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Underdog duo delighted to restore Ulster GAA's shock factor

 

By Declan Bogue

Before last weekend, Fermanagh were priced as high as 2/1 to beat Armagh at Brewster Park in the Ulster Championship.

The odds were almost as high for a Monaghan win over Ulster champions Tyrone, 15/8 on offer for Malachy O'Rourke's men.

With the two underdogs now forming the first Ulster Championship semi-final, we can conclusively say that the shock factor is back in our provincial series.

Any student of Gaelic football and the science behind it would pay a high premium for the readings of Fermanagh ace Declan McCusker's GPS stats on Saturday night.

The St Joseph's, Ederney man put in such a performance of high energy ball carrying and sharp tackling - not to mention contributing a point from play - that no debate was necessary for the man of the match award.

The Ernemen used his attributes wisely, playing him at centre-back and allowing James McMahon to sweep in front of his own full-back line.

With Aidan Breen and namesake Paul McCusker pulling to the sidelines, all this formed an integral part of their game plan, admitted Declan McCusker.

"Brewster Park is a small pitch so you need to use every bit of it that you can," said the teacher.

"We tried to use the wings and get a bit of width in our play. It is nothing any other county team isn't doing as well, but you have to be smart on the ball and use it well. We did that for long periods of the game."

This is the first time Fermanagh have beaten Armagh in the Championship since 1966 and, while the build-up was dominated by talk of the Orchard County breaking GAA regulations by embarking on a training camp in Portugal, McCusker believes it may have caused an unnecessary diversion for them.

"There was probably a lot made of them going to Portugal, it was probably a distraction more than anything else," he explained.

"I would love to go to Portugal for a few days, but we had two days in Lough Erne and it was brilliant, great weather for it and we got out to play a bit of golf."

"We did a lot of work on Armagh and it stood to us, so we are happy enough with Lough Erne!"

On their assured finish, he added: "I felt we were comfortable. They had a couple of points in a row and then a few wides. We went to sleep for a period in the second half and I felt we needed to get our hands on the ball, get a bit of possession and keep the ball for a while and we did that.

"Seamy (Quigley) got a fisted point and that gave us a lift, and after that I didn't feel they were going to break us down."

The most impressive thing about Monaghan's win over Tyrone, meanwhile, was just how their most experienced figures stepped up.

Veterans such as the 35-year-old goalscorer Vinny Corey, 33-year-old Dessie Mone - who produced one of the scores of the Championship no matter what happens from here on in - and goalkeeper Rory Beggan, who launched four dead balls over the bar, were to the fore.

"That is what you expect from your key players and from your senior players," said an unmoved captain Conor McManus, he himself having landed a stunning late point.

"Coming down to Omagh to play the back-to-back Ulster champions is never going to be easy. You expect that, and some days it goes for you and others it doesn't. And if it is not going for you, there are men on the bench who are able to come in, and that is what having a panel is about."

He continued: "Rory's performances over the last while speak for themselves. He is getting the recognition he deserves but he would be the first to say that he has to get his head down and focus on the next game because teams will be targeting that.

"It is just a matter of trying to improve all the time and there are aspects of our game that we certainly need to improve on."

McManus also made light of claims that Monaghan are now virtually guaranteed an Ulster final place, having been instantly installed as overwhelming favourites at odds of 1/5.

"We can't control that. All we can do is get our heads down and focus on the next game, and that is against Fermanagh, who had a big win. We are well aware that we have a big challenge ahead of us," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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