“It's not easy being a hurler in Fermanagh”
AIB Ulster Club Intermediate Hurling Championship quarter-final: Lisbellaw (Fermanagh) v St Gall's (Antrim) (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Brewster Park)
AFTER five years toiling at senior level, there is a certain relief in Lisbellaw at being released back into shallower waters in which they are more at home.
Sean Duffy was on the line with Seamus McCusker when they last won the Ulster junior title in 2008. He's always been around in the background of the club and when they won an intermediate title four years later, things were looking up.
But eventually, the lack of hurling around them in Fermanagh was going to stunt their progress. This year, they had three games in the Ulster Táin League, one of which they didn't field for.
That's it. After Lisnaskea folded a few years back, they briefly went into the Armagh league when it was going, but when it stopped, it left Lisbellaw with no-one to play and nothing to do.
There's a bit of hurling growing at underage level, with the likes of Enniskillen Gaels, Belnaleck and Belleek fielding teams, but the trick will be getting those players through to play adult hurling for their clubs.
“There's bits of things happening but for the foreseeable future, I can't see it changing. It's getting it forward to minor and on ahead that way is going to be difficult.
“Pauric Dowdall [Ulster GAA coach], he's doing good work, but help on the ground, man power on the ground in clubs to help bring it forward is the problem.
“It's not easy being a hurler in Fermanagh.”
The Lisbellaw players do get a bit of hurling under a different guise of course, with their resources basically doubling up as the Fermanagh county team during the spring of the year.
The vast majority of their squad are dual players, most of them with Maguiresbridge on top of a dotted few from Enniskillen, Tempo or Coa.
But since Fermanagh's June 9 exit from the Lory Meagher Cup, in which they picked up a single point from their three group games, Lisbellaw have had challenge games against Castleblayney and a couple of clubs from Sligo.
That's no different to how it's been for the last few years. Despite the acknowledgement that their ability to cope at senior level had diminished over the last two years in particular, it never touched disgrace.
Ballygalget were 2-26 to 0-8 winners over them last year, and their closest shave came in 2015 when they fell three points shy of Middletown.
Five years was just too long a stretch, but that was the reward – in the very loosest sense of the word – for winning the provincial intermediate title in 2012.
“We were happy to get back down,” says Duffy.
“With the change in our squad, we were up against it the last two years at senior level. Lisbellaw were well beat by Ballygalget last year, and it didn't make sense, anybody at it could tell it didn't because the gulf in class was that great.
“But those were the rules and the way it was. I'd say we'll be much happier at intermediate.
“It seems to be unfair the way teams are graded
“In football you go up and down in your leagues, but in hurling that doesn't happen. We had to stay senior for five years.
“You could have a lad who wins a junior at 22 or 23 in 2008, wins an Ulster intermediate at 28, and the chances of him winning an adult championship again are absolutely nil if you've to stay senior for five years.
“Over five years a club can change so much, they can go from senior to junior. It seems so unfair.
“We have a changing team, we've a lot of young fellas coming in. The team from 2012 to now, there'd be an awful lot of changes.
“I'd imagine there'd be no more than six [players still there]. That's a massive change. There's probably no simple way around it, but I think you should have to win an intermediate title two years running to get senior. There is a jump in class there.”
The intermediate grade at Ulster has rarely been so competitive. Middletown are still there after their success last year, while Derry will be represented by Swatragh. Dungannon and an improving Liatroim will fancy their chances, but the first challenge for Lisbellaw will be Belfast visitors St Gall's.
Managed by Mickey Culbert, the Milltown Row men had nine hurlers involved in the club's dramatic defeat by Cargin in last weekend's Antrim SFC semi-final, where they were beaten by a last-second goal from Tomás McCann.
Duffy didn't make it to the Antrim intermediate final in which St Gall's overcame Creggan, but he's well aware of the threat the city men will bring to Brewster Park.
“We expect a tough game. Any team that wins a championship in Antrim would have to be favourites. We know we're up against a quality side, we have to be. That's the way it is.
“We have the advantage of home venue. It'll be a difficult task but we're not going without hope. We're not a bad side ourselves.
“Swatragh, Keady, Liatroim, Dungannon, any of those are quality sides, they're playing in the Antrim league as well. We know we're up against it against St Gall's.”