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Comment: Sorry, Pete, Fermanagh called it right

By Declan Bogue

Just over a year ago, Jack McCarron and Conor McManus scored 1-5 between them as Monaghan took care of Fermanagh in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship by a margin of nine points.

Six weeks later, they travelled to the Athletic Grounds where Armagh defeated them by the same distance.

A total of 13 Fermanagh players who suffered that defeat against Monaghan starred in last week's stunning Ulster semi-final triumph over the same opposition. Of the side that lost to the Orchard County, 15 players were in action last Sunday in Omagh.

For that group of Fermanagh players to get from there to here, they had to undergo a most painful, public and humiliating separation from their manager Pete McGrath.

The Down man arrived at the county when they were at a low ebb, Peter Canavan revealing while leaving that some within the county board had sought to undermine efforts with the senior football team.

It's worth recalling the journey McGrath had with these players. It took him a season to find his feet again in inter-county management and compile a decent backroom team. Once he had, they made it to Croke Park and an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin.

The backdoor triumphs during that stage in 2015 were memorable and spectacular, and McGrath had a way of marking them with understated examples of the kind of genius that took Down to two All-Irelands.

When the Ernemen beat Roscommon in Brewster Park and Westmeath in Breffni Park, McGrath brought his players to the farthest corner of the pitch from the dressing room for a debrief. With jubilant fans on the pitch, they could soak up all the congratulations on their way back in. It established a strong connection between team and supporters.

McGrath's dignity was also apparent a year later after Fermanagh lost a close All-Ireland qualifier when Mayo were awarded a dubious penalty that helped them past the Ernemen, being shown the replay by commentator Marty Morrissey and maintaining his composure in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

But after the unlucky campaign of 2017, when they were relegated in the final few plays of the league and were decimated by injuries, it was made clear to McGrath that some players would be unwilling to play for him in 2018. Rather than create a scene, McGrath exited - reluctantly.

He said at the time: "I am disappointed that it has ended in this way, in these circumstances, because I think an awful lot of good was done over the last four years. There was still an awful lot of good to do, with a very, very good group of players.

"I think what they did was misguided. We all make mistakes in our lives. I think what they did was misguided and wrong."

It was the next few lines of that interview that displayed his emotional intelligence. He said: "But having said that, I will move on. I am in Rostrevor this morning and it is a beautiful sunny morning and I am not going to be burdened by the events of this past week. I did all I could for Fermanagh for four years and I have no regrets, no animosity and I am holding no grudges with anyone.

"Fermanagh football will move on. Fermanagh football existed an awful long time before I arrived and it will exist a long time after I have left, so I have no problem, no grudges.

"It's just disappointing how it ended. It shouldn't have ended at this stage."

That feeling carried over into the general public. In all his dealings with Fermanagh people, McGrath never came over as anything less than the complete gentleman. Although he had achieved so much with Down and as International Rules manager of Ireland, he couldn't be dragged away from conversations with anybody when there was football to be discussed. Stories of his refusal to accept a farthing for managing his adopted county were widespread and he was exceptionally 'well got'.

On the other side of the divide, players made no public comment about the split. They held their counsel. In that vacuum, they became easy prey for those who wondered who this bunch of Fermanagh footballers thought they were, questioning an All-Ireland winner.

But a point to note is this -McGrath had been harshly treated before. Despite his two All-Irelands with Down, they still ousted him.

Last summer, in his final interview before he passed away, Maurice Hayes stated to this writer: "I mean, Pete McGrath... Pete McGrath, what he did for Down and they humiliated him!"

The upturn in the Ernemen's fortunes shows how much is concealed from the public sight of a team. Within the panel, Fermanagh felt they had more in them.

Now, under Rory Gallagher, Fermanagh are in their first Ulster final in 10 years. From conceding 1-40 in two Championship defeats against Monaghan and Armagh in 2017, they have beaten both this summer, conceding a miserly 0-17.

Were they right in making their stand? You have to say absolutely.

Football is a ruthless business.

Belfast Telegraph

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