When Fermanagh reached the Ulster senior football final last year only to lose to Armagh, they vowed they would bring even further intensity to their pursuit of the provincial crown this year.
They certainly took a big step towards delivering on that promises at Brewster Park, Enniskillen when, with a performance that was in tandem with the weather — squally periods interspersed with glowing, bright passages — they eventually left Down’s hopes of rekindling some of their former provincial glory in ruins.
Thus for a second successive season, the Fermanagh early warning system is proving fully operational. Few people, indeed, have now been left in any doubt that the Ernesiders have attained the status of big game hunters as opposed to the role of occasional snipers with which they feel they were lumbered for too long on the Ulster stage.
But manager Malachy O’Rourke has been round far too many corners to believe than an admittedly feisty display which sufficed yesterday will serve to seriously tarnish the ambitions of more elite opposition that may be encountered in the weeks ahead.
Be that as it may, O’Rourke and his bubbly side will take considerable heart — and several lessons, no doubt — from this robust, occasionally attritional but seldom less than rivetting contest that highlighted their character and skill in equal measure.
In contrast, Down manager Ross Carr, who admitted in advance that yesterday’s mission was “a watershed match” today finds himself contemplating the first round of the Qualifiers — and in the critics’ firing line.
Statistics do not always reveal the full narrative of a match but the fact that Down scored on just three occasions in the second-half and just once in the last half-hour of the match bears morbid testimony to their attacking nous and finishing skills.
A rather different vibe emanated from Fermanagh, both individually and collectively, of course. If Ryan Carson started the match as a virtual unknown in a Championship context, his name was on everyone's lips at the end, his six points having proved central to his team’s triumph, while Martin McGrath’s quiet efficiency, the solid resolve of defenders Shane Lyons and Shane McDermott and the unstinting work-rate of Ryan Keenan and Mark Little all served to help fire Fermanagh into a quarter-final meeting with Cavan.
With Peter Fitzpatrick, Kevin Duffin, Peter Turley and Brendan Coulter in for Kevin McKernan, Ambrose Rodgers, Brendan McArdle and John Boyle, respectively from the initially published Down line-up, a complex tactical approach ensued that confused many of the 8,000 onlookers — but certainly did not stretch Fermanagh to the limits of discomfort.
Indeed, the home side radiated a certain authority during spells in the first-half, notably when Tommy McElroy thrust himself forward and James Sherry garnered some useful possession.
But it was Down skipper Dan Gordon who perhaps left the most notable imprint, his aerial ability, work-rate and motivational skills proving the spur for a spirited spell that allowed his side to enjoy parity of esteem at half-time (0-7 each) with Aidan Carr (two frees), Coulter, Fitzpatrick, McComiskey, Hughes and Kearney all on target.
Fermanagh, industrious without quite carrying any great conviction, systematically pirated points, never allowing Down to drop their guard. Tommy McElroy, James Sherry, Little, McGrath, Darryl Keenan and Carson all bisected the Down posts to offer the belief that their team could maximise their home advantage.
And this is precisely what they did in the second-half. The centre of their team suddenly carried a palpable ball-winning advantage from Lyons at full-back to Carson at full-forward, the overall approach work was never over-cooked and economy was allied to accuracy when it came to their finishing.
The upshot was that Down’s quickfire brace of points on the resumption from McComiskey and Coulter proved nothing more than an illusion of hope.
With Carson engaging top gear at full-forward, McGrath and Sherry powering forward almost at will and a defence that exuded defiance, Fermanagh tightened their grip on the game.
Four Carson points spanning the last eighteen minutes allied to a virtual stranglehold in the central area not only stoked the Fermanagh flame of ambition but ultimately suffocated Down’s attempt to remain afloat.
Their route-one policy reaped little dividends, their replacements failed to make the desired impact and when Aidan Carr was dismissed in the 68th minute for a rash foul, it perhaps proved a telling commentary on the level of frustration that had, by then, engulfed the side.
Cool heads, absolute concentration and a marked willingness to adhere rigidly to an unselfish team ethic carried them over the finishing line and sparked the notion that they may have rather more left in their repertoire for what they hope will be even more high-profile missions as the Championship season unfurls.
FERMANAGH: C Breen; N Bogue, S Lyons, H Brady; R McCluskey, S McDermott, T McElroy (0-1), M McGrath (0-1), J Sherry (0-2); R Keenan, C McElroy (0-1), M Little (0-1); D Keenan (0-1) R Carson (0-6, 0-5 frees), E Maguire. Substitutes: P Sherry for McCluskey (half-time), S O’Brien for Little (46 mins0, R Foy for C McElroy (72 mins)
DOWN: B McVeigh; L Howard, K Duffin, D Rafferty; A Carr (0-2, both frees), C Garvey, D Rooney; D Gordon, P Fitzpatrick (0-1); P Turley, B Coulter (0-2), S Kearney (0-1); D Hughes (0-2), R Murtagh, P McComiskey.(0-2, 0-1 free). Substitutes: J O’Reilly for Murtagh (53 mins), J Boyle for Kearney (61 mins), C Maginn for Fitzpatrick (67 mins)
Referee: John Bannon (Longford)