Gaels back where they feel they belong
NO matter what Derrygonnelly had done before them, Enniskillen Gaels were always going to have to earn their own respect.
If the rest of Ulster looks down the bridge of its nose at Fermanagh football then so be it. Suits them, almost.
Fermanagh clubs have won more Ulster Club games in the last decade than their counterparts from Tyrone, Cavan or Antrim. They're just one shy of Monaghan, who have had a strong Scotstown team representing them for most of that time, and two shy of Armagh, with their obvious Crossmaglen weighting attached.
Enniskillen Gaels were second favourites against Gowna but far from second best. They ought not to have needed penalties, and you could view that as a criticism that they did, but equally when the game had to be rescued in both normal time and extra-time, they had the steel about them that belies their provincial inexperience.
Derrygonnelly had to live with all the same question marks and began to take pleasure in answering them, not least when they reached last year's Ulster final. Now, Kilcoo were far too strong, far too good. There are ceilings they still need to break. But people automatically marking Fermanagh's champions down as a provincial weak link is harsh on them.
“We beat Derrygonnelly this year in the semi-final and they went to an Ulster final last year,” says Gaels midfielder Brandon Horan.
“They've definitely set the bar for Fermanagh football and we've learned from them in the past. Now we're just trying to implement our own game.
“This team has good potential, we can go whatever way we want, but we just have to focus on ourselves and keep the training high, hopefully results take care of themselves.”
He says set the bar but later corrects the record, for Derrygonnelly were resetting a bar that Horan's elders first put up two decades ago when they knocked hard on the door of an Ulster title.
Horan wasn't born when Enniskillen Gaels led Crossmaglen right until the finishing line in ‘99, only for John McEntee to snatch the title away for the year's eventual All-Ireland champions.
He was just two when they fell to Errigal Ciaran in another final twenty years ago. Outside Richard O'Callaghan, none of his team-mates would have much memory of those days, but in an arena where all the mental pieces add up, their history emboldens them.
“They've set the bar too, I know I was on about Derrygonnelly but our own club got to two Ulster finals, should have won one I believe. That's the way it goes.
“Definitely, you look at our history and this is where this club deserves to be and thankfully we are. We're in a semi-final now and we'll just look at that,” he said, the bag of ice strapped to his left hamstring that he insists will be fine for their meeting with Kilcoo in two weeks' time.
Simon Bradley wasn't banging Derrygonnelly's door down to seek advice – “I've a big enough management team myself people tell me!” – but he knows it would be there if he'd asked. Perhaps with Kilcoo on the horizon, the call will be placed.
The Gaels' manager was in receipt of a number of texts from Derrygonnelly players “genuinely wishing me the best of luck,” a hand he'd reached out the other way last year.
They might not have taught the Gaels how to win Ulster but they've shown them how not to fear it.
“Derrygonnelly have done fantastic,” said Bradley of the team they overcame in the Fermanagh semi-final before seeing off Erne Gaels in the decider.
“We did fantastic 20 years ago, didn't get the job done. Watching Derrygonnelly the last couple of years, their whole approach to it and that self-belief, that's what club teams should have because you're playing another club team.
“We've been saying that to the boys all right, they're here by right and now they have to perform – thank God they did.”
They were all bound for Lough Erne on Monday morning to try and wash away some of the hurts from Saturday evening's grueling 80 minutes on a pitch that pulled the legs out of them.
Horan's hamstring was one issue, and Bradley said they would look at Callum Jones' red card and decide on any appeal. One or either would be a huge loss.