Fermanagh’s brilliant day in Ulster got to the heart of a debate that is currently raging through Gaelic football: how the game should be played.
It’s a win that will convince smaller teams that a strong defensive system is the best way forward for them.
As was pointed out in the television analysis before the game, everyone knew how Fermanagh were going to set up in Omagh. They were doing nothing complicated or different. They won the game by setting themselves up in a certain way and left it up to Monaghan to break them down.
Monaghan knew what they were going in against and complacency would have nothing to do with it. It was just a matter of this question; can you break us down? Have you the skill set to play through us? And conversely, can you hold your discipline when we attack and try to draw frees.
Fermanagh essentially took up a defensive T formation: eight players across the 45 and then a line of defenders centrally behind that. Monaghan, meantime went man-to-man plus one at the back. And I couldn’t get my head around that because with man to man defence you are at the behest of the opposition. They can manipulate where the defenders go and can drag defenders where they like and then exploit that space.
And very quickly, that became the Fermanagh strategy; waiting for these moments, can we draw someone out and make the incision? If you look back at the Monaghan fouls, they were almost always in one versus one situations and they did commit silly fouls – over aggressive, pushing people in the back and late challenges. But that’s because the system invites that. It places defenders in situations where they are exposed, reaching and facing an attacker with the ball.
Whereas Fermanagh, as a group, are marking space with the principle of never giving up the centre or allowing Monaghan’s attackers to encroach the 45 without meeting serious obstacles. Against Tyrone, Monaghan looked very well schooled. But from early on against Fermanagh, they were off. Their decision making was poor, they weren’t running lines and they struck some bad wides.
Aidan Breen scored an early point from Fermanagh that highlighted the essential difference between the two systems.
That point started from a kick-out. Both teams committed a lot of players to the kick-out but Fermanagh were hungrier and nippier when it came to capturing the breaking ball, which became a crucial feature of the day. Karl O’Connell had dropped back in defence and he went to meet Breen as he came with the ball.
At that moment, Vinny Corey is sweeping inside the D. When Breen cut back in on his left side, Ryan McAnespie was within the area and had the potential to double up on him but was conscious of tracking his own man. So was Ryan Wylie but he, too, was conscious of keeping tabs on his player, who was six or seven metres outside the 45 (and therefore no threat). Fintan Kelly did the same thing.
The result was that Breen had a one-on-one shot opportunity, which he took. That score was the snapshot of how Monaghan had set up. Down the other end of the field, the Fermanagh defenders didn’t much care about who was where.
All they cared about was who has the ball, how many men can we get around him and can we defend the middle? Fermanagh marked the space through which Monaghan wanted to attack and then manipulated Monaghan’s defence because of the man-to-man system they employed.
So 15 minutes in and it is a perfect start for Fermanagh and you begin to see a lack of composure creeping in to Monaghan’s play. They are favourites, they have had an excellent win over Tyrone and now they are coming unstuck.
When Kerry met Clare later in the afternoon, the precise opposite would happen. Kerry would simply overwhelm the opposition even though Clare were set up to ask questions of them also. 0-32 is a phenomenal hurling score, let alone football. For Monaghan’s players, however, the game became fractured and stressful and they couldn’t find the right solutions.
But Kerry reached a flow state. Flow is a word used in sport a lot now; it’s like an intense highly focused concentration on the present but at the same time you become sort of lost in the activity. There is a sense of time being altered. You sometimes hear athletes speaking about it in interviews: the second half only seemed to last a few minutes. They are so absorbed in the game that they lose their normal sense of time. That’s what it feels like.
But how do you end up achieving that state or place?
Well, for a start, the activity must be underpinned by a clear set of goals. That is what allows the performer to stay immersed in what he is at. The goals give the player structure and direction for the task at hand. So if you have a player who knows that the challenge is very tough but that he and his team have the tools to deal with that, they can flourish.
However, if you have a doubt about how to complete that task, things can go awry. The task for Monaghan was to break that Fermanagh ‘T’ down. Once they realised they couldn’t find the solutions as they expected, then a degree of anxiety and error crept into their play.
Thought processes and decisions go and they do things they never do. And then you hear, in the stands: Monaghan are awful! What’s going on?! They are making mistakes they never make! This is why.
Kerry were never jolted off course and were able to slip into that flow state – at one stage they kicked 10 points in a row and ultimately did what they wanted on the field. All of their best qualities were on exhibit. But Monaghan’s certainty was gradually eroded and they began to struggle.
On top of that, Monaghan’s other big problem was that they couldn’t get pressure on the ball defensively. Again, this was down to Fermanagh’s game plan being extremely well-executed.
