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Declan Bogue: Erne upset a tonic for Ulster

By Declan Bogue

A confession. No matter what pre-Championship press event you go to, you park the saloon up on a kerb, your mind already well stocked with preconceptions and opinions about the team you are going to interview.

You do have the right to be mistaken of course, but you arrive with your mind set that those you are about to speak to are in imminent danger of being knocked out of the provincial or All-Ireland Championship, or if they have bigger days ahead.

You just know. Can't help it.

It's partly down to the Malcolm Gladwell theory of 'thin-slicing'. We take a tiny fragment of what we see in people, situations, teams even, and build our theories around them. If we were less pretentiously inclined, first impressions count.

So when you arrive at a Fermanagh training ground, in the dreamy townland of Lissan with views all the way down Lough Erne to Belleek, you see the young men in their prime condition, the snazzy training tops, good weather, fleet of fresh footballs, everything designed to facilitate elite performance and you just think… 'Nah.'

Right before you take your seat, a win over Monaghan in the preliminary round seems highly unlikely.

During the league, the Ernemen went off like a train in beating Down by 16 points. They slipped up against Galway in Brewster Park and, try as they might, they just shipped an enormous amount of goals. Two of them - criminally soft they were too - bookended their final league game against Derry. Keep one of them out and you sense the levels of optimism would have been much higher for staying in Division Two rather than dropping back into the third tier.

In these situations, you gather your information, get all the spicy quotes you can, ask the subject to reveal something of themselves for the readers. But you are only pussyfooting around until you drop the big bomb.

Have you any chance?

Erne captain Eoin Donnelly cited the time he played on a Fermanagh under-21 team that beat Monaghan, saying he can draw on it.

But for Pete McGrath, for the first time since he took over this group of players, he goes into the first Ulster Championship match as an underdog. How does he deal with that?

"I think team management has to lead, to guide. To shine a light into dark places," he began reasoning.

"But at the end of the day a lot of that is down to players' individual belief in themselves as county players, as individuals and as a group collectively."

He continued: "I have no doubt about the potential within this group, no doubt about the character, the ability. We have got some really top class footballers. And the players will know that since we convened in November last year a lot of hard work has been done, very, very good quality work.

"We went through a very tough league campaign, very hard on the last day. But what doesn't kill you makes you more resilient.

"Championship football, in Ulster, is a tough business. It's a tough, unforgiving business no matter who you are playing and if you don't have a tough, unforgiving mentality then you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

While it is true Fermanagh have suffered serious turnover of players in McGrath's time, you cannot rule out the old master working the oracle again and turning the tables on Monaghan, priced at 1/6 to win this tie on Saturday week. His rhetoric has always been convincing to journalists so we often find ourselves wondering how it would be to be led into battle by him.

No doubt Fermanagh's Sports Psychologist Richard Shanahan will have earned his expenses ever since that disastrous day in Brewster Park against Derry. But another remark from Paul McCusker, who maintains it amazes him how rapidly he can flush a defeat out of the system with just a game back with his club, also is worth considering.

For the first time ever, the Ulster Championship begins with an opening weekend double header, Fermanagh face Monaghan and Donegal are expected to cruise home against Antrim in Ballybofey.

An upset could ignite the Championship. Ulster football could do with it for sure, but Gaelic football needs it generally.

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