Fermanagh have learned harsh lesson from Ulster heartache: Gallagher
It's almost a year hence, and still Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher winces as he recalls the lead-in to last year's Ulster final.
He had guided his own county to a rare appearance in an Ulster final but by half-time it all lay in tatters, 2-7 to 0-5 down. But as the famous Ali quote would have it: "The fight is won and lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines…"
Gallagher had a funny feeling for the three weeks leading into the final that the balance was badly off. He's digested it all now and doesn't hesitate to put his finger on it.
"Too much giddiness. Too much pulling and dragging of players, players getting caught up in it," he says with the conviction of a man that has been kept up several nights turning it over in his mind.
"I probably would have downsized the panel because there were players on the panel and at that stage there was a pecking order and maybe they hadn't the same focus. Wee things like that.
"There was a soap opera regarding a couple of things as well, which took away from things as well. I just look back at it and I think we didn't train at the same level as when coming up to the Armagh game."
He doesn't go into it, but having his most prolific scoring forward Seamus Quigley leaving the reservation at a critical time last summer could have been the soap opera. Dropped for the semi-final against Monaghan due to ill-discipline, it was no preparation for a county trying to win their first Ulster title.
"I sensed it at the time," continues Gallagher.
"I would accept my part in it and… having not lived in Fermanagh for the last 17 years or so, you are popping in and out to training, but you were never here.
"Being involved with Donegal you were used to Ulster finals, in five out of six years. You took it for granted as much as you knew it was a wee bit different.
"Maybe some of the people around the team were getting excited. The county board were getting excited. The supporters club were getting excited, and too much so.
"That impacted the players and I could sense a giddiness and a lack of focus at training.
"It's up to ourselves to accept that now and we didn't prepare as well as we possibly could.
"That was reflected in the game as it ran away from us quite easily. But I don't think any player was at the pitch of the battle. Donegal, while a young team, were more used to it."
It's a small world. As Donegal assistant manager, Gallagher was involved in Ulster finals in 2011, 2012 and 2013. As manager, he was on the sideline for the 2015 and 2016 finals.
A shop owner in Killybegs, football and Donegal was all around him. Over the last decade there hasn't been a single intercounty football management figure directly involved in as many provincial finals.
What luck indeed that it ended up being Donegal he faced when he led Fermanagh to the same stage in his first year in charge.
The lad who he kicked a bit of ball with in his back garden, Ryan McHugh, sunk him by setting up Eoghan Ban Gallagher's goal and then killing off Fermanagh entirely by skipping round two defenders and slamming to the net.
It took a couple of weeks before Gallagher could even watch the tape back.
Once he did, he could make peace with things.
"People said our style of football was dead, they are entitled to their opinion, but we didn't feel we brought any style of football," he says.
"We didn't feel we brought the competitive edge that we brought throughout the year and in the first two Championship matches but that's not taking away from other teams, they were both brilliant on the day, but that's our take on it."
Other provinces may be floundering, but the Ulster Championship has been a shot in the arm for football in the early stages of the summer.
Fermanagh and Donegal get to reprise their rivalry tomorrow, but they do it in Brewster Park, Enniskillen.
It promises to be ugly. No harm in that, either. Unlike last year, Gallagher promises not to let obsession take over.
"The week of the game has been fairly relaxed. We had a couple of days training camp, we like to get a lot of the work done early and we just need to make sure that we learn from last year," he says.
"Maybe last year you are so keen going into the final that you are over analysing Donegal, maybe you are so keen that the players know everything that it takes away from the intensity and the bite of our training, looking back on it.
"Now, we are just going to focus on ourselves, everything from here on in is about ourselves. The boys know Donegal inside out, they know their players, the style of play that Donegal are going to bring. We are just concentrating on having the bite, the intensity and the competitiveness we didn't have last year."