Erne aces steeled for major test in big Kilcoo showdown
The Ulster Club Senior Football Championship has been something of a minefield for Derrygonnelly Harps since they made their first acquaintance with the competition in 2005.
Little did they know then, but they required considerable patience as they awaited their first win, which did not come until 2017 when they overcame Armagh Harps at Brewster Park, Enniskillen.
Since then they have trebled their sequence of victories, having claimed the scalps of Cargin and Trillick in recent weeks, and are now steeling themselves for a confrontation with Down champions Kilcoo on Sunday in a semi-final that is garnished with intrigue.
Derrygonnelly's desire to impress on the Ulster stage is understandable given the frustration they have endured at this level in the past, but even though they have won seven Down titles in the last eight years, Kilcoo share the Fermanagh team's provincial angst.
They have yet to win the trophy but, having overcome O'Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt earlier this month and with reigning provincial champions Gaoth Dobhair and long-time standard-bearers Crossmaglen Rangers having exited the competition, Kilcoo believe that a window of opportunity has opened for them.
And this is serving to put Derrygonnelly even more on their guard ahead of a clash between two sides ravenous for meaningful success at this level.
Stephen McGullion forms a solid midfield alliance with Ryan Jones in the Derrygonnelly line-up and believes his team is beginning to show its teeth on the Ulster stage.
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"When we got over Cargin, we knew that we might come up against a big gun, but when we were drawn against Trillick we knew we were going to be really up against it, but thankfully we got there in the end," said McGullion.
"Now it's Kilcoo and their consistency in Down over the last number of years, and the fact that they have played numerous matches in the Ulster Club Championship will certainly stand to them against us."
"To be honest, we have not been as good as we would have liked to be in the Ulster Championship. In 2015 we were well beaten in our first game, we lost at the same stage the following year, but in 2017 we beat Armagh Harps before conceding a lot of goals against Cavan Gaels and losing at the semi-final stage after a replay.
"And then we had to wait until we met Cargin last month for our next win before we overcame Trillick."
McGullion takes heart from the fact that the Fermanagh champions have been learning from each game they have played in the provincial championship and feels that this experience can help on Sunday.
"I think we have matured as a team but there is no doubt that Kilcoo will be a big test for us. We were pushed to the very limit by Trillick and only won on penalties, but I thought we showed great levels of character and commitment in that game," insisted McGullion.
Kilcoo, still without cruciate ligament victim Darragh O'Hanlon, as well as Ceilum Doherty who has an ankle problem, are buoyed by a battery of new recruits and have already set out their stall in terms of the Ulster Club Championship.
Assistant manager Conleith Gilligan is in no doubt that Derrygonnelly will prove a formidable barrier to his team's aspirations of making a rare final appearance.
"We thought at one stage that our game against O'Donovan Rossa might go right down to the wire, but we got a goal at a vital stage and that gave us the breathing room that we needed," said Gilligan. "The one thing about this Kilcoo side is that they will give you everything and leave it all out there."
"I think this Ulster Club Championship is wide open. All the teams still in there will probably look at it and feel they have a realistic chance of winning it."
"Derrygonnelly will certainly come into that category and after two wins in the competition they have every right to feel this way."
Meanwhile, Donegal side St Naul's are focussing strongly on the Ulster Club Intermediate title having surprised St James's, Aldergrove at their quarter-final stage. The Antrim club were expected to come out on top in this fixture but instead their north west opponents turned in a five-star performance that has earned them a semi-final meeting with Galbally at Celtic Park, Derry on Sunday (2.30).
Stuart Johnston is a key players in the St Naul's line-up and believes his club's involvement in the Ulster Championship will "bring them on a great deal".
But while Johnston took considerable satisfaction from the win over Aldergrove, he is conscious the Galbally will form a bigger barrier to his side's progress.
"We had to play some hard games before we won our Donegal title and now another game in the Ulster Championship can help to bring us on a good deal," pointed out Johnston.
"There is a great spirit within our side. The boys are playing for each other but we know that Galbally already have two wins under their belts in Ulster and this will give them confidence."