GAA Football

Biden-esque patience will see Down home

Paul Devlin's inclusion in the Down team gives them that little bit of extra balance in attack.

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Fermanagh v Down (tomorrow, 1.30pm, Brewster Park, live on BBC2 NI)

FOR those glued to CNN over the last three days, they might find that things on the edge of Lough Erne aren’t all that different to those down by Lake Erie.

The race for the White House has centered on the long, drawn-out battle below the river in Pennsylvania. You could leave the TV for an hour or two and come back to find absolutely nothing has changed.

There will be long spells in Brewster Park tomorrow that the footballers of Fermanagh and Down will prove as inseparable as Biden and Trump.

You could leave it at 0-2 apiece and come back with five minutes to go, pretty much certain that if it’s just the meat of the result that you’re after, you wouldn’t have known any more about it for watching the seconds tick by.

The bookmakers are placing Down as a strong favourite. It’s a hard position to decipher. The margins are wafer thin.

Of their 43 home league and championship games in the last decade, Fermanagh have won or drawn 32.

In the five seasons from 2015 until 2019, they conceded just eight goals in 23 home games.

Fermanagh’s two league points in 2020 came courtesy of an opening round home win over Roscommon.

It’s in them to frustrate Down and win.

Having spent the early season trying to be something different, the last two games have displayed evidence of a return to what they know.

Ryan McMenamin’s side could easily have stayed in Division Two. Covid wiped them out before the Clare game and yet even though they hadn’t really looked like winning it for 66 minutes, they stayed in it and had four goal chances in the final stretch.

Against Laois, Fermanagh played all the football. A man up, they led comfortably by five points with three minutes to go. They had dealt with Evan O’Carroll, Paul Kingston and Gerard Walsh superbly.

Then one long ball in and a penalty comes off it, before rookie goalkeeper Sean McNally handed Laois a second major from a total miscue moments later.

Relegation had seemed a foregone conclusion given the events around the Clare game but rather than disheartened by their two post-layoff outings, you feel Fermanagh will feel quietly pleased.

What will worry them in championship terms is the loss of some of their best, most experienced players.

The exiled Cullen brothers, Ché and Lee, will be huge absentees in defence, while Barry Mulrone is an overlooked absentee. Shane McGullion is also out, having played a bit of league football.

Arguably most significant of all is Ultan Kelm. Injury rules him out and with Down expected to play Caolan Mooney at centre-half forward, the whole make-up of the Fermanagh defence might have to be altered.

Kelm would have been perfect for the job but it now seems likely that their natural sweeper James McMahon will have to do that, and with Kane Connor set to go on Donal O’Hare, there’s already a sense of over-shuffling the deck.

On Johnny Cassidy they will pin a lot of hope. He was excellent against Evan O’Carroll two weeks ago, the same against Keelan Sexton in Ennis, and seems a natural fit for Jerome Johnston.

Down are not uncontainable, despite their line-up having an attacking look about it.

Only four teams in the last decade have won a promotion from any league division with a worse scoring record than Down’s average of 14.5 points. One of those teams happened to be Fermanagh two years ago.

The Ernemen’s total of 3-76 in this year’s League is the worst attacking record of any team bar London.

And yet they are eminently capable of winning this game.

Brewster Park may be devoid of its thousands of souls, but it’s never felt like that sort of advantage. It’s about the tightness and softness of the pitch and how it dovetails with their style as much as anything.

Paddy Tally has been trying to build a modern Down team full of pace and athleticism. His middle third selection is a nod to that. He must worry how effective it will be in a sodden Brewster.

The early kicking game to Connaire Harrison that they threatened to build a couple of seasons back has already been abandoned, with the big Glasdrumman man no longer on the panel.

They’ll also be without their best player of the last five years, Darren O’Hagan. He would have been tailor made for a half-back role and breaking the line from deep tomorrow, but is out after undergoing surgery to cure a long-standing issue.

Defensively they probably won’t miss him all that much. Fermanagh don’t offer the sternest test of the traditional defensive skills, but rather make you battle with the head to stay concentrated as they go back and forward across the pitch.

Down aren’t exactly prolific themselves, despite having more of a scoring edge to their team on paper.

