A stout defence of Fermanagh’s defensive game

Rory Gallagher’s side unfairly criticised for getting behind the ball, says former player

Donegal’s Jamie Brennan with Fermanagh’s Sean Quigley in their Allianz Football League Division 2 match at O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny, Co Donegal in February.  Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

Donegal’s Jamie Brennan with Fermanagh’s Sean Quigley in their Allianz Football League Division 2 match at O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny, Co Donegal in February. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

 

It was half-time in Fermanagh’s league opener at home to Cork, and Colm Bradley was sitting in Brewster Park thinking there had to be more to life than this. Fermanagh had only a point on the board – a Conal Jones free, kicked as early as the fourth minute – and they trailed the visitors by 0-4 to 0-1. Bradley, a tricksy inside forward when he lined out for them in the 2000s, watched on more in sadness than in anger.

“I was totally despondent,” he says. “They just looked really, really poor. You could see Rory Gallagher on the sideline and he was urging players to get forward but, for whatever reason, they were all just stuck in their own half. I remember him saying after the third game against Kildare that they had played two-and-a-half games of decent stuff. If you were at that Cork game, you know what half he was leaving out.”

To the vast majority of ears, Gallagher’s verdict of 2½ good games will come across as the sort of love only a parent can sell. Fermanagh have become a byword for the game gone bad, the most extreme version of massed defence football in the game. Fish of the day in the Joe Brolly shooting barrel.

Awkwardly, however, they have also risen to be joint top of Division Two. If they beat Armagh on Saturday in Crossmaglen, they will be on the verge of promotion to Division One. Indeed, if they win and Donegal lose to Cork, Fermanagh go up with a game to spare. There won’t be a hand wrung for a week from Rosslea to Pettigo.

Historically mean defence

What they’ve done so far, they’ve built on a historically mean defence. Or defensive structure, whatever your having yourself. Going back through the leagues for the past 10 years, their total concession of just 3-35 after five games is the best record of the decade. The 2012 Fermanagh team that got promoted from Division Four only conceded 0-42 after five games, but that included a clearly pointless 9-23 to 0-4 win over Kilkenny. Once you take it out and replace it with the 0-13 to 1-10 draw against Limerick next time out, their five-game concession total becomes 1-48.

The point is, only the 2016 Antrim team has started the league conceding as low a total. And they weren’t doing it in Division Two against a couple of Super-8 teams and another who made it to the last 12 of last year’s championship. Whatever way you spin it, conceding an average of just under nine points a game is an achievement.

Galway get an awful lot of men behind the ball. But Galway are a traditional county and there’s a romanticism around them

Not that you’d know it, of course. Fermanagh and Gallagher are the bogeymen of the sport, cursed by all-comers for their unapologetic desecration of Gaelic football. For Bradley, there’s a mixture of laziness and simple rank bullying in this. They’re far from the only team to get bodies back, after all.

“I don’t particularly like watching it,” Bradley says. “I don’t think anyone particularly likes to watch it. But it’s the fact that ourselves and Carlow are held up as the two teams who are ruining Gaelic football. There’s an awful lot more teams who play this way or variations of this way, but the casual fan doesn’t give them the same critique as they give Fermanagh.

“Galway get an awful lot of men behind the ball. But Galway are a traditional county and there’s a romanticism around them. The west’s awake and all that. Do they get anything like the same abuse that Fermanagh get for playing defensive football? I don’t think so. Maybe from people who know. Maybe.

‘Pictures on Twitter’

“But you line up 100 football fans and ask them who plays the more defensive football, Galway or Fermanagh, and the vast, vast majority will say Fermanagh. It has become a case of, ‘Let’s look at the scoreboard, let’s look at the manager and let’s look at pictures on Twitter of 15 players back in their own half and then let’s make our whole judgement from that.’”

For his part, Gallagher is commendably upfront about how his team plays. He doesn’t duck and dive like most of them or clutch his pearls when it’s suggested that his side maybe, possibly get bodies behind the ball. Colm O’Rourke had a couple of swings at him on radio after the Cork game and Gallagher responded without so much as a hair out of place.

“We’re good at defending, it’s something we do well,” Gallagher said. “I’m looking at our resources and at club results and minor and under-20 results from the last few years in Fermanagh, and I look at what we have. I think we’re coming on – we only scored eight points today but we created more chances. We’ve got to find a balance. Other teams will be better at attacking than us but we feel we have to do what’s best for us.

In other sports, there is a much greater respect for good defensive structure and organisation

“We’re not ashamed to be very good at defending. Generally we are very good at it and it’s something we’ve got to stick to. The boys, when I joined them, had one Ulster Championship win in seven or eight years and it was against Antrim who were ranked lower than them. They enjoy winning, they enjoy being hard to beat, they enjoy getting the most out of themselves. I saw a few All-Ireland finals that you played in, Colm, that were pretty low-scoring too!”

A bit of respect

It won’t come down to All-Ireland finals for Fermanagh. As Gallagher says, they’re not Kerry or Dublin. For Bradley, a spring that ends with them headed to Division One would be a huge job of work. Better yet, a bit of respect wouldn’t go astray.

“I think Fermanagh people are mainly just pissed off at the flippancy of the criticism,” Bradley says. “In other sports, there is a much greater respect for good defensive structure and organisation. Do you want to watch Juventus or do you want to watch Barcelona? Barcelona, obviously. But does that mean that you continually denigrate what Juventus do?

“No, you give it respect because it can work if it’s done right and if it’s combined with an attacking threat. Nobody watches Juventus and says, ‘All they’re doing is getting bodies back.’ But to hear some people talk about defending in Gaelic football, you’d think that the only thing that’s involved is sticking a load of players inside your own half. There’s way more to it.

“It’s not like they’re trying to beat teams 7-6 anymore. They’re trying to get to 1-14, 1-15, that kind of scoreline in every game, trying to create 25-30 chances in a game. Okay, the way we’re creating those chances might not be the way they were created 15 years ago. But there’s definitely a clear strategy this year to create more chances and I think Fermanagh people are definitely happy with how competitive the team is now.”

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