Joe Kernan: Force is with a fearless Erne
Published 24/06/2008 | 01:00
It would certainly have been a brave person who might have wagered on Fermanagh, Down and Armagh remaining as the last teams standing in the race for the Ulster Senior Football Championship title.
Who, indeed, would have thought that Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan would have already been clinically ushered into the All-Ireland Qualifiers where they have now been joined by Derry.
Yes, the same Derry whom many folk, myself included, had strongly fancied to lift the provincial crown based on their fine achievement in winning the National League title, their overall experience and their strong bench.
But today Paddy Crozier's men are resigned to being in the draw next Sunday for the first round of the qualifiers while Fermanagh, whom no one to my recollection mentioned as possible finalists, are preparing for their biggest match on the provincial stage in 26 years.
I have vivid memories of the Erne county's last appearance in an Ulster final in 1982 when they were not quite good enough to beat a decent Armagh side. The current team, though, have one great weapon in their considerable armoury — they play without fear.
I thought they forcibly underlined this trait against Derry on Saturday evening in Omagh. And it became clear to me as I watched the game unfold at Healy Park just why Fermanagh have enjoyed such an encouraging run since the start of the year.
I studied their manager Malachy O'Rourke and his backroom team on the touchline very closely and they never panicked even when their team was well behind. Instead, they made their early switches and substitutions with thought and care and they elicited the last drop of effort and stamina from all their players. You can't ask more from a management team than that — nor could you expect another ounce of commitment from the players themselves.
Their team, for me, reacted in the way they wanted them to react and the outcome was that they dominated the last 10 or 15 minutes of the first half and the greater part of the second-half.
They had shown in their opening Championship match against Monaghan that they had skill, courage and staying power and here against Derry they proved they were able to step it up further against a bigger, tougher team.
There is absolutely no doubt that the more progress a team makes, the more confident they become and Fermanagh have every right to fancy their chances in the Ulster final irrespective of who they will be meeting.
In contrast, Derry appeared to lack real self-belief and poise and their manager Paddy Crozier now knows that they face a huge challenge in the All-Ireland Qualifiers given the quality of the sides who will be in the mix there. In fairness, Derry badly missed Fergal Doherty in their midfield against Fermanagh. He would certainly have lent power and strength — as it was, the Derry engine-room did not stand up to the task.
Fermanagh may be small physically overall but the way in players like Ryan Keenan, Eamon Maguire, Mark Little and Shane McCabe can get in, win the ball, hold it up and lay it off is a treat to watch.
And when you look at the way Barry Owens, a player whose career was under threat until just a few weeks ago because of a heart condition, came in as a substitute and grabbed a great goal with what was his first touch of the ball, you just know that the force is with them.