Their kickout strategy is a noted long-term issue but Fermanagh tend to have a lot of ball in most games. They’re bigger than most teams around the middle, and in Richard O’Callaghan and Conall Jones they have the equivalent of a fresh front-row coming on when the starters tire.

It appears close to inevitable that the free-takers will decide the game.

Tomás Corrigan has stepped straight back into the role after replacing Sean Quigley, another starter from last year’s championship team who is no longer there.

They tried Lorcan McStravick against Laois to hit the left-footed frees but it didn’t come off, and so they’re looking at Corrigan kicking from both sides.

Paul Devlin, meanwhile, has earned a spot in the Down team. He will kick their frees from the right. Barry O’Hagan took them from the other side in Louth despite Donal O’Hare also playing, and after a sterling club season, the Clonduff man may continue in the role.

Something as simple as that tiny bit of extra balance could tip the scales.

Bypassing each other in the league means very little. Down were proven too good for Division Three, but Fermanagh weren’t as out of their depth a league up as the table suggests.

Fortress Brewster, winter football, underdogs, a low-scoring opponent. It’s what Fermanagh’s dreams are made of.

What they’ve lost defensively has to be the pressure point that the visitors target, though.

Getting to 13 points will probably win it.

It will require Bidenesque patience but Down should hit the finish line a head in front.

* * * * * *
Analysis by Neil Loughran and Cahair O'Kane

Jerome Johnston (Down)
WELCOMING Caolan Mooney back into the county fold is a huge boost for Down, but Kilcoo’s Jerome Johnston has emerged as a major player for the Mournemen in recent years.

Now 27, Johnston enjoyed possibly his best-ever county championship campaign, bagging 4-14 during an impressive campaign as the Magpies wrapped up a seventh Down title in eight years.

Hasn’t always brought his club form onto the inter-county stage but his decision-making has improved considerably, his big moment mentality best illustrated by the superb late point he scored in the crunch Division Three clash with Ulster rivals Derry back in February.

Paddy Tally will need Johnston to be on form tomorrow, and his directness, eye for a goal and ability to score from range could be key in unlocking the tight Fermanagh defence.

Fermanagh: S McNally; J Cassidy, K Connor, L Flanagan; J Largo-Ellis, J McMahon, C McManus; R Jones, E Donnelly; C Corrigan, D McGurn, A Breen; Stephen McGullion, T Corrigan, D McCusker
WITHOUT the Cullen brothers Ché and Lee, their primary man-marker Ultan Kelm, and fellow defender Shane McGullion, there are enforced changes in what remains a fairly experienced Fermanagh side. Conall Jones is also not named to start, although Aidan Breen is after recovering from his bout of Covid-19. They’ll give a championship debut to goalkeeper Sean McNally and defenders Luke Flanagan and Josh Largo-Ellis, all of whom were on the 2018 St Michael’s Enniskillen team that won the Hogan Cup. Darragh McGurn and Stephen McGullion will make their first starts too, having come on at the end of last year’s defeat by Monaghan. Ruairi Corrigan and Richard O’Callaghan will be called upon at some point.

Down: R Burns; P Fegan, P Murdock, P Laverty; G Collins, K McKernan, D Guinness; C Mooney, J Flynn; C Poland, P Devlin, B O’Hagan; J Johnston, D O’Hare, C Doherty
FROM the team that was due to start against Leitrim before the game was pulled, Paddy Tally has made three changes. Only for of the side that actually started the game down in Louth two weeks ago will take the field in Brewster Park. Patrick Murdock and Stephen Fegan are handed starting jerseys, with Kevin McKernan earning a spot for another championship season ahead of Ryan McAleenan. Johnny Flynn and Conor Poland will continue at midfield while Paul Devlin earns a spot in attack, no doubt with a view to the left-footed frees in what is likely to be a close, low-scoring encounter. The likes of Niall Donnelly, Ryan Johnston, Owen McCabe, James Guinness and Ryan McEvoy give them greater strength on the bench than Fermanagh.

