Fermanagh seeking some return
Once Fermanagh picked themselves off the floor in Pairc Tailteann, Navan, they surveyed where they had come from in the space of a year.
It was April 7 and the defeat to Meath. They had been reduced to 14 men for much of the game when wing-back Declan McCusker was dismissed, had missed a penalty and numerous chances from open play.
When opportunity beckoned, they couldn't quite grab it — and with that, the league points and a second successive promotion — was lost. Crucially, the added time that the team would have bought for themselves as a unit, was lost when they didn't have a league final to prepare for.
“Getting to the league final would have been crucial for us because we would have had another three weeks together,” says manager Peter Canavan as he assesses where the team is at before they open their championship campaign this Sunday in Brewster Park against Cavan.
Since that day in Navan, they've had 10 weeks to prepare for this. It's been a double-edged sword.
On one hand it gives Canavan plenty of time to get a look at Cavan and their impressive win in the preliminary round over Armagh, but in order to keep players match-fit they were released back to their clubs.
That was an approach Canavan agreed with, saying, “I was in favour of these boys playing.
“We have a panel of 35 and the majority of them haven't seen that much game time.”
The domestic league programme helped the likes of Barry Mulrone who continues to recover from a cruciate ligament injury and Sean Quigley is making progress from a broken bone in his foot sustained when playing a challenge match for the county under-21s.
But it was catastrophic in other ways. Daryl Keenan's back has flared up and Fermanagh will be without his end-to-end dynamism.
Conor Quigley picked up an ankle knock while Tommy McElroy suffered a knock to his knee. Niall Bogue |(pictured), Daniel Kille and Johnny Irvine have all suffered with either hamstring or groin strains.
“I just wouldn't have wanted to see as many games. But I can understand that club football has to be accommodated, but it is about trying to find the right balance,” comments Canavan.
“We played Mayo in a challenge and we had 14 of a panel out. Preparations haven't been smooth because of that. That would be my only gripe.”
Despite injury concerns, Canavan has admitted that in working with these players for over the past 20 months, he has grown a deeper affinity with the squad and Fermanagh GAA in general.
The loss of Brian Og Maguire last September, and the work carried out by the panel in fund-raising for the medical care of Sam Bradley — a son of former county footballer Colm — has done much to bind the ties of attachment.
“We had a terrible start to this year when we lost Brian Og,” he recalls.
“A lot of people were devastated about that but the way the boys have responded and the ways they have conducted themselves… And Colm Bradley and the difficult time he has gone through; again the players showed remarkable initiative in setting up fund-raising efforts.”
The players have also taken ownership of their own fund-raising, with a fund-raising weekend back in November.
Canavan continues, “Often, these boys have been accused of apathy in the past and a disregard for the jersey. Far from it. They are as dedicated and as committed a bunch as any county team.
“The way they have approached things on and off the pitch has been exceptional as far as I am concerned. That's why I would like to see them get what they deserve.”
As well as having extra time with the players, Canavan has been able to develop their physical fitness after a long lay-off for quite a few of them.
One case in point is the renewed appetite and desire of Marty McGrath, but Canavan keeps his assessment general as he comments, “We would have had a number of players last year that weren't at the level we would have liked, for various reasons.
“The fact that we have a year under our belts now — these players are serious about what they do and they have prepared very well and worked extremely hard. The fact that they didn't get promoted from Division Three doesn't take away from that aspect.
“Likewise, the fellas who have injured, it's been a 24/7 effort in trying to get back to full fitness and I have to admire them for that and the way they approach things.
“I can't fault anything about their attitude or enthusiasm towards what we are trying to do here.
“I just hope they are rewarded when it comes to the championship.”