Enniskillen and Gowna back in the big time, building on illustrious history

Enniskillen Gaels before the Mannok GAA Fermanagh SFC Final against Erne Gaels at Brewster Park. Pic: Philip Walsh
Enniskillen Gaels before the Mannok GAA Fermanagh SFC Final against Erne Gaels at Brewster Park. Pic: Philip Walsh

Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Enniskillen Gaels (Fermanagh) v Gowna (Cavan) (Brewster Park, 7pm tonight)

SOME still look down their noses at Fermanagh and Cavan club football, an attitude that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

Sure, neither county has provided an Ulster Senior Football winner – but they have had finalists more recently than Antrim, Armagh, and even the much-vaunted Tyrone.

It will be a remarkable achievement if either of this sides reaches this year's decider, not least because they're both basically 'newbies', but there's proud history to draw on for both.

These two clubs were relatively big beasts when they met 20 years (and two days) ago at the Ulster Club SFC semi-final stage. The Gaels prevailed by four points, but suffered a second final heartbreak in four seasons, losing out to Tyrone's Errigal Ciaran.

The Enniskillen men were coming towards the end of a run of six consecutive county crowns, from 1998 to 2003 inclusive, while Gowna also won six in Cavan, albeit over the longer period of 1994 to that year of 2002.

The Lake men wouldn't have believed that they'd experience a two-decade drought.

Enniskillen would have been even more incredulous if you'd told them they'd go 16 years without lifting the New York Cup in their Brewster Park home – but they did, from 2006 until the 23rd of last month.

Gowna can count themselves unfortunate in Ulster: pipped by a point by the eventual winners in 1994 and 1999, Bellaghy and Crossmaglen respectively, they also lost to Burren in both 1996 and 1997, on the first occasion only after a replay, before Bellaghy again beat them in 2000.

Enniskillen have even greater tales of woe to tell. The pushed Errigal hard in 2002, until Peter Canavan did what he did, and they were the better team in the 1999 provincial decider, having beaten Burren and Bellaghy en route, but Cross' – and a lovely John McEntee score – edged them out. Having lost to Bellaghy in the 1998 semi-final, the Gaels were ousted in 2000 by Cross'. Even when they ended that hoodoo in 2001 they then lost to Castleblayney. St Gall's knocked them out in 2003, Errigal in 2006.

As Gaels boss Simon Bradley acknowledged earlier this week, he's moved on from the understandably 'bonus territory' attitude uttered in the immediate aftermath of their county final disposal of Erne Gaels.

Gowna will feel the same about Ulster. There's a real opportunity to reach the semi-finals here.

Both clubs have had time to enjoy their celebrations and prepare for the provincial competition.

The involvement of both clubs is not unexpected. Gowna took Ramor United to a final replay last year, while although the Gaels were well beaten by Derrygonnelly in the 2021 decider, they have been seen as the coming force in Fermanagh.

The key performance indicator for that rating was their triumph in the Ulster Minor Club tournament at St Paul's, Belfast on New Year's Day 2017.

Captain and 'man of the match' Eoin Beacom missed this year's Fermanagh Final, but the Gaels have half a dozen linking those teams, including midfielder Brandon Horan and forward Conor Love, a goal-scorer in both finals.

Yet Gowna also have pedigree in that unofficial minor club championship, as part of the Southern Gaels amalgamation (along with Lacken) which reached the 2014 final – and took Derry's Glen to extra time before the Maghera lads won it for a fourth consecutive year.

Midfielder Robbie Fitzpatrick and defender Conor Brady were on that Southern side, and the latter is a top talent with Cavan. So too are forwards Conor Madden and Oisin Pierson, while Cian Madden starred in the Cavan final triumph over Killygarry.

Although both are effectively 'first-timers' in Ulster, in terms of playing personnel, one remarkable man does bridge the 20-year gap – Gowna's Mark McKeever.

A teenage sensation, who was a 15-year-old sub in the 1999 county final, and played in the 2000, 2001, and 2002 Cavan deciders, McKeever was a ripe old 18 against Enniskillen, but could not stop a strong side led by the Brewster brothers, Paul and Tom.

Members of the management have been on the Ulster scene too. Bradley was part of that great Gaels team, along with his younger brother Colm, while Gowna assistant manager Dermot McCabe is a legend with club and county from the same era.

The Gaels will hope home advantage plays its part, and take confidence from their semi-final win over Derrygonnelly, who reached last year's Ulster Final.

Gowna will travel with more than hope, knowing they have the quality to prevail if they perform well.

Whoever comes through will face a daunting prospect. Yet they'll worry tomorrow about taking on either the All-Ireland Champions, Kilcoo, or their (and Crossmaglen's) conquerors, Ballybay.

Tonight, two famed clubs, Enniskillen and Gowna will revel on being back on the big stage.