Patrick Murdock v Stephen McGullion

WITH Fermanagh only likely to keep Tomás Corrigan inside, Gerard Collins is the man for that job and Kevin McKernan is almost certain to fill the pocket in front. What Down will expect that does is give them the freedom to send Patrick Murdock, one of the most prominent growing talents in club football with Warrenpoint, out to tail Stephen McGullion, who will drop out around midfield. McGullion has been a key ball-winner for Fermanagh recently and it will represent a significant test of Murdock’s defensively capabilities, but releasing him out the pitch will allow him to drive forward, which he has proven himself adept at.

HAVING spent the early part of the year looking at freeing themselves of the shackles of the last two years under Rory Gallagher, the last two games have suggested they aren’t all that different any more. Fermanagh have shown no inclination to kick the ball in attack and will rely on men coming on to the ball from deep, with Tomás Corrigan playing a solitary game up front in which he sees little primary possession. The loss of three, arguably four, key defensive options means that they may have to take extra precautions at the back. Their height around the middle, where Stephen McGullion will come out to make a three with Eoin Donnelly and Ryan Jones, could be a huge advantage, especially if they can prey on a Down kickout strategy that continues to have problems. They may be tempted to throw Darragh McGurn to full-forward for a while.

THE presence of so many out-and-out forwards in their expected team suggests that Down are confident of taking the game to Fermanagh and winning it based on the quality of their attack. Quite how that manifests itself on what is likely to be a heavy, sodden pitch in Brewster Park remains to be seen. Kevin McKernan has got his place back in the side for the 13th championship season of his career, and is almost certain to operate as the team’s sweeper. Their middle eight is loaded with pace but the first task will be to deny Fermanagh the lion’s share of primary possession. Jonathan Flynn and Conor Poland have settled into a midfield partnership and need to have a big day tomorrow.

2012 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 1-8 Down 2-10
DOWN inflicted defeat on Tyrone great Peter Canavan in his first match as a Championship manager with Fermanagh, the dominant Mournemen sweeping to a five-point victory in Brewster Park.

The Ernemen’s National League resurgence under Canavan was not enough, with Division One Down on top for virtually the whole game.

Their cause was aided when the Ernemen had Daryl Keenan sent-off early on, shown a straight red card by referee Syl Doyle after an umpire spotted an off-the-ball incident which left Conor Laverty on the ground.

Injury was added to insult when a Donal O'Hare goal helped Down establish a handy 1-6 to 0-3 half-time advantage – Fermanagh managing just one point, a Daniel Kille free, before the 34th minute.

However, they enjoyed some success after the break and cut the lead to three when Damien Kelly netted after a quick free-kick move. However, James McCartan’s side hit back with a goal from Conor Laverty as they cruised through to a semi-final clash against Monaghan.

(Eight Down wins, two Fermanagh wins)
2012 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 1-8 Down 2-10
2009 Ulster SFC preliminary round: Fermanagh 0-13 Down 0-10
2005 All-Ireland qualifying round one: Down 1-11 Fermanagh 0-7
2003 Ulster SFC semi-final: Down 2-10 Fermanagh 0-11
1984 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 3-6 Fermanagh 0-8
1983 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 0-10 Down 0-8
1978 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 2-7 Down 0-14
1977 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 3-9 Fermanagh 0-7
1962 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 1-8 Down 4-10
1961 Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down 0-12 Fermanagh 0-7

Barry Cassidy
THE Derry man has become one of the most experienced referees on the circuit and yet remarkably this will be only his second ever Ulster Championship match, and his first for six years. The GAA’s subtle shift in policy owing to the pandemic means referees are, by and large, staying that bit closer to home. Cassidy’s only previous outing in the province was a non-descript tie between Donegal and Antrim in 2014, but he’s refereed major games in the All-Ireland series’ as well as in the other three provinces. Also one of the fittest officials on the block. Constantly right on top of the play.

SOME light rain is anticipated tomorrow morning, which could lead to the field at Brewster Park being soft enough by the time Down and Fermanagh run out. Other than that it will be decent enough conditions, with a bit of a breeze but nothing too severe.

Fermanagh 15/8
Draw 7/1
Down 8/13
Handicap betting
Fermanagh (+2) 10/11
Draw (+2) 8/1
Down (-2) 6/5
First goalscorer
Donal O’Hare 10/3
Tomas Corrigan 7/2
No goalscorer 7/2

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