‘I’m not sure what McGeeney feels is his strongest team’: Ryan Jones

Former Fermanagh midfielder ready for watching brief as Armagh come to Brewster Park

Fermanagh's Ryan Jones and Armagh's Ben Crealey compete for possession. Picture by Trevor Lucy.
Ryan Jones enjoyed some stirring battles with Armagh during his Fermanagh career - not least the Erne County's 2018 Ulster Championship victory over the Orchardmen. Picture by Trevor Lucy

IT has been a different kind of Championship week than Ryan Jones is used to.

For the guts of 13 years he was Fermanagh’s totemic figure around centrefield, so often leading the Ernemen into battle when the odds were stacked against them.

Sunday’s Brewster Park date with Armagh was exactly the kind of clash that would have had Jones licking his lips.

Instead, though, his sole focus, up until Wednesday night at least, was Leitrim U20s’s date with Sligo. Seven days earlier they swept aside Mayo - Leitrim’s first over their western rivals at that rival since 1998 - and a draw with the Yeatsmen leaves them well placed in the hunt for a knockout spot going into next week’s final round of games.

It was Jones’s relocation to Drumshanbo that probably signalled the beginning of the end of his county days, opening his own pharmacy in 2019 followed by the chaos of Covid. After sitting out Fermanagh’s 2021 campaign, he returned for the last two, before deciding enough was enough.

“I continued playing but the amount of time it takes to commit to county football, if you’re trying to progress your own business, it’s hard,” said the 33-year-old.

“County football is great, and it’s great being in that environment, but you come to a stage in your life where you weigh up the different things, and that was the decision I came to...”

That’s how the Leitrim link-up came about. When Andy Moran got wind of the Derrygonnelly man’s change of status, and address, the Mayo legend asked Jones to come in alongside him and former Cavan boss Mickey Graham.

Given the managers he has worked under since making his Fermanagh debut in 2010, it stands to reason that an interest coaching would keep him anchored to football one way or another.

“I’m football-mad,” says Jones, “I go to a lot of games, I’ve always had a passion for coaching – I’d constantly be chatting to different coaches from different counties.

“Naturally enough, if you’re into sport, you’re going to bump into people along the way. So when this opportunity came up I wanted to make a go of it.”

Yet, for all that his sideline endeavours have helped fill a void, Jones knows Sunday will be strange. Brewster Park, big crowd, Kieran McGeeney’s Division One-bound side rolling into Enniskillen – it is hard to beat the Ulster Championship buzz.

And Armagh carry a special kind of resonance as battles with the Orchardmen punctuated his county career.

Indeed, it was on July 11, 2010 that, as a gangly teenager, Jones made his Championship bow as the Ernemen were edged out by Armagh in Brewster.

Over the course of the next decade they bumped and bounced off each other on the way up and down from Division Two, the rivalry becoming particularly claustrophobic in 2018 when they locked horns three times in less than two months.

But when it comes to Championship, there is one game trumps all others.

“2018, Saturday evening in Brewster... I still have good memories of that match.

“Rory Gallagher was Fermanagh manager and we put a massive emphasis on the Championship. Armagh were a kicking team, they wanted space for their inside forwards. Fermanagh played very defensive under Rory anyway, but that day our main focus was to close down the space.

“We only scored 12 points but we noticed Armagh went for a man-on-man approach, so they would’ve marked width and didn’t really close in on the middle - so a lot of our game-plan was getting players out wide, getting Armagh to follow and leave gaps through the middle where we could run the ball and create openings.”

Stefan Campbell comes under pressure from Louth’s Craig Lennon during Saturday night's Division Two clash at the Box-It Athletic Grounds. Picture by Mark Marlow
Ryan Jones believes Fermanagh would be delighted if Stefan Campbell and Rian O'Neill don't start on Saturday night. Picture by Mark Marlow (" ")

This time around, the counties come in off the back of different League campaigns – Armagh pushing for promotion from Division Two, while Fermanagh fell back through the trapdoor at the other end.

Yet, while a shock 24-point hammering at the hands of relegation rivals Louth shook confidence to the core, Jones isn’t convinced Armagh are firing on all cylinders either.

“I was at the League final, I felt Armagh were favourites, that they were a wee bit more experienced than Donegal, Donegal had injuries and probably weren’t that overly worried about the League final with Derry down the line.

“I was a wee bit disappointed that Armagh didn’t really control that game – they only really made a go of it in the last 10 minutes.

“Armagh set up defensively, but they mark very much zonal. Ciaran Thompson was able to get a lot of shots off the last day... he’s a player I’d have felt Armagh would’ve really went after and man-marked but, because of their zonal approach, he was able to float into certain areas and get shots away.

“I know they played each other a few weeks ago in the League, going into that last five minutes Fermanagh were still within a kick of a ball away from Armagh.

“For large periods of that game there was never more than three points in it, so this weekend Fermanagh’s approach will be to be within striking distance coming into the last quarter.”

And the absence of two star turns from the Orchard forward line last time out offers further hope that the Ernemen have the tools to pull off another Orchard upset on Sunday.

“For me, Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell are their two best forwards, and neither of them started the League final... I’m not sure what McGeeney feels is his strongest team.

“Put it this way, I know for a fact, if you’re a Fermanagh player or manager, you’d be delighted if Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell didn’t start this weekend anyway. I always feel those guys have got to start if Armagh want to deliver the big prizes.”