GAA Football

Fermanagh host Down in McKenna Cup opener at Brewster Park

Ryan Jones has returned to the Fermanagh fold after starring for Derrygonnelly in their Ulster club championship run.
Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

Dr McKenna Cup Section B: Fermanagh v Down (tomorrow, Brewster Park, 2pm)

BOTH counties are facing difficult away assignments in their League openers – Kildare in Division Two for Fermanagh, Tipperary in Division Three for Down – so a little winning momentum would be a valuable asset to have on board the bus.

With that in mind, extended McKenna Cup runs would be welcomed and with Section B outsiders Antrim providing the opposition in their second group games, tomorrow’s combatants could view this game as a shoot-out for top spot in the group.

If that is the case, then expect both to throw all their available resources into going for a victory which, while it won’t shape their season, could prove to be very handy in the long run.

Tomorrow’s Enniskillen run-out is Ryan McMenamin’s first game as manager of Fermanagh. The former Tyrone All-Ireland winner took over after two seasons as deputy to Rory Gallagher who has moved on to manager Derry.

The Dromore native, who has enticed former Red Hand team-mate Joe McMahon and former Kilcoo manager Paul McIvor into his backroom team, knows the players and the game that suits them best.

McMenamin will be without Barry Mulrone, Eamon McHugh, Ryan Lyons and James McMahon for tomorrow’s opener but has drafted in several new faces with Brandon Horan and Ben Daly (both stars of the St Michael’s Enniskillen Hogan Cup triumph) and Garvan Jones all pushing for a place in the side.

Ryan Jones, back after a break following Derrygonnelly Harps’ run to the semi-finals of the Ulster club championship, is looking forward to getting back in the green jersey.

“We know Ricey, he has been there for two years now and we know what he expects,” said Jones, who recently opened his own pharmacy in Drumshambo, county Leitrim.

“Joe McMahon and Paul McIver have come in as well and their trainings have been very good, they are obviously guys with a lot of experience, so it has been good and refreshing and we’ve had plenty of football too.

“I don’t know whether Richey wants to see as many new players as possible or whether winning matches is all he’s concerned with but he’ll want a performance no matter what team he puts out. “We have a big panel there at the moment and this is an opportunity for boys to show what they can do and even for the boys who have been there nobody can be complacent, you have to prove yourself again.”

Midfielder Jones, who was at the forefront of Derrygonnelly’s Ulster run which came to an end in at the semi-final stage when the Harps lost narrowly to eventual winners Down’s Kilcoo, hopes to get some game-time on Sunday.

“I’ll be available if selected,” he said.

“Anyone who is fit to play will want to play. Our first League game is in three weeks and we have a very tough opener in Kildare away and then Roscommon at home, so it’s important that Ricey gets to see what boys can do and has an idea of where we’re at coming into the first League game.”

Meanwhile, Down manager Paddy Tally begins his second season at the Mourne county helm having missed out on promotion by a whisker in his first.

One more point would have seen Down go up to Division Two and, with the two tier Championship a stark reality next summer, the Mournemen need to clinch a top two spot in 2020. That might actually prove harder than last year because Tipperary and Cork, both relegated from Division Two in 2019, and Derry, promoted from Division Four, will all fancy their chances.

Tally’s side came through a recent challenge match against Antrim by three points but the Down manager is minus the players from Ulster champions Kilcoo – including the Johnston brothers Jerome and Ryan and Paul Devlin - who are currently preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final clash against Dublin and Leinster champions Ballyboden St Enda’s on January 4.

Down will feel the loss of that experienced trio and team captain Darren O’Hagan says a good start in the McKenna Cup is important if the Mournemen are to get the start they need to clinch promotion this time.

“You can work out what team you’re going to have for the first League game and get that winning habit,” said the consistent Clonduff defender.

“Winning is very easy carried, you can’t beat it. Losing the two games in the McKenna Cup and then trying to lift ourselves to go to Tipperary… it wouldn’t be easy.”

Both counties will look to strike a balance between introducing new players and reaching the level of performance required for their League campaigns. Tomorrow’s game could be an entertaining affair and Fermanagh, with home advantage and their Derrygonnelly contingent available, start as favourites.

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