GAA Football

Any win will do for young Enniskillen Gaels, insists coach Simon Bradley

The Enniskillen Gaels players celebrate winning the Fona Cab Ulster Minor Football Tournament at St Paul's, Belfast on New Year's Day 2018.
Pic Seamus Loughran

SIX years ago Enniskillen Gaels won the county U16A Football Final by 52 points. Yes, you read that correctly. Fifty-two. 12-17 to 0-1. With nine different goalscorers.

On New Year's Day 2018 the Gaels became Ulster Minor Club Champions, beating Ballinascreen of Derry in the decider at St Paul's, Belfast.

This weekend many of the players from those teams will face their first senior championship clash against Tempo in the fourth Fermanagh SFC quarter-final - and coach/selector Simon Bradley will be happy to secure a one-point success.

That's not just 'paper talk' from the man who led his club to their last county senior triumph in 2006 and returned last year to help manager John Reihill.

Bradley knows that Enniskillen's talented boys still have to become men: "From that [2017] minor team we've eight or nine of those boys playing.

"Apart from Richard O'Callaghan, who'd be the 'grandfather' to certain boys – he doesn't like being called that because he's only 30 – we don't have anyone really older. You can see the naivety in some of the younger ones on the pitch, even off the pitch as well.

"A few of them were involved with the county last year and that woke them up to the required standard of fitness."

Once the kingpins in the county, including winning six consecutive championships from 1998 to 2003, and reaching Ulster Finals in 1999 and 2002, the Gaels haven't played senior championship football since 2014, which was the first time for several years.

Even then they went straight back down again.

"We have no player who has won a senior Championship game in our entire squad," points out Bradley, the elder brother of former county star Colm, who's now managing neighbours Belnaleck.

"You can't prepare players for Championship day, no matter how much help you give them, and myself and John have played in a lot of Championship games.

"You're telling them that you'll sleep differently the night before, even be nervous this week. You might get a phone call from the local reporter. Sunday you won't feel like eating.

"But until you go through it it's not something that you can make them physically feel. We're excited about playing in the senior Championship again. We're cautiously optimistic that, if we perform, on any given day we can compete with any team in the county."

This year, up again as 2020 Intermediate Champions, they certainly impressed in the League, scoring 19 goals in nine games as they reached the final.

Yet reality bit that day, as Bradley recalls: "We got our tails handed to us a bit in the League Final by Derrygonnelly [comfortably beaten 2-9 to 0-8], which was a wake-up call to a lot of our players.

"Big game day, different build-up, that was the first time for a lot of them to experience that as an Enniskillen group. To be honest, three or four of them probably froze on the day, a lot of them didn't perform to their capabilities."

There was one positive: "Normally that's the end of your season, but we're lucky that three weeks later we get to go out in Championship. We were able to re-focus and target the Championship."

Enniskillen do so with some confidence still, but also a degree of caution, even against a Tempo team who struggled in the League. "We know that we're going into this game as favourites. We had to do that all last year in Intermediate, so we're used to that position.

"We understand that no matter what we do – even if we win well or if we win by a point, we're not going to get a whole pile of credit. That's no disrespect to Tempo.

"But Tempo lost a lot of their league games by one or two points, and they had a few injuries. I know in our league meeting it took us a long time to get on top of them, probably into the last quarter.

"They also have experience. That's my only worry, our lack of experience, which was shown against Derrygonnelly. Tempo have a lot of seasoned players who have played in Championship semi-finals and Championship games."

Everyone around the Brewster Park club knows the consequences of over-confidence.

"Everyone in the club got carried away with the six-in-a-row. Everyone recognises that for eight or nine years the effort being put into youth activity wasn't enough, two or three boys were taking U12s and the U14s, and then one or two of them probably involved in the U16s.

"You just didn't have the 40 or 50 volunteers involved from U6 upwards. That was recognised and changed, thankfully that's now in place. I don't think it'll be let slip again because the lesson has been learned.

"It was the club taking the collective eye off the ball - but when you're winning so many, competing in Ulster Clubs, the feel-good factor is huge."

For now, Bradley and his Gaels will be genuinely thrilled by competing in the Fermanagh SFC - and continuing to do so next year.

"Trying to get out of Intermediate, that was probably the most competitive football in the county in recent years…

"The last thing we want is a championship relegation battle. We could end up playing the losers of Derrygonnelly and [champions] Ederney. Lose that and you'd have only one more chance to escape. Those games become a real battle. We want to avoid that. If we can do that, we then want to compete in the senior championship."

Bradley believes the young Gaels have the right attitude to go along with their undoubted talent: "The one thing I'd say about them is that they're very ambitious, that has struck me. They want to do well. They're like a sponge, they're soaking everything up in training.

"If they don't do something in the next two or three years it won't be for them not wanting to or not caring about it. It'll be because the club hasn't put in the right effort or the management hasn't been right."

The Enniskillen coach is optimistic, but also hard-headedly realistic about Sunday's encounter in Ederney: "The club's heading in the right direction, but what we needed in the League Final was a performance, and we didn't get that.

"What we need in the Championship is a win. Regardless of the performance, we need a win, in order to keep the momentum going.

"For us Sunday is about finishing the game in front. Not overly worried about performance or style of play. This is one of those games you just need to win, it's as simple as that."

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GAA Football