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Fermanagh is just full of unearthed gems, says Junior team boss Chris McDowell ahead of SuperCupNI

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The Co Fermanagh Premier section team with their coaches

The Co Fermanagh Premier section team with their coaches

Aaron Smyton (left) in action for Co Fermanagh in the Junior Section back in 2019, and he is now captain of the Premier side

Aaron Smyton (left) in action for Co Fermanagh in the Junior Section back in 2019, and he is now captain of the Premier side

Ipswich boss Kieran McKenna

Ipswich boss Kieran McKenna

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The Co Fermanagh Premier section team with their coaches

Lakeland Forum, Enniskillen, Thursday, 6pm and manager Chris McDowell is putting the Junior Fermanagh football team through their final training session ahead of the SuperCupNI, where they will play Manchester United.

Two hours later in Lisnaskea, Keith Douglas does the same with his Premier players, who will meet Ipswich Town in next week’s highly-respected youth tournament.

Both bosses have a strong bond with their players and coaching staff. They’re all in it together. They need to be because in footballing terms Fermanagh is always up against it, having the smallest pool to select from along with a feeling, which has some substance, that city slickers up the country don’t appreciate the talent in the area.

It is improving slowly, but over the years not enough scouts involved in the Irish League and international scene have visited Fermanagh to see what’s on offer, with McDowell declaring it is a county loaded with “unearthed gems”.

A commonly held view in the Lakelands is that it is beyond the Ballygawley roundabout most people with influence in football just aren’t interested, and this despite local heroes Kyle Lafferty, Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern showing their quality for Northern Ireland and at club level in recent times.

Going further back, Glentoran legend Jim Cleary is rightly considered one of the greatest Irish League footballers ever.

The quality is there. Perhaps outsiders just need to look harder for it, and when the SuperCupNI starts on Monday, it is up to the Fermanagh cubs, as young lads are called in the county, to show what they have got.

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“We have a lot of unearthed gems in the county and hopefully this week will demonstrate that,” says Junior team boss McDowell, who is passionate about how the local Brendan Keogh Youth League develops players.

“I look around Fermanagh and see a lot of talented footballers but they probably aren’t getting looked at, and it’s probably because of where we are situated. If we were 20 or 30 miles down the road the players would be looked at more.

“Ballinamallard is a great club, but only having one Irish League club in the area doesn’t help. In Belfast there are 10 or 11 sitting there and that means someone from Belfast or the surrounding areas has a better chance of being seen.”

Premier manager Douglas states: “The county takes great pride in their teams representing the area across all sports, and down through the history of the Super Cup it has always been seen as a big tournament in Fermanagh soccer circles.

“I have a running joke with my work mates that anything west of the Bann is often forgotten about, so this is a chance to show everyone what our players can do.”

In the Junior section for Under-16s, Fermanagh start their campaign on Monday against IDA Bermuda and face Londonderry on Wednesday. In between, on Tuesday night, they play Manchester United in front of thousands at the Coleraine Showgrounds.

Some Fermanagh players may go on to have a career in the game, but the reality is that, for many, the match with the Red Devils will be the biggest of their lives.

“For the team it is a dream draw,” says Liverpool fan McDowell, who is joint manager of Fivemiletown United.

“To walk out alongside any Manchester United team is special. Some of them may never do anything like that again. We keep telling the team to embrace the whole experience because it is something they can talk about for years to come, and if they put in a performance like we know they can, the stories will be around forever and they can be part of history.”

Captain of the Junior side, classy 16-year-old midfielder Dylan Boyle from Kinawley says: “I’m very proud to be in the squad and to lead the team out against United will be amazing for me and my family. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do something like that.

“We will try and enjoy the experience. It would be a great achievement if we could beat Man United. One thing for sure is we will give our best in all of the games we play.”

Boyle’s family will be there cheering him on. So too all the families of the other cubs making the long trip up to the north coast.

Fermanagh’s Premier team have games with Antrim and Armagh, as well as that clash with Ipswich Town, whose senior team are, of course, managed by Enniskillen man Kieran McKenna.

It’s unfortunate that the encounter in Broughshane with the Tractor Boys (6pm) is on the same night as the Junior side’s glamour tie with United in Coleraine (7pm), meaning it will be nigh on impossible for Fermanagh folk to get to both, but that isn’t dampening the enthusiasm of Fermanagh Premier team captain Aaron Smyton, who states: “We have been looking forward to this competition since the trials and squad was announced.

“We want to test ourselves against the best. We don’t want to be a pushover. We want to go up there and compete and make a name for ourselves. I’ve played against other county teams over the years and we know we are as good as them if we play well on the day, while taking on Ipswich is going to be great.”

On the impact of Lafferty, Carroll and McGovern on youngsters in the county, the 18-year-old Ballinamallard United defender adds: “Those guys are inspiring to us. Kyle Lafferty grew up playing for Kesh and there are boys in our team from Kesh, so he has shown what can be achieved by someone from our area. It’s the same with Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern at club and international level.

“We can use that and be inspired by them and push on and try to be the next up and coming talent.”

Smyton stresses that manager Douglas has been brilliant at bringing everyone in the squad together and building friendships and connections among the players.

“It’s pleasing to hear Aaron feels that way,” says Clones native Douglas, whose brother Jonathan played for the Republic of Ireland, Leeds and Ipswich.

“I’ve been lucky down the years having good friends through football. You make friendships from football that can last a lifetime. Building good friendships is something I have wanted to achieve with this team.

“I relate to it personally to when I was growing up in Clones and living a sheltered life, and I went to the Tech in Enniskillen and I built up bonds with boys from different backgrounds to me.

“I look at the person for themselves and respect them and hope for respect back, and that’s what I want for our team going to the Super Cup.

“I’ll be very proud competing at the tournament but I’m proud now at what we have achieved already. We have the smallest pool of players to pick from in terms of the counties and we will go up and have some fun, learn from the experience and hopefully pick up a few results.

“The Ipswich match is a fantastic game for us. If a cub shows up well against Ipswich, maybe there is a chance of him getting across the water, and I’ll be telling the boys to go out and show what they can do.

“Kieran McKenna, the manager of Ipswich, is a great example of that. Kieran got his chance and he has taken it and fair play to him. He went over to England as a player and picked up a bad injury but stayed on to coach and was coaching the Manchester United first team last season and is now manager of Ipswich, which is fantastic.

"It’s an inspirational story and proves people from Fermanagh can achieve great things. They just need to be given an opportunity.”


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