Kicking Out: Fermanagh were brilliant - but they're the reason no-one from Ulster will win an All-Ireland
BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder and for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon, very few people outside Fermanagh could have been in any way attracted to Gaelic football.
It was like a kind of abstract art: a mish-mash of nothingness to most observers, except the geeks and the partisans.
To those two minority groups, it was a sight to behold. Because while the partisan's eyes would bleed like everyone else’s when you’re watching another team at it, you’ll love and cherish and defend the ugliest of performances when they’re yours.
Fermanagh’s performance on Sunday was hideously ugly in one sense, but paradoxically the best team performance you’ll see this year.
Even in the baking sunshine, their thirst for work never evaporated. Every run back into defence was met with the enthusiasm of a collie dog being let out of its pen.
Every attack was meticulous in its construction, patient to the point where Monaghan lost the rag and lost their shape.
Fermanagh won every breaking ball going in the first 45 minutes, doing unto Malachy O’Rourke’s side what they had done unto Tyrone by pressing up, forcing the kick long and then overwhelming the middle third with numbers.
The defending was one part relentless and two parts intelligent. They set the trap, got the bodies into the right area in front of goal and sucked Monaghan.
You can say that for all of that, it was still the favourites who led by two points heading into stoppage time, but when you debate the merits of Fermanagh’s victory there is only one question to answer: Who played closest to their potential?
Fermanagh were at 90 per cent if not above it, and Monaghan were at 30 per cent if not below it. All of that was by Rory Gallagher’s design.
The most modern of games was decided by the most traditional of methods, the same one that took Fermanagh to their last Ulster final a decade ago.
And they’d even planned that.
“We felt there was a small vulnerability with a high ball going into their square and Eoin was out in his feet so we stuck him in there,” said the Fermanagh manager afterwards.
“I’ve come across Monaghan a lot in the last six or seven years and always felt there’s that wee bit of indecision in there when the ball drops – usually from a mis-hit shot. And we’re lucky enough, that’s what happened.”
They deserve nothing but the utmost credit. No matter what it looked like, it’s absolutely wrong to criticise them for it.
All you need to do is consider how things went for them last summer. They lacked bite and conviction and belief, three of the key ingredients in any defensive structure. They lacked that thirst for work.
And they know themselves they lack the attacking resources to go toe-to-toe. Twelve points is about the most you expect them to score. But that’s plenty if you keep the opposition to ten.
So this is how it has to be. And that’s what good teams do.
Setting up a team from Division Three against a top-end side is a bit like having only enough material to make two-thirds of a jumper. Are you stupid and leave it short at the bottom, or too small at the neck? Or do you leave a bit off the sleeves, get the best out of it and get away with it?
That’s where most teams in Ireland are at. In other parts of the country, they resist but here in Ulster, everyone thinks they have a chance of provincial success if they nail the front door closed.
Wicklow just played their normal game against Dublin and conceded 4-25. Clare came out to have a rattle at Kerry and leaked 0-32. Sligo let Galway take them for 4-24.
When would you ever see that in Ulster? And here’s the thing: it’s the like of Fermanagh that will prevent any team from the province winning an All-Ireland this year or in the near future.
Because the Ulster Championship is so important, teams set their stall out primarily to win it. The default tactic for an underdog is to load bodies behind the ball and keep games tight. And so the stronger sides, Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal, have to set their own gameplan accordingly.
There’s no point having fancy notions of kicking the ball to an inside forward line when you’re met with a green wall like Sunday. Those top three have all been set up to run the ball in recent years. They’ve almost had to be.
But, as has been shown in recent sobering autumns, that just doesn’t cut it in Croke Park against sides that have been playing on the front foot all year. Dublin in particular will wipe the floor with it.
Speaking last October, Conor McManus hit the nail on the head.
“I genuinely don’t believe you can beat Dublin playing a defensive system because they’re so comfortable in that environment.
“If you go out and play man-to-man and play them toe-to-toe, who knows where it’s going to take you? You’re not going to beat them doing anything else.”
As he found out at the weekend, you can’t put a camel through the eye of a needle.
Nobody kicks the ball enough in the Ulster Championship to be well enough rehearsed in it for mid-July. And God knows you need the option of a kick come that time of year.
Fermanagh’s setup on Sunday is the very reason for that. The fear of over-committing and being crucified on the break still looms large over Ulster football.
But if there doesn’t come a day when the province’s stronger sides are setting up to attack as they would plan to in Croke Park, even at the expense of a provincial title, then it’ll be a while until any of them are climbing the Hogan Stand steps.