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Can underdogs find their bite?


By Declan Bogue

When you pull off something special, anything is liable to escape from your mouth in your time of triumph.

On a wet Saturday evening in Healy Park, June 2008, Fermanagh's Barry Owens came on as a late substitute in their Ulster semi-final against Derry.

This was the first time he would appear for manager Malachy O'Rourke. Despite winning two All-Stars from full-back in 2004 and 2006, it was to the opposite square he trotted to. One high ball later and he beat the-then All-Star full-back Kevin McCloy to the punch. The ball flew into the net. Fermanagh had humbled the league champions. A classic Ulster Championship ambush.

"The emotion shown by everyone is staggering…" blubbed Owens afterwards. He had only been back in the panel a matter of weeks and had to wear a bib at training to make sure his team mates took it easy on the physical contact, coming back as he was from a serious heart operation.

"It has been unreal," he said of his journey back.

"It has probably been harder for my family looking on than anyone else. The operation I had was a lot more complicated than people had been told…"

Just over a year later, the hill in Clones was turned Saffron on a sunny evening. Antrim had beaten Cavan and they were into their first Ulster final in 39 years. While the crowd broke into a chorus of 'Oles', centre-forward Kevin Brady made a clever reference to the 2000 drawn Ulster semi-final against Derry, when a certain man stopped a long-range Sheeny McQuillan free from cresting the crossbar.

"Anthony Tohill's fingertips can finally be forgotten!" he exclaimed.

As defender Kevin O'Boyle ran to the supporters at the wire, he was grabbed and squeezed tight in a bearhug by a teenager from St John's. The picture was captured and put on front pages of newspapers and still entertains the lad doing the hugging, Paddy McBride, who will tog out for Antrim tomorrow.

Both teams get the Ulster Championship underway away from home in an historic double-header with the Ulster Council hosting two games on the opening weekend.

Neither side are given a chance. Fermanagh are 6/1. Antrim 9/1. And yet these are the last two teams to have pulled off the big shocks in Ulster. In the province that has traded off the ability to provide shocks, they have by and large disappeared.

Sure, there have been mild upsets since.

Michael Murphy barrelling into Marty Swift, dislodging the ball from his grasp and sending Dermot Molloy through to goal for Donegal against Tyrone in 2011 was a seismic moment and changed everything about that county, who have made every Ulster final since.

The last true upset was by Monaghan, who had been competing in Division Three in 2013, beating reigning All-Ireland champions Donegal in that year's Ulster final. But then again, manager O'Rourke had previous.

Since that result, everything has gone more or less as predicted. Does the level of analysis and study of other teams now make it a virtual impossibility to launch a surprise?

For Antrim joint-manager Gearoid Adams, he knows how it looks.

"The last few years every match has gone true to form," he acknowledged.

"We might get one every once in a while and hopefully we get one on Sunday."

But Antrim have named a team rich with youth but light on hardened experience. The loss of Kevin Niblock and James Laverty in the last couple of weeks has only compounded their problems.

Adams believes that it has merely served up opportunities for others.

"We can't keep going back to the well," he said. "We have good young talent there that has to be seen. They have no hang ups, they don't have the baggage that Antrim players are meant to carry."

He added: "I am making myself quite clear to the players. If we don't go out and apply ourselves, Donegal will embarrass us. They have the potential to embarrass the majority of teams in Ireland.

"If we don't go toe-to-toe with them, if we don't get stuck in, then we could be in trouble."

You cannot spend any time in the company of Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath without feeling anything is possible. Call it Down confidence, Down arrogance, a belief in his own ability, but the man is simply bulletproof.

Fermanagh have lost games every way you want to choose under McGrath, but he knows that his group are heartily sick of hard-luck stories and, after the manner of defeat to Mayo in Castlebar last year - that highly dubious penalty awarded to Aidan O'Shea and McGrath's smouldering fury - they must become cuter.

"When you lose any game, people tend to say, 'to the victors the spoils' and they don't always look at the beaten team and the chances they had," he reasoned.

"That's something that is the road-testing of any team. The journey that you are on, the experiences that you come into contact with, the tough lessons you learn from defeats.

"Sometimes you rightly say, 'look boys, we didn't perform today'. On other days you say, 'God Almighty, we did perform and we didn't get the rub of the green' or whatever happened in Castlebar."

In the last fortnight he has been extensively working to build up the confidence of his underdogs. How effective has that job been? All will be revealed by half eight on Saturday evening.

"Team management has to lead and to guide and shine a light into dark places. At the end of the day a lot of that is down to individual players in the belief they have themselves as players, and the group collectively," stated McGrath.

"What doesn't kill you makes you harder and more resilient."

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