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Declan Bogue: How Erne branched out in remarkable rise

Child’s play: Rory Gallagher celebrates with his son Sean following Fermanagh’s win over Donegal
Child’s play: Rory Gallagher celebrates with his son Sean following Fermanagh’s win over Donegal
Kieran McGeeney
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Last Sunday morning, the Armagh team trained at St Oliver Plunkett Park in Crossmaglen for the first time during Kieran McGeeney's five years in charge.

The Orchard have not played a league or Championship game there since they walloped Donegal in a qualifier clash in 2010. The reason they were familiarising themselves with the venue is because that is where they will host Fermanagh in a Division Two tie on Saturday (3pm).

Practically none of the Fermanagh players would have even visited the ground let alone played there, but they have substantial experience of playing at Armagh's usual home of the Athletic Grounds.

If some in the Erne County feel they are getting a 'Welcome to Hell' type of arrival, well, not quite.

Ever since the redevelopment and opening of the Athletic Grounds, Crossmaglen have hosted many county hurling games and have applied to host football matches too, but this is the first year they have been successful.

They were told they were getting the final round of games on March 24 and had been gearing themselves towards that date, but somewhere along the line that was changed to this weekend.

The Athletic Grounds is possibly the best venue in Ulster, but frequently over the winter and spring months the pitch can be notoriously bare of grass. It's reasonable to assume that preserving the sward for Monday's MacRory Cup final played a role in the decision, and some have also mentioned the St Patrick's Day parade taking place in the Cathedral City.

We are at the stage where there are few games that truly matter in the National League. This is one.

But should Armagh lose this, as well as their last game to Cork, then a win for either Tipperary or Clare in their final match will leave McGeeney's league record in charge of the Orchard as four seasons in Division Three and one relegation from Division Two.

Last year, they met Fermanagh twice in the league - drawing 0-7 apiece before winning the final 1-16 to 0-17.

Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher has a track record of concealing game plans in league finals, though, and when they met six weeks later in the Ulster Championship, they beat Armagh for the first time in that competition since 1966.

It was without doubt the most humiliating of McGeeney's Ulster losses as manager. Landing just two points from play highlighted their tactical inflexibility but there was plenty of animosity along the line between management, as well as players leaving a bit on each other.

Since then, what Gallagher and his assistant Ryan McMenamin have achieved with Fermanagh has to rank among the best coaching jobs of the year so far.

The problems with a county like Fermanagh are rooted in population. With just 20 clubs, they have the lowest on the island. Even London can choose from 21 clubs.

Even at that, they suffer from player turnover. Last year's leading scorer Seamus Quigley did not opt in for 2019 and accurate forward Tomás Corrigan is away travelling.

Gallagher has put his faith in youngsters. Johnny Cassidy won an Ulster minor club title with Enniskillen Gaels as recently as last year and has played in every game in the league so far. It's the same for Ultan Kelm, another teenager.

Kelm was in the senior panel while still in school last year. He was given his break at the start of this year and it's clear that he and Cassidy are lapping up the coaching they are getting

In one of Kelm's first starts he made life very uncomfortable for Tyrone's Peter Harte in the Dr McKenna Cup. Cassidy is a tight marker and both of them have raw pace, and there's nothing like that.

Ciaran Corrigan was playing county hurling and plucked from relative obscurity even by Fermanagh standards after he played in St Mary's Sigerson win.

While he was hardly a frontline player for the Ranch in that competition, Gallagher praised the coaching he received from Paddy Tally and his game intelligence.

In this campaign he has become an established county man, hitting four points in the game against Donegal when they overcame last year's Ulster final stuffing.

Recognition of sorts came when he won an Ulster GAA Writers' Association Monthly Merit Award for February.

The crude analysis is that Fermanagh are turning Gaelic football into a zero sum game with their defensive structure. Evidence tells us differently.

In keeping clean sheets over the last three games, they have the meanest defence in all four leagues.

While they played their part in a stinker of a McKenna Cup semi-final against Tyrone, anyone attending those games expecting entertainment was deluded. It was obvious that Gallagher was using that match in particular as a road test for his defence.

While they were fortunate to grab a point against Cork on a Brewster Park glue pot pitch in the league opener, their play has expanded.

As per the driving force behind the fundraising arm of Club Eirne, Ger Treacy, they created 47 scoring chances against two of last year's Super8s teams in Donegal and Kildare.

A clip of a Corrigan point against Clare displayed eight Fermanagh attackers inside their opponents' 45m line. That's not defensive football, rather classic counter-attacking.

All this from a team who were favourites for relegation at the start of the league campaign.

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