Goal rush could end Fermanagh hopes of edging another Brewster battle with Armagh

Orchard firepower can expose Erne frailties with Ulster semi spot up for grabs

Allianz Football League Division 2, Brewster Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh 3/3/2024
Fermanagh vs Armagh
Armagh's Andy Murnin comes under presure from Fermanagh's Declan McCusker during last month's Division Two clash in Enniskillen. Picture by INPHO
Allianz Football League Division 2, Brewster Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh 3/3/2024 Fermanagh vs Armagh Armagh's Andy Murnin comes under presure from Fermanagh's Declan McCusker during last month's Division Two clash in Enniskillen. Picture by INPHO (©INPHO/Leah Scholes ©INPHO/Leah Scholes/©INPHO/Leah Scholes)
AIB Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh v Armagh (Sunday, 2pm, Brewster Park – live on BBC2)

FERMANAGH followers will need little reminding of the last time Kieran McGeeney brought an Armagh side to Brewster Park for Championship battle.

Back in 2018, the millstone of no Ulster SFC wins under his watch hung heavily around the Mullaghbawn man’s neck. The Ernemen piled on further misery with the kind of dogged, disciplined display that became their hallmark under Rory Gallagher.

This, however, was no ambush.

The Orchard knew exactly what awaited them in Enniskillen but were unable to do anything about it. Faced with a green wall, shot selection became increasingly wild as the wide count ramped up, Fermanagh’s efficiency at the other end heaping on pressure with every minute that passed.

Much has changed in the six years between, but so much of what transpired then will be required once more if the Ernemen are to stand any chance of pulling off a similar result.

Armagh have fine-tuned their approach in the time between, the relatively gung-ho days of anything you can do, we can do better replaced by a more measured game-plan that places a greater emphasis on defensive shape and stability.

In 2018, Seamus and Sean Quigley hung wide knowing their marker would follow, allowing the likes of Ryan Jones, Barry Mulrone and Declan McCusker to punch holes through the middle.

The zonal approach favoured now offers greater solidity all round, and ensures McGeeney’s men are no longer as easy to pull out of shape. This was reflected in their performances during the League.

During the first six games Armagh conceded an average of fewer than 11 points per game before, with promotion already secured, the final outing of the campaign saw Cork bag 2-16 in a contest of little consequence to the Orchard.

Therefore, engineering the kind of scoring opportunities to keep pace has become a much trickier proposition for the Ernemen.

In the absence of key figures like Ryan Lyons and Darragh McGurn – the latter of whom is back in the fold for Sunday – Garvan Jones has provided much of their creative spark, but they will need much more than the Derrygonnelly man to stand up on Sunday.

Indeed, the bigger concern for Fermanagh is at the other end, and their openness to goals against one of the most dangerous sides in Ulster. During last year’s League campaign Down and Antrim scored three, Westmeath and Cavan two, before two goals from Shane McGuigan and another from Paul Cassidy saw Derry end their Ulster Championship ambitions.

The subsequent Tailteann Cup campaign saw Antrim bag another three, Leitrim score two, while that worrying trend continued during recent months when relegation rivals Louth stuck six past Ross Bogue in Ardee.

Joining the sweeper ‘keeper revolution has broadened Fermanagh’s horizons out the field, but that high risk game allows little margin for error. Against Louth, and against Donegal earlier in the League, the Ernemen repeatedly paid the price for their own errors, coughing up possession and gifting goals galore.

Niall Grimley was shown a red card early on in Armagh's defeat to Fermanagh. Picture by Philip Walsh
Fermanagh's 2018 Ulster Championship victory over Armagh was a feisty affair in Enniskillen. Picture by Philip Walsh

That will not be lost on Armagh – nor will the fact that so many of those goals came from men making breaks from deep as Fermanagh failed to plug the gaps.

That Armagh didn’t hit the back of the net in their League win at Brewster Park six weeks ago was entirely their own doing, a host of spurned opportunities leaving the final scoreline tighter than it needed to be for a wasteful Orchard.

Their own profligacy continues to be a thorn in the side at times, often preventing them from assuming control in games that appear comfortable. The return of Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell to the starting 15 is a sign of Armagh’s attacking intent, with the pace of Oisin Conaty and Conor Turbitt, alongside the aerial ability of Andy Murnin and the panache of Rory Grugan, giving them a little bit of everything.

That said, while Blaine Hughes has been hugely impressive between the sticks this year, the absence of Ethan Rafferty rampaging up the field is most keenly felt in games like these when opponents shut up shop and look for opportunities on the counter.

