourke’s Farney County who will start in the opposite corner on Sunday.
“I expected Monaghan to win it,” he added.
“I don’t think Malachy’s ever lost a first round Ulster Championship match. I just had a notion Monaghan were going to beat them.
“They’re a serious outfit, they finished the League well too and were unlucky not to get to the League final. I’m sure they’re in the top four in the country.”
McCusker came into the Erne panel in Charlie Mulgrew’s last year in charge but didn’t play at all under O’Rourke, who led Fermanagh to the brink of a first Ulster title in 2008.
“I went to trials the first year, wasn’t picked, then I went to Australia for a year, then I was back in under John O’Neill for a year but from 2014 I’ve been there,” he recalls.
But, despite not having working with the Derrylin man first hand, McCusker has been hugely impressed by the job done in Monaghan since 2012 – especially in keeping such a tight playing group happy.
“It’s probably testament to Malachy and the work he’s done that after six years they’re still coming out for him.
“Sometimes if a manager is there three or four years, not that they have favourites, but for the boys who are maybe number 24 or 25 for a few years, they start to think ‘f**k it, what’s the point, sure he’s not going to play me this year?’
“But he seems to have kept the thing fairly fresh, he rotates and uses his subs well.”