'It's been a long time coming': Enniskillen Gaels return to the summit in Fermanagh

The Enniskillen Gaels players celebrate after Sunday's Fermanagh SFC final victory over Erne Gaels at Brewster Park. Picture by Philip Walsh
The Enniskillen Gaels players celebrate after Sunday's Fermanagh SFC final victory over Erne Gaels at Brewster Park. Picture by Philip Walsh

Mannok Fermanagh Senior Football Championship final: Erne Gaels, Belleek 0-11 Enniskillen Gaels 3-12

THE sleeping giants finally emerged from their slumber as Brewster Park welcomed a new era for Enniskillen Gaels with a one-sided victory over Erne Gaels in yesterday’s delayed Fermanagh final.

Supporters clad in yellow and blue spilled out onto a field that, seven days earlier, was too sodden to host the county showpiece, placing dreams into purgatory while the New York Cup waited patiently for a new home.

But yesterday it was Erne Gaels’s hopes that were washed away in emphatic fashion.

Enniskillen grabbed the game by the scruff early on and didn’t let go, a brace of goals from Conor Love added to Conor McShea’s major 15 minutes in ending any latent hopes of bringing the cup back to Belleek for the first time in 41 years.

With the result a foregone conclusion long before the whistle, every tackle, every pass, every score was cheered down the straight before stalwart Richie O’Callaghan climbed the steps of the stand to do what no Enniskillen Gaels captain has done since Mickey Lilly in 2006.

“We haven’t seen a crowd like it in a long, long time,” said the 31-year-old as he lifted the trophy.

“Up the Gaels.”

Their domination during the years around the Millennium made Enniskillen’s subsequent fall from grace all the more stark, even dicing with relegation to the junior grade less than a decade ago before an exciting young crop emerged to form the backbone of this long-awaited success.

That’s why it means so much. Where once such glory days had become par for the course, they are now a welcome novelty for a new generation moving.

Yet still lessons are being learned. Last year’s nine-point final hammering at the hands of Derrygonnelly wasn’t so much a gut punch to greater ambition as a wake-up call to where they needed to be.

Physically, they were nowhere near the level of a Harps side who had become accustomed to ruling the roost, so they went back to the drawing board.

“It exposed what we needed to do,” said boss Simon Bradley, centre-forward on those Gaels sides of the late 1990s/early Noughties.

“In fairness to the players they went and done it to the best of their ability. The S&C certainly paid off and, yeah, it’s easy to talk about the hurt from last year… I don’t know if it was hurt from last year. We were well beaten on the day.

“It showed us what we had to do.”

There may have been some comments about the size of their nine-man management team, so big it had to be separated above and below the team line-up in yesterday’s match programme, but the results were clear to see.

Derrygonnelly were accounted for in the semi-final and, even without the influential Eoin Beacom, Enniskillen were too fit and too sharp in this decider.

They looked like they could have played the same again by the time all was said and done. That conditioning will stand to them as they head into Ulster, with Cavan kingpins Gowna up next at Brewster Park on Saturday, November 12.

Brandon Horan and O’Callaghan were strong and solid all day long and, with the movement of Love and the pacy John Reihill causing bother for the Erne Gaels back line, Bradley’s men raced into a two point lead before McShea’s goal stretched that out to five.

O’Callaghan started that move with a probing ball to Reihill, but he did all the hard work, driving at Paul Ward before playing a clever pass across the square for McShea, who made no mistake.

Ultan Kelm, whose tussle with county team-mate Jonny Cassidy provided an intriguing sub-plot, attempted to spark the Belleek revival as he found space to fire over two points before the end of the half, but it was already clear they Erne Gaels were fighting a losing battle.

And when Love slammed to the net five minutes before the end of the first half to make it 2-5 to 0-3, Enniskillen were almost there.

Any time Erne Gaels looked like gathering momentum, Enniskillen swiftly assumed control once more. They were determined that their opponents would not get one glimmer of light as time and again the back door was shut.

Space opened up as Seamus Ryder’s men committed more bodies forward, loading in high balls in an attempt to grab the goal that might give them something to work with, but it never looked like coming.

And when Enniskillen grabbed their third goal with 14 minutes left, any lingering nerves among supporters drifted off into the afternoon air – this time Love burying low inside the near post after good work from Aaron Nolan and Callum Jones left him in acres of space.

“Look, they turned up, we didn’t,” said Belleek boss Ryder.

“Both teams had 10 shots in the first half – they scored 2-5, we scored four points. It’s not easy chasing a lead against that team.

“It’s disappointing, but well done Enniskillen. Brilliant performance all over the pitch.”

Yet while it will take time to get over this one, Erne Gaels can reflect on a year of considerable progress after returning to senior and claiming the Division One title with an exciting young side. Their day could yet come.

“Ah look, we’ll come back. There’s young lads there 19, 20 – we’ll come back stronger and give it a good rattle again next year.”

Yesterday, though, belonged to Enniskillen Gaels. They have two weeks to plan for the next stop along the road but, for now, there’s a party to be had. After all, days like this can never be taken for granted.

“It’s complete bonus territory for us, the Ulster Club,” said Bradley

“It’s where all the boys wanted to be. We’re very glad to be there, we hadn’t thought about being there at this stage. We just wanted to get over this hurdle, but we’ll enjoy the next few days and then sit down and look at it.

“It’s great to see this after 16 years,” he said with a smile, “it’s been a long time coming.”

Enniskillen Gaels: C Newman; J Tierney, J Ferguson; A Nolan; J Horan, C Watson (0-2), R McDonnell; J Cassidy, B Horan (0-1), R O’Callaghan; N McDermott (0-1), C Jones (0-3, 0-1 free), C McShea (1-0); C Love (2-1), J Reihill (0-2, 0-1 free). Subs: P Reihill for McDermott (38), C Smith (0-1) for Watson (46), R Bogue for R McDonnell (51), R Beattie (0-1, free) for Tierney (59)

Yellow cards: R O’Callaghan (10), N McDermott (21), J Reihill (56)

Erne Gaels: B Ryder; C Keown, P Ward; O Kelm; J McCann (0-2), B Mullin, O Johnston (0-1); U Kelm (0-3), M Og McGarrigle, G McGloin; M Gilfeddar, R Lyons (0-4, frees), A Kelm (0-1, free); T McCaffrey, B McCann. Subs: S Mimnagh for Gilfeddar (HT), S Rooney for B McCann (HT), D McCann for McGloin (42), L Ryder for Johnston (54)

Yellow cards: M Gilfeddar (12), S Rooney (50)

Ref: J Lewis (Lisnaksea)