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Championship is what really counts: McGrath

By John Campbell

His side may have gained promotion to Division Two of the Allianz League but Fermanagh manager Peter McGrath feels that they will only be judged by the level of progress they make in the Championship.

And that's why he sees Sunday's confrontation with Monaghan in the first of the Ulster semi-finals as crucial to his team's new-found reputation.

It was earlier this year that McGrath put his own reputation on the line when he predicted that the Ernesiders would "make a serious impact" in whatever competitions they played.

So far, his prediction has carried considerable currency. His reinvigorated side reached the Dr McKenna Cup semi-finals, galloped into a higher tier in the league and have already hurdled Antrim in the Championship.

It is worth bearing in mind, too, that the win over the Saffrons was the first that Fermanagh had recorded in Ulster's provincial series since 2010 when they beat Cavan (1-13 to 0-13).

But while pleased with the progress made to date, McGrath contends that the really hard work now looms on the horizon starting with this week-end's assignment against a Monaghan team who will be seeking to reach the provincial decider for a third successive year.

"I said before the league that if I was asked what match did I most want to win, it would have been the championship game against Antrim," said McGrath.

"Obviously we are delighted to have achieved promotion in the league but the reality of the situation is that a team is ultimately assessed on their championship performances and now that we have got over Antrim we are very keen to prove ourselves against Monaghan."

Few people are better qualified than Rostrevor man McGrath in terms of mounting an onslaught on championship honours.

He guided Down to the All-Ireland title in 1991 and 1994 and it is significant perhaps that the Mourne county have not won an Ulster crown since he quit his native county.

But right now seeing Fermanagh gain credibility as a championship force just as they did at provincial level in 2008 and All-Ireland level in 2004 is a priority for McGrath.

He believes passionately that his players are now primed to deliver in what will be a hugely demanding arena given that Monaghan are overwhelming favourites and will have the backing of a huge support base.

"I feel my players have got the determination and the appetite for hard work and I'm looking forward to that coming to fruition," said McGrath.

"Nothing beats winning for a county that hasn't had a great deal of success.

"Every win is important and an incremental step in building confidence and that bit of self-belief. What we have achieved in the league is satisfying but now the challenge is to extend this form into the championship and indeed to improve on it."

Experienced defender Ryan McCluskey, who sampled the highs of 2004 and 2008 as well as the lows that pock-marked other years during his 15-year stint in the side to date, believes that the carrot of proving themselves on the Ulster stage can help to see the team achieve a new peak.

"This is where you want to be," said McCluskey. "Championship matches in high summer are what it is all about.

"People quickly forget what a team might have achieved in the league but it is different if you can make a mark in the championship."

Should they manage to defy the odds on Sunday and reach the Ulster final, Fermanagh will lend a romantic dimension to the championship - and further underline the fact that McGrath fully deserves the slot he continues to occupy among the managerial elite.


Ulster SFC SF: Breffni Park, Sunday, 4.00pm



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