Down set to take a Ferm line for glory
When Fermanagh stunned Monaghan in their opening game in the Ulster senior football championship last year, it proved the precursor to their first appearance in the provincial decider since 1982.
Now Erne manager Malachy O’Rourke would warmly welcome another early bonus this year - this time at Down’s expense - when the teams launch the race to the Ulster title at Brewster Park, Enniskillen on Sunday (3.30).
But O’Rourke is certainly not prepared to invest too heavily in the fact that his side have home advantage.
“Maybe things went right for us last year but there is absolutely no guarantee that this will be the case again on Sunday. Down will travel with considerable confidence, we know, and we must be ready for the challenge,” maintains O’Rourke.
Fermanagh’s arrival in the Ulster final last year may have been unexpected but it has nonetheless provided O’Rourke’s players with the incentive to go one better this year - this, despite their depressing National League campaign that saw them make a disappointingly hasty return to Division Three.
But their optimism has been tempered by the knowledge that Down were the only team to inflict a championship defeat on eventual All Ireland champions Tyrone last year when they turned in a swashbuckling performance to win at Newry.
It’s little wonder, then, that Mourne manager Ross Carr is hoping that his own players can replicate that form on Sunday - but he is acutely aware that a hot reception awaits them.
“Let’s be honest, teams like Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Dublin,
Cork and Armagh generally do not suffer from away day blues but there are about fifteen or twenty other teams who must come to terms with the pressures of playing on their opponents’ grounds. The crowd is close to the playing arena at Brewster Park and we know that the home fans can make their voices heard,” points out Carr.
Whatever advantages Fermanagh may accrue from home comforts, Carr hopes that these will be outweighed by his own players’ capacity to rise to the occasion.
Brendan Coulter may still be troubled by a heel injury but Daniel Hughes, Ronan Murtagh, Paul McComiskey and John Boyle are among the players who can trouble the Fermanagh defence in which Shane Goan, Shane Lyons and Tommy McElroy have been key figures of late.
Skipper Dan Gordon will underpin Down’s bid for glory while Declan Rooney, Aidan Carr and Luke Howard will prop up a defence that tended to err on the side of generosity on occasions during the National League.
But ultimately the outcome of the war could hinge on the battle between the respective skippers Martin McGrath and Dan Gordon at midfield.
Primary possession will be key to the strategy of both teams - and in this respect they will rely on two players who have had more than their share of injury heartbreak over recent months.
McGrath will require to be at his imperious best if Fermanagh are to thrive while Gordon’s influence within the Down side is such that anything less than a five-star offering from the Loughinisland man could have repercussions for his side’s ambitions.
Down would appear to have rather more options up front overall whereas Fermanagh have not quite been so potent up front. Down, too, are capable of finding the net and for this reason, perhaps as much as any other, they could yet find themselves lining up against Cavan in the quarter-finals.