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Still fighting at 40: Why Marty McGrath is ready for another championship battle in Fermanagh

Declan McCusker and Martin McGrath (right) lift the New York Cup after Ederney's victory over Derrygonnelly in the 2020 Fermanagh SFC final
                                               Picture: Philip Walsh
BY GARETH CAULDWELL

AFTER 24 years of trying, Marty McGrath finally got his hands on a Fermanagh Senior Championship winners’ medal last year as his Ederney St Joseph’s side ended a 52-year wait to land the New York Cup with victory over a Derrygonnelly Harps outfit who were going in search of six in-a-row.

McGrath belied his age with a man of the match performance that day and the 40-year-old is not done yet as he is set to be in the centre of the action again when Ederney get their championship defence underway on Friday, October 15.

And waiting for them in that quarter final tie will be a Derrygonnelly side who will be eager to avenge that loss last season and get back to the top of the tree in club football in Fermanagh.

It’s a mouthwatering clash of the top two teams in the county and McGrath acknowledges that with it being straight knock out football, they can look no further ahead than the meeting with the Harps.

“You never could look any further ahead than the first round but when you have Derrygonnelly waiting for you, then the whole focus is on them, we can’t take the eye of the ball,” he said.

When he first came into the Ederney senior team as a fresh-faced teenager, McGrath would hardly have thought that it would have taken him 24 years to win a senior championship and he had to endure a couple of final defeats along the way before eventually reaching the promised land.

“I think I was 15 when I made my debut, and it was in the days when you didn’t have to be a certain age to play senior football. I can’t even remember who it was against it was that long ago,” laughed the former Allstar midfielder.

Ederney were not one of the top teams in the county at that stage but having won the intermediate championship in 2005, they enjoyed a fairytale run in the senior championship in 2006 that took them all the way to the final and meeting against former kingpins Enniskillen Gaels.

“We had Paul McCusker, Enda Ferris, Chris Snow coming through at that time but they were very young," McGrath said.

“We were in Division Two and ended up winning the intermediate championship in 2005 which moved us up to the senior championship. We were still in Division Two in 2006 and maybe we came into the championship under the radar a bit.

“We played Roslea in the first round and beat them and then we had Derrygonnelly in the quarter-final and Lisnaskea in the semi-final and we got through them to meet Enniskillen in the final,” said McGrath.

Enniskillen were a vastly experienced team, having won six titles in a row between 1998 and 2003 and contested two Ulster club finals. That told on the day as the Gaels dominated to secure the win.

“I think we got the last kick of a very good Enniskillen side; they had won six in-a-row up to 2003 and they still had a lot of those boys about in 2006. We didn’t have an answer to them,” added McGrath.

The hope though would be that Ederney would push on and get back challenging but that never materialised.

“We would have hoped that we would kick on after that, those young lads were only 17 or 18 and we wanted to build on getting to the final, but we let it slip a bit, and it was 2018 before we were back in another final.

“We didn’t think it would take 12 years to get back.”

During those intervening years McGrath would have been forgiven for wondering whether he would ever get his hands on the New York Cup as a couple of teams went on to dominate.

“I think from 2010, 2011 our team was getting stronger all the time but the problem was that you had really good teams who were dominating. You had Roslea winning three or four championships at that time and then Derrygonnelly came along in 2015 and they dominated with five in-a-row and it was just hard to make that breakthrough. Enniskillen, Roslea and Derrygonnelly all had dominant periods whereas in other years every team would have fancied going on to win it.”

By 2018 though Ederney were again a force to be reckoned with and a lot of those players who had been the newcomers in 2006 where now leading the way.

“There was a lot of good players like Niall Monaghan and Declan McKeever who never made it back to a county final but those young lads who had come through in 2006 were still there, they were now the experienced players in the squad.

“The core of the squad was still there, there was just a lot of changes around us. There was a new group of young lads coming through and you could see they were good footballers,” said McGrath.

Back in the hot seat too was Mickey Cassidy, the man who was at the helm in 2006.

“Mickey brings a bit of discipline; he had a bit of drive about him and the thing about Mickey is that he is a club man; he is passionate about trying to win it for his own club and he is not looking to go anywhere else. The club means everything to him and he wants to bring titles back to Ederney.”

