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Why Fermanagh can shatter Ulster curse, says former favourite McGrath

 

By John Campbell

When Eoin Donnelly somehow managed to get his fist to a Ryan Jones lob that appeared to be going nowhere at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday and propelled Fermanagh from imminent despair into the national spotlight, few people were more delighted than Marty McGrath.

If testimonial matches were the order of the day in the fabric of the GAA instead of being treated with grave suspicion, then the Ederney clubman would have had one a long time ago.

McGrath soldiered in the trenches for the Erne County as a midfield powerhouse from 2000 until 2013, his closest flirtation with glory arriving in 2008 when Armagh overcame his side in the Ulster final after a replay.

That occasion is still videoed in McGrath's memory bank - so much so that he was among the first of the hundreds of Erne fans onto the pitch at the end of Sunday's memorable encounter to hail the team's stunning defeat of strongly-fancied Monaghan in the provincial semi-final.

"It was unbelievable to see the ball finishing in the back of the net," reflected McGrath. "I was delighted for the lads. They played themselves to a standstill in the heat and it was terrific to see so many Fermanagh fans there to witness their efforts.

"It may be 10 years since we have been in an Ulster final but I think this side has a winning mentality."

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Martin McGrath (right) with Ronan Gallagher

No one knows better than McGrath the effort, courage, character and skill that was required from Rory Gallagher's side to throw yet another spanner in the Championship works.

Just indeed as no one knows the pain, heartbreak and depression that accompanied his journey with the team representing his beloved county.

Medals and honours were few and far between, yet there was never time for self-pity or regret.

Two heart operations in 2006, a fractured jaw sustained when he was struck by a digger bucket in 2007 and a battle with testicular cancer in 2008 all served to put the more traditional sporting injuries into context.

Yet McGrath's commitment never wavered. It was after Fermanagh beat Monaghan in the Ulster Championship in 2008 that he revealed his testicular cancer diagnosis, but he nonetheless postponed surgery until after the final - and the replay.

Ironically, current Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke was in charge of the Fermanagh side that threatened to make history by landing a first Ulster title a decade ago and McGrath recalls his attitude and approach.

"He gave a lead in so many ways even when it came to leaving the dressing room clean and presentable after we used it," said McGrath.

Now enjoying good health and boosted by Fermanagh's promotion to Division Two, as well as their unexpected arrival in the Ulster final, McGrath, a nephew of country music legend Philomena Begley, is urging the side to enter the history books by beating Donegal or Down in the Ulster final on June 24.

"It would be great if Fermanagh could get their hands on a first title. I think this side has the necessary qualities to go all the way," insisted McGrath.

"Obviously it is not going to be easy because Down and Donegal will fancy their own chances but I would love to see the lads get what I feel they deserve.

"There were fantastic scenes at the end of Sunday's match and I can only imagine just what the atmosphere will be like at Clones on June 24 - it could prove a really special occasion."

Meanwhile, Tyrone may have forfeited their chance of landing a hat-trick of Ulster titles for the first time in their history but they are certainly not out of the national sporting spotlight.

The county's important All-Ireland qualifier against Meath at Pairc Tailteann, Navan on Saturday (5pm) will be shown live on Sky.

And Tyrone legend Peter Canavan is likely to be part of the presentation team, thus adding a special flavour to the screening.

Manager Mickey Harte is already resigned to being without Peter Harte, Lee Brennan and Mark Bradley, although there would appear to be a feeling within the county that Colm Cavanagh and Tiarnan McCann could still play some part.

Declan McClure is also understood to be ruled out, leaving Harte with limited options.

Ahead of the Ulster Championship, manager Harte had expressed hope that his side might take "the most direct route" to the title, but now that this aspiration has floundered, he is setting his sights on the All-Ireland.

This too could prove a hard road given the pressures that the Super 8s will impose, but Tyrone are no strangers to a protracted campaign having played no fewer than 10 matches in winning the 2005 All-Ireland title.

Belfast Telegraph

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