Fermanagh navigate Antrim hurdle despite second half nap
Pete McGrath’s team comfortably superior but struggled to replicate first half intensity
Fermanagh’s Cameron McBride in action against Antrim on Sunday. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho
In the 29th minute, Tomas Corrigan took a sideline ball near the end-line in front of the John Vesey stand, eyed the posts with intent and then screwed a ridiculous point over the bar: it was half-football, half-geometry. The home crowd were tickled. A minute later, he repeated the trick. The little bowl by the Erne erupted. The sun was shining. The Lakeland county were winning well. Life was good. At the time, Corrigan’s trickery seemed like the ice-cream sundaes on the menu. But with 10 minutes left, the home crowd were thanking their lucky stars they had gone over.
“A major power cut,” is how Pete McGrath described Fermanagh’s second half effort. It wasn’t quite that but they contrived to allow Antrim back into a match after squeezing them into resignation with a thoroughly professional first half job. It took a 68th minute goal from Sean Quigley - coolly slid under Chris Kerr after taking a clever pass by Paul McCusker - to finally settle what had been apparent all afternoon: Fermanagh were the superior team here.
Antrim failed to score from play in the first half and seemed stricken by the late withdrawal of Niall McKeever, their totemic midfielder. Once play began, they looked uncertain as to how to breach Fermanagh’s half of the field, which was busy with an organised and lively defensive cover. They fell into a 0-9 to 0-2 hole and the match seemed locked to an irretrievable course. But even if there was no real prospect of a shock, the lethargy with which Fermanagh returned to the field after the half-time tea was a concern for their supporters and management alike. The locals in the crowd of 9,124 watched on with increasing concern as their team just....existed.
“They slipped dramatically in the second half,” consented Fermanagh’s Pete McGrath.
“I think at half time, they all thought, myself included, maybe, despite what you say that this game is kind of won. And we sleep-walked our way through the second half and that is what we were doing for long periods. Keeping Antrim at bay and playing very poorly. The game became very disjointed. When Antrim got to three points with five or six minutes to go, the game was in very much in the melting pot and thankfully Sean Quigley- the right man in the right place- got on the ball and finished the game.”
You felt that McGrath was half pleased to have something to reprimand his team about as they prepare to go into the bear-pit in Ballybofey against Donegal next month. Because in the first half, Fermanagh wasted little time in advertising the lessons learned since the Down man took up residence here. Fermanagh have become a living pamphlet in a county team can methodically improve their lot.
“I don’t think we can take much out of today but being honest I think we are in a better place four or five years ago,” said Sean Quigley with a dark chuckle. They are. Flawed as this outing was, there was a burnished look to this Fermanagh team which was about more than the gorgeous May sunshine.
They set about Antrim with clipped efficiency and economic ball movement and at all times, it seemed, with a very clear sense of what they wanted to do with the ball. They completely bossed the midfield battle for the first half hour, with Eoin Donnelly making a lordly catch after six minutes which set up Tomas Corrigan for a score to ease the home team into a three points lead. From there, the game steadily drifted away from Antrim’s grasp. Fermanagh’s ball carriers -Declan McCusker, Ryan Jones, Paul McCustker and Aidan Breen attacked the gaps in Antrim’s defence at will and the passing was slick and confident.
Sean Quigley was available on the inside line to win direct ball and converted a free from distance. Corrigan whipped over a fine point from play and then converted those two sideline balls in succession, scores which would merit eulogies if delivered by players from the big-name teams. Fermanagh retired with a 0-9 to 0-2 lead at the break .
It was difficult to see what Antrim could do alter the course of the day. The visitors failed to score in the first half and their successful attacks revolved around the skill and persistence of Kevin Niblock. The St Gall’s man somehow completed a brilliant catch through a platoon of Fermanagh man and won a free which sent Brian Neeson through on goal int he 22nd minute. The snap-shot was solidly deflected by Fermanagh goalkeeper Christopher Snow: maybe a goal then would have fired Antrim’s belief.
They could argue, at least, that they had chances as they headed back to Belfast. A listless period when nothing meaningful happened after half time removed all intensity from the day and it was then that the visitors began to play. They were rewarded with two terrific individual points from their substitutes, Sean Burke and Ryan Murray. In the last 25 minutes, they quit their sweeper system and just had a cut. It started to work. With six minutes left, it was 0-11 to 0-8.
Even so, the match never felt as if it was in the mood to produce one of those shocking turnarounds. Tomas Corrigan, at once industrious and elusive, landed another fine point before Quigley’s goal. The Roslea man had been having a battle royal with Antrim’s big athletic fullback Richard Johnston but he was alive to the chance when it came his way. That settled it. In Ulster they are fond of saying that there are no easy championship games. But some are less difficult than others.
Fermanagh: 1 C Snow; 2 M Jones, 3 C Cullen, 4 M O’Brien; 5 D McCusker (0-1), 6 J McMahon, 7 B Mulrone; 8 E Donnelly, 9 A Breen (0-1); 10 P McCusker, 11 R Jones, 13 R Corrigan 12 R Lyons; 15 T Corrigan (0-9, 5 frees, 2 sideline), 14 S Quigley (1-1 free).
Substitutes: 17 C Flaherty for 12 R Lyons (47 mins), 21 D Teague for 13 R Corrigan (56 mins), 20 D Kelly for 9 A Breen (67 mins), 25 P Cadden for 10 P McCusker (70 mins).
Antrim: 1 C Kerr; 2 K O’Boyle, 3 R Johnston, 4 N Delargy; 5 P McBride, 6 M Johnston, 7 J Laverty; 24 M Sweeney (0-1): 12 J Carron (0-1), 9 C Murray; 10 M Fitzpatrick, 11 K Niblock 15 M McCann ; 12 B Neeson (0-2, 1 free, 50), 14 T McCann (0-3 1 free).
Substitutes: 17 S McVeigh for 9 C Murray (half-time), 25 D McAleese for 7 J Laverty (47 mins), 19 R Murray (0-1)for 10 M Fitzpatrick (56 mins), 22 S Burke (0-1) for 13 B Neeson (58 mins),
REFEREE: S Hurson (Tyrone).