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Rasdale is calling on Harps to hit right note in Ulster at last

 

Lead role: Ryan Jones, hugging Brendan Rasdale in celebration, can prove a driving force for Derrygonnelly Harps
Lead role: Ryan Jones, hugging Brendan Rasdale in celebration, can prove a driving force for Derrygonnelly Harps
Damian Cassidy
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Having taken a leaf out of Dublin's book and clinically delivered their own laudable drive for five, Derrygonnelly Harps could still nonetheless find themselves in the eye of a critical storm should they fall to Antrim champions Cargin in Sunday's Ulster Club Football Championship opener at Corrigan Park, Belfast.

Manager Brendan Rasdale has watched as his side scaled a fresh peak within Fermanagh but must still fret over just one win in seven years of involvement in the Ulster Club Championship.

It's a statistic that is akin to an open wound - uncomfortable and ugly. And that's why the team's extension of their domestic Championship has been politely accepted rather than feted ecstatically, the knowledge that a much sterner challenge lies ahead in the pursuit of enhanced credibility and meaningful progress.

Minds are focused, feet remain planted on the ground and soundings are honest and earnest as what is viewed as one of the biggest tests in the club's history looms large on the horizon.

In each of the past four years, Derrygonnelly have found that the provincial Championship was a huge step up, a journey into elite company that has proven a learning experience.

"If you look at how we have done in the Ulster Championship, you will see that we got quite a doing in our first game in 2015 from Slaughtneil, but the following year, when we met them again, that greenness was gone," said Rasdale.

"Yes, they beat us in the end, but they had to wrestle for their win. The following year we got our only win over Armagh Harps and then last year we found Scotstown, who got to the final, very tough opponents.

"We played in the Ulster Club Championship in 1995, 2004 and 2009, and, of course, for the past four years, and overall I would say that our performances have not been bad. We have gained in experience and the hope is that this will stand to us."

Derrygonnelly, powered by the Jones clan and cushioned by a growing inner belief, need no reminding that an opening-day exit in the Ulster showpiece would render the winter longer than might be anticipated.

But with Ryan Jones capable of calling the shots at midfield, Conal Jones the apex of a hungry attack and Michael Jones helping to anchor a solid defence, the Harps do not carry a 'country cousins' image.

Ryan Jones is the player that the Harps will lean on to procure primary possession and drive them on, while his midfield partner Stephen McGullion is also capable of making his presence felt in the middle third.

Kevin Cassidy is a very sprightly 44-year-old who continues to defy Father Time, Tiernan Daly is a resolute full-back and Declan Cassidy and Gavin McGovern are the kind of forwards who don't spurn even half-chances.

Yet manager Rasdale, while conscious that his side have acquired a more confident outlook, acknowledges that Cargin will summon considerable experience when the going gets tough.

"They are a good side - just look at the quality they have in people like the McCanns, Tony Scullion, Justin Crozier, Kevin O'Boyle and James Laverty. Those boys all have inter-county pedigree, they have been round the block a few times and they won't be fazed by having to meet us," insisted Rasdale.

While he turns the spotlight on Cargin's more senior citizens, he is aware too that players such as Ciaran Bradley, Patrick Shivers, Jamie Gribben and Michael Clarke can inflict wounds on his team's morale through their pace and finishing skills.

Shivers won a minor Championship medal in the week prior to last Sunday's senior final in which he played a key role in the Cargin line-up.

Cargin's strength in depth is illustrated by the fact that John Carron, a seasoned Antrim player, was introduced from the bench in last Sunday's Antrim final win over Lamh Dhearg.

"When you have people like that waiting in the wings you know that those who start will be giving it everything, and that's why we have to hit the ground running," added Rasdale.

His Cargin counterpart Damian Cassidy to some extent shares his sense of frustration, though perhaps in a slightly different context.

Cargin are no strangers to the Ulster Club Championship but their track record could not be said to be imposing.

Derry 1993 All-Ireland winner Cassidy accepts that the bar is being raised year on year in the Ulster Club Championship but this does not dissuade him from the belief that his side is capable of winning the competition.

"Our lack of success in Ulster is like a millstone round our necks at this stage," admitted Cassidy. "It's very frustrating for the players because we have been here in recent years and have not really done ourselves justice. I like to think that this frustration will lead to a sharp eye and enhanced focus for this game against Derrygonnelly.

"The Ulster Club series does not come along all that often -it's not like your county Championship where you are going to get a run at it every year - so there comes a time when you have to stand on your two feet and lay down your marker.

"That's what we have to do on Sunday if we are to make any sort of progress."

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