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Ernesiders' manager McGrath knows how to slay Goliath

By Declan Bogue

Nobody particularly needs to know 'how the sausage is made', but the accompanying picture illustrates what goes on in the Shangri-La that is the 'press night' for county teams.

One player or manager sits ringed in dictaphones of various vintage and disrepair. Usually, they don't have anything like the space and comfort afforded to Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath here. Generally, he is pressed against a wall with reporters holding their devices an inch from their prey's nose.

No wonder with that threatening body language, it can be a struggle to get 'good stuff.'

But this is how it's done. Reporters transcribe the recordings and magically transform them into the stories you see on your pages.

The Fermanagh press event yesterday was a buoyant affair. The feelgood factor that the county has bathed in since the win over Roscommon has spread to become a national affair ever since last Saturday's win over Westmeath put them in line to meet Dublin this Sunday.

No less than nine newspapers were represented. RTÉ sent the personable Brian Carthy. BBC's Mark Sidebottom weighed in. The Dubs are big news.

It is the ultimate test of a team, how you can go into the backyard of Dublin, with all the advantages they enjoy. Croke Park is their home ever since they ceased playing league games in Parnell Park in 2011. When they sweep into the stadium, they play by their own rules and live off their own timetable.

It has rubbed some managers up the wrong way. Kerry's Eamon Fitzmaurice bravely pointed out that when you are trailing the Dubs, it can be hard to seek a stray ball for a kickout. When Dublin are behind, Stephen Cluxton has a stream of balls on tap.

Only Ryan McCluskey remains from the 2004 team and has experience of playing in front of massive crowds. For the rest of them, the 10,500 or so present for last Saturday's game is the biggest attendance they have performed in front of.

So you ask McGrath how they will cope with the expected attendance of around 70,000?

"I think an environment like that, an atmosphere, a cauldron of noise can get people's adrenalin pumping to a greater extent. They can relish it and thrive on it," he says.

"In some other cases, it can go the other way and players can get swept away by it; the noise, intensity and the occasion.

"It's up to the players themselves to an extent and to us as a team to ensure that amidst the cauldron of noise, colour and excitement on Sunday we are able to thrive and survive in that.

"I have no doubt about the character and spirit of these players. I don't think they will be intimidated or overawed by it at all."

It's only three years ago since this team were playing against Kilkenny in front of one hundred people in Freshford.

In the midst of the afternoon, some delicious anecdotes emerge.

When Fermanagh made a burst to the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final, midfielder Richie O'Callaghan helped his father Pat erect bunting up through Enniskillen town centre. All that bunting now lies in Pat's attic.

There are four sets of brothers on the panel. When the McCuskers went to the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final, Declan was cheering for Fermanagh against Armagh, while older brother Paul sided with his father, Dromore man Joe, and cheered for Tyrone against Mayo.

Before he arrived, McGrath says he could have named three Fermanagh players. It takes him 1 hour 45 minutes to come from Rostrevor, through Newry, Armagh, Aughnacloy, Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown, across the county border and into Tempo, and down to their training ground in the lonesome, windswept heights of Lissan.

But it's no hardship for him: "When you are working with a panel as committed and talented as this group, then it is a particularly satisfying journey."

Fermanagh will be led on Sunday by their captain Eoin Donnelly. He comes from Coa O'Dwyers - the smallest club in the county with the smallest population in Ireland.

It is an area of rocky ground and hardship. Anyone who hung about rather than emigrate was a hardy soul that had nothing to learn about stoicism.

On Sunday, he goes toe-to-toe with Michael Darragh Macauley, with his two All-Irelands and two All-Stars, coming from Ballyboden St Enda's, who field - no lie - 70 teams across all codes.

It's David and Goliath, but nobody cares in this room.

That's what sport is about. Unrealistic expectations. Heart and soul.

Belfast Telegraph


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