Back in the final, Ederney were tasked with trying to stop Derrygonnelly’s bid for a fourth title in-a-row and McGrath admits that they just didn’t show up on the day.

“It is hard to put your finger on it, but I suppose the simple way to look at it is that we just didn’t perform, we didn’t turn up.

“We had young players like Sean Cassidy, Ryan Morris and Pól McKervey who had come into the team and were adding to the strength of the panel but none of us performed on the day.

“You can’t do that against Derrygonnelly, that was their fourth title in-a-row, they were used to playing in finals and it was just another game for them while for us maybe the final got to us a wee bit, but it was more so the fact that we just didn’t perform,” he said.

However, this time Ederney didn’t fall away and two years later they were back in the final and on this occasion, there was no denying them that title as they defeated Derrygonnelly in Brewster Park.

“It was a strange year with Covid and everything else but it was just great to get across the line,” said McGrath.

“I suppose things went our way, we had players injured in all the games but fortunately we had a bit of a panel and the players coming in didn’t disrupt the team in any way. Those lads from the 2018 team were now two years older and they were now the mainstay of the team and they were taking on leadership roles within it.”

Last year though is now forgotten about as the attention turns to this year’s championship campaign.

“Look, it is nice to have won it – I personally don’t have too many winners’ medals and it was massive for the club as a whole - but it counts for nothing going into this year’s championship. You are back to the start and there will be a number of clubs who will feel that they have a chance of winning it. It is all on the day, you have to perform, or you are out,” commented McGrath.

Derrygonnelly will be keen to claim back the title and have shown their intent already by winning the league title and McGrath believes that the Harps will go into the championship as favourites.

“Derrygonnelly are still the team to beat in the championship, there is no doubt about that, and we have them in the opening round, and I would say that they were happy enough to get us.

“They are the team that have been setting the standards in recent years, they won five in a row, and you don’t do that unless you are a very good side. You don’t become a bad team overnight and they will be eager to win it back.

“There is a bit of a rivalry between us and them – it’s a good rivalry – and you would like to think it will be a good battle between us,” he said.

So, campaign 25 is about to begin, does the thought of retirement ever enter the head for McGrath?

“I was messaging Barry [Owens] a while back who is also still playing and we were saying that we are two eejits to be still out playing. It doesn’t get any easier, you have to work that bit harder for less football. But you still enjoy it and you don’t want to go out of it because when you do, that’s it over.”

FERMANAGH SFC OVERVIEW

The battle for the New York Cup looks set to be an intriguing one and a number of clubs will feel that they will be in with a shout of getting their hands on the silverware.

All eyes will be on the quarter-final clash between Ederney and Derrygonnelly with one of the big guns set to make their exit from this year’s championship while the winner will be fancied to go the whole way.

Ederney lifted the title for the first time in 52 years when they defeated a Derrygonnelly side who were going for six in-a-row in last year’s final and the Harps will be eager to avenge that loss when the sides meet on Friday October 15. Derrygonnelly have secured the Division One title this year and they will be favourites to do the same in the championship, but Ederney will have their title on the line and will be determined to show that last season was no one-off.

The championship will get underway on Friday, October 8 when Kinawley take on Roslea and both will have aspirations of a good run in the competition, and this could prove a tight contest.

The next evening will see Barry Owens’s Teemore side come up against Colm Bradley’s Belnaleck outfit as the two former Fermanagh team-mates go head-to-head. Teemore are always a tough championship nut to crack but Belnaleck have been plying their trade in a higher division in the league so it could be another interesting tussle.

The quarter-finals will then conclude on Sunday, October 17 as Tempo come up against Enniskillen. Tempo were relegated from Division One this season, but they do have strength through the spine of their side.

Enniskillen will be favoured to progress from this tie but they will know that they need to improve on their recent league final display in losing to Derrygonnelly.

FIXTURES

Mannok Fermanagh Senior Football Championship quarter-finals

Friday, October 8

Brewster Park, 8pm: Kinawley Brian Boru's v Roslea Shamrocks

Saturday, October 9

Brewster Park, 8pm: Belnaleck Art McMurrough's v Teemore Shamrock

Friday, October 15

Brewster Park, 7.30pm: Derrygonnelly Harps v St Joseph's, Ederney

Sunday, October 17

Brewster Park, 4pm: Enniskillen Gaels v Tempo Maguire's

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