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McCluskey eyes Ulster title after two decades of hard work

 

By John Campbell

When Ryan McCluskey first linked up with the Fermanagh senior football squad as a fledgling 18-year-old in 1999, he little thought that almost two decades later he would still be in the frame in his county's bid to make history.

The Erne County has never won the Ulster Senior Football Championship title, yet McCluskey, now regarded as the island's longest-serving current inter-county player, is among a select band of players who have come agonisingly close to taking delivery of the Anglo-Celt Cup.

That was in 2008 when Fermanagh took Armagh to an Ulster final replay before the Orchard County triumphed on a 1-11 to 0-8 scoreline.

Now, as 37-year-old McCluskey prepares for Sunday week's eagerly-awaited provincial showdown with Donegal, he does so not just as a player but as a member of the management team.

It was at the invitation of new boss Rory Gallagher that McCluskey committed himself on two fronts with his county, and he admits that he could not have envisaged the progress which has been made in recent months.

"I knew from sharing the pitch with Rory as a player how smart and intelligent he is," said McCluskey. "So in essence it was an easy decision for me to join his management team.

"I have always enjoyed playing for Fermanagh and when we reached the Ulster final in 2008 I was commuting from Sunderland at that time. But, to be honest, I am essentially a home bird and I never saw that as a bind.

"If truth be told, I was always glad to come home and sample my mother's cooking and maybe scrounge a few pound to keep me going!"

Successive managers, including more recent incumbents Peter Canavan and Pete McGrath, invariably retained faith with McCluskey, but the Enniskillen Gaels clubman believes that the present boss and squad represent Fermanagh's best chance of making a much yearned for breakthrough in Ulster.

He is wholeheartedly immersed in Fermanagh's preparations for an all too rare appearance in the province's annual showpiece fixture despite the threat of an eight-week ban which could yet be activated following his dismissal to the stand by referee Conor Lane following an incident towards the end of the first half of the match against Monaghan.

McCluskey was part of the 26-man Fermanagh squad for the game and had been undertaking water dispensing duties on the touchline in the searing heat.

Be that as it may, McCluskey's focus remains firmly on seeing Fermanagh having their name inscribed on the trophy for the first time.

"When Rory succeeded Pete McGrath, obviously the goal was to do better this year and the players resolved to make a big effort," he said.

"When we won promotion in the league to Division Two, that spurred us on, and then those Championship wins against Armagh and Monaghan lifted us up further, but certainly not to the extent that we have lost the run of ourselves."

McCluskey accepts, though, that his team will now encounter a massive challenge in the shape of a Donegal side that has become a more cohesive unit.

"Donegal will be a different beast altogether," conceded McCluskey. "Ulster football is a hard, hard road to travel and we know that only too well.

"You have to be grateful for those very few opportunities you get to be in a final when you play with Fermanagh."

Belfast Telegraph

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