The players kept the ball out of contact and pulled the Monaghan defenders out of position and waited for the gap. I think this will be a problem for Donegal or Down, too; how do you get near the ball and maybe get three or four people around the player in possession and force the turnover if Fermanagh are able to dictate terms.
Now, Monaghan didn’t help themselves either. Twenty five minutes in and they still hadn’t kicked or fist-passed the ball inside. Monaghan constantly tried to play through Fermanagh and ended up kicking a series of demoralising wides that actually fuelled Fermanagh’s sense that their plan was working.
What if Monaghan decided that every third or fourth ball, they were just going to launch the ball down on top of Kieran Hughes or Conor McManus on the edge of the square? Even if it didn't work, Fermanagh would now have a problem because when those balls are hanging in the sky, you are immediately worrying about a goal.
It creates a different dynamic and problem for the defence. Instead, as the game went on the Fermanagh players became more and more comfortable with the game in front of them. So whereas Monaghan brought variety and creativity to Tyrone, they kept doing the same things over and over again on Sunday.
In 2013, Monaghan played Donegal in the Ulster final and the quality of diagonal ball into Hughes was exceptional. I didn’t see one such ball on Sunday. The one ball Hughes did get, he cut along the end line and it almost led to a goal and it did result in a point. But there wasn’t one booming ball played down on Fermanagh’s full back line over the entire afternoon.
Lastly, the Fermanagh kick-out was straight down the middle; nothing overly sophisticated but by God did they go for the ball.
At half time, the analysis on television pointed out that the systems were the mirror image of the other. I didn’t see that. I felt they were the polar opposite. It was Fermanagh’s zone versus Monaghan’s man-to-man. In fact, to win the game, Monaghan needed to become a mirror image of Fermanagh because they had the better players up front and all things being equal defensively, that quality would show.
Who is the go-to man in the Fermanagh attack? From free kicks it is Seán Quigley but in truth, it is about collective industry and work rate and patience and understanding. They don’t have the luxury of players like Conor McManus or Kieran Hughes.
But that change for Monaghan never happened. They persisted with a game plan that was hindering them. In the second half, Fermanagh conceded the kick-out. They only scored 0-2 before that late goal in the second half and I felt that giving Monaghan the kick-out like that played a part in allowing Monaghan to get a foothold in the game.
Twenty-six minutes passed in that half before Fermanagh got a point from play. And when Drew Wylie kicked that point to put Monaghan ahead, you could see the pressure beginning to drop off as Fermanagh tired. It wasn't through the collective that Monaghan got back in; it was individual plays from Drew Wylie and Colin Walsh. And it nearly got them through. But then came Fermanagh's long ball and the bit of vital chaos created in the Monaghan goal mouth and a famous, famous goal for Eoin Donnelly.
You have to give great credit to Rory Gallagher and Fermanagh. They stuck with the game plan and got a wee bit of luck with the goal that got them over the line but they created all the key moments in that game. They will rightly feel that if they can keep the opposition to 0-10 in the Ulster final they will be champions. If they can hit that one target, they have a very good chance. They attacked through the middle a lot in the second half and that pulled Monaghan men in and more by luck than design, Monaghan therefore had men to cause congestion in the middle.
Was it a good game? No. It was a war of attrition predicated on absolute defence from a Fermanagh perspective with the hope of being able to play on the break and win frees. The game plan was to try and keep Monaghan’s scores down. Would they be in the Ulster final without it? No, they would not. The end justifies the means for Fermanagh and if you look at all those supporters running onto the pitch afterwards in absolute delight, then it was justified for them too.
There is an undercurrent here whereby Fermanagh probably know they aren’t quite as high quality as Monaghan. That makes the victory were more special. We still beat you! In some ways, they hoodwinked the opposition. Half the county woke up on Monday with a hangover and looking forward to an Ulster final.
Have they the capacity to keep Down or Donegal to 0-10? Yes, because everyone has bought into it and they are defending out of their skins. These are the percentages that you have to squeeze when you are a county that has never won a provincial championship. This is not about the best team; it is the about the best system.
He wants Fermanagh in the winners' enclosure in Clones on Ulster final day.
We are talking about the equivalent of a League One team playing Manchester United in the cup final. Are they going to try and play United off the field? No: that would be lunacy. This is the debate and it will be raised until people realise that smaller counties have to do this to compete.
Rory Gallagher was a very creative attacking player in his days with Fermanagh. People will say it’s ironic that he should be championing this highly defensive system now as a manager. I don’t think it is ironic at all because in his playing years, Fermanagh never won an Ulster title. And as a manager, I imagine he is at the stage where he doesn’t give a curse about what critics think of his team.
He wants Fermanagh in the winners’ enclosure in Clones on Ulster final day. Fermanagh, like Dublin and any other team, just want their day in the sun. And Rory Gallagher is giving them their very best shot.