A more patient approach is required as a result, but the comprehensive manner in which promotion back to the top flight was secured suggests this Armagh side is starting to feel a bit more comfortable in its own skin.

In some ways, the hammering against Louth could yet prove a well-timed blessing in disguise for Fermanagh as their frailties were so brutally exposed. Cavan had little to play for bar bragging rights in the final League game at Kingspan Breffni, but the Ernemen went about their business with real purpose and discipline – the carelessness of previous weeks discarded as they eased across the line.

It may not have been enough to save their skins in Division Two, but it should have boosted confidence with Championship looming. The heavy rain of recent weeks, alongside anticipated showers in Enniskillen over the weekend, could also lend itself to their bid to keep things tight.

But this is a different Armagh side to the class of 2018; an improving outfit that now looks capable of coping with almost everything that is thrown at them. Fermanagh will make life tough, but goals could be the killer – and the Orchard have plenty of men to get them.

Full-back Che Cullen and twin brother Lee are due to return to the green of Fermanagh next season. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Che or twin brother Lee Cullen are expected to pick up Rian O'Neill at Brewster Park on Sunday. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Lee Cullen (Fermanagh) v Rian O’Neill (Armagh)

I’VE gone for Lee, but it was flip of a coin stuff for which of the Cullen brothers will be detailed to keep Rian O’Neill under lock and key on Sunday. It could well be Che, with Lee instead picking up Andy Murnin.

The Cullens have long been used to snuff out the opposition’s physical threat and, regardless of where he plays, O’Neill represents a major test of any man’s mettle.

Kieran McGeeney has named the Crossmaglen star at midfield, leaving Murnin inside, but the Armagh attacking unit is often fluid, with those two likely to inter-change at different times, while Stefan Campbell could also drop deeper so O’Neill can operate closer to goal.

Arguments about whether or not now is a good time to go toe-to-toe with him will only be settled once this Brewster Park argument is over. After all, O’Neill has only started one game so far this year, in the penultimate League game in Cork, so is he ready to step right up to Championship pace? Or, fresh and raring to go, will he come out and run the show?

Whichever Cullen gets the nod will know the size of the task ahead. Curtailing O’Neill’s influence is just one part of the puzzle when taking on a side blessed with such attacking talent, but doing so would spread confidence throughout the Erne ranks.


KIERAN Donnelly has a couple of big decisions to make before throw-in on Sunday, with some players now back in the frame for selection.

Jonny Cassidy is among the finest man-markers in Ulster and, while he has been named among the subs, it is hard to imagine that he will not start against Armagh, with so many danger men to be countered.

Darragh McGurn is another. His athleticism was crucial during Donnelly’s first two years in charge and, if selected, would offer Fermanagh a different attacking dimension.

Garvan Jones was hugely impressive at times during the League, combining brilliantly with Sean Cassidy in the victory over Cavan last time out, and McGurn’s penetrating runs from deep may present another outlet.

Maximising scoring opportunities, particularly for goals, will be key but Fermanagh’s main aim will be keep things as tight as possible at the other end and remain in contention heading towards the final quarter.

In order to do so, they must cut out the sloppy mistakes in possession that have cost so many goals in the past – mostly notably in their six-goal defeat to Division Two relegation rivals Louth last month.


DOES Kieran McGeeney know his best 15? Should he? Or is he simply in the envious position where an embarrassment of attacking riches allows him to mix and match according to Armagh’s opponents?

Selection matters dominate conversations in the Orchard County more than most and, even though they comfortably sealed promotion back to Division One with Rian O’Neill starting just one game, most supporters will be excited to see his name on the starting sheet for Sunday.

Aware of the likelihood that Fermanagh will sit deep and try to frustrate Armagh, as was the case in the League encounter, the need for long-range shooters sees O’Neill and Stefan Campbell return to the fold having come off the bench in the Division Two final defeat to Donegal.

The trio of Sean Cassidy, Garvan Jones and Ultan Kelm represent Fermanagh’s biggest threats, though Darragh McGurn could be added should he start. Paddy Burns did a good job on the lively Oisin Gallen at Croke Park a fortnight ago and could be tasked with snuffing out Jones’s creative spark, while the experienced Aidan Forker looks likely to go on Ederney youngster Cassidy.

Peter McGrane has been one of the finds of the year so far, with his pace making him a possible contender to pick up the dangerous Kelm.