Keith Duggan: Fermanagh dare to dream against mighty Dubs

Odds stacked against northern pretenders, but reaching last eight exposes potential

 

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Fermanagh’s B All-Ireland success under the late Pat King. The competition was organised with good intentions and was celebrated in the Lakeland county.

Fermanagh beat Longford after a replay. Rory Gallagher, the current Donegal manager, was top scorer on both occasions and the location and date of the finals held a clue as to how highly the GAA prioritised it. Carrick-on-Shannon was the venue. The first game took place on November 17th, 1996. Fermanagh were crowned champions on December 8th, 1996.

Christmas started early in Kinawley and Tempo and the other football citadels, and that was it. Echoes of that success can still be heard through the annual debates and conversations about the evenness of competition in the All-Ireland and the “need” for a second-tier competition.

Tomorrow Fermanagh are the longest shot imaginable to beat Dublin in the quarter-final, at 20/1. Their presence in the last eight is unexpected and brings together the two extremes of Gaelic football’s power structure in terms of population and resources.

But Dom Corrigan, the former Fermanagh player and manager whose sons Tomás and Ruairí play on the current team, is more convinced than ever that a divided tier would do no good for counties like Fermanagh. This year has been the proof of that.

“We dare to dream but we accept Dublin are hot favourites. In saying that, Fermanagh have earned the right to play tomorrow and to be in the top eight. I would revisit the way that the championship is structured but I don’t think it is a good idea to split it into tiers.

“For instance, there is a strong probability that only three teams can win the rugby world cup, but nobody is suggesting the other teams shouldn’t be there. In the All-Ireland, Mayo, Dublin and Kerry are the probable winners. Does that mean we should reduce it to those teams? Do you not ride the Tour de France if you are not going to win it? I would hope that Fermanagh’s story would feed into other counties.

“I know Tomás met one of the Wicklow footballers in Dublin and he said, ‘What you boys have done will drive us on.’ The Division Four counties are looking at us and they are probably thinking that, on their day, they can beat Fermanagh.”

Corrigan was last in charge of Fermanagh in 2003: they recorded a significant Ulster championship win against Donegal and later went on an impressive qualifier run which ended in the quarter-finals in Croke Park against Tyrone, who won their first All-Ireland a few months later.

Stone-cold outsiders

Charlie Mulgrew

Mulgrew devised a game plan where the Fermanagh boys moved the ball at speed and avoided contact and skirted around the edges of a notoriously unsentimental defence. They won 0-12 to 0-11 and then took Mayo to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“I suppose from my perspective it is a bit different,” says Raymie Johnston, a player that day and assistant manager for tomorrow’s match against Dublin. “When I was playing I was just more concerned with my own game and my immediate opponents. Now I am seeing it from the other side. It doesn’t take away from the euphoria and the excitement you feel.”

A smart defender – converted from wing forward – on a team that consistently punched above its weight, Johnson was approached by Pete McGrath shortly after the Down man took over. The appointment of McGrath was notable in that it was the second time in succession that Fermanagh had made a high-profile appointment.

Glittering career

Peter CanavanKieran Donnelly

“Absolutely. It is very relevant,” Dom Corrigan says. “He has two All-Ireland winning teams under his belt and he was very unlucky to lose an under-21 final to Cork. He has a Midas touch and that has an impact on the players’ perception of him. That is human nature. They are receptive to what he is saying. So even though we had a few difficult results last year, nobody questioned him.

“Pete is a breath of fresh air. In some ways he is a throwback to the traditional style in that the current trend is all about structure and gym work. Pete has moved with the times but he still believes that training should incorporate football skills. He has a laid-back approach. But he was smart enough and flexible enough to change and recognise that things weren’t working. I know that the Fermanagh public have warmed to him in a big way.”

McGrath’s calmness has set the tone. Things didn’t fire immediately: after losing to Antrim in a high-scoring Ulster championship draw and replay last summer, Fermanagh were beaten 1-9 to 2-15 by Laois and were wiped off the board by June 21st.

Foundations in place

Under McGrath, the team have managed to acquire the high level of organisation and fitness necessary to compete today while retaining the sort of informal approach which would have been common when he was in charge of that cavalier Down team.

Nobody paid that much notice when they eclipsed Antrim in the first qualifier game – just a derby scrap between Ulster’s outsiders – but the wins over Roscommon and Westmeath were increasingly impressive.

Despite all the attention this week, Fermanagh’s training sessions are open to the public and media access is much as it was when he managed Down: casual and informal. As the more powerful counties edge closer to conducting themselves in a professional manner in every aspect, McGrath’s journey with Fermanagh has been rooted in a more community approach.

He hasn’t been afraid to allow his players to enjoy what is happening. They are embracing the excitement rather than shielding themselves from it. It is a cyclical thing. When Corrigan was manager, his sons Tomás and Ruairí went along to training and kicked the footballs out to the players from behind the posts. Now, they are both on the senior side.

“They were the ball boys for the Brewsters and Marty McGrath and Raymie Gallagher and Raymie Johnston. They would have remembered those days and those games. And they wanted to be like Barry Owens. And that is happening again now. You could see it in Breffni Park last weekend. We did need that bit of success. It is important to get back to Croke Park for a big championship game so that youngsters in Fermanagh can see what it is about.”

The Corrigans’ youngest daughter Blanaid is trying to keep tabs on the team’s progress from Calcutta, where she is working with a charity project. Her hope is to keep in touch with the score through social media but she won’t get to see the match. Her parents are under instruction to keep every newspaper clipping and record any radio or television piece featuring her brothers and the team. These days don’t come often for Fermanagh. When they do, people embrace them.

Within a whisper

And it was no freak either: four years later, they took Armagh to a replay in an Ulster final. The trick for the county is to try and produce teams capable of challenging against the bigger counties on a more regular basis.

“That’s very important,” he says. “There is unbelievable talent within the county. We are trying to get performances year-in and year-out and hope that it has a knock-on effect. The underage camps are going very well. But there is some strength in depth there. We do have a small pool of resources and if you compare it to the bigger counties with more clubs and financial clout, well, there is a difference. But we are working well within the pool of resources we have and are getting the most out of ourselves.”

The idea that Fermanagh can beat Dublin tomorrow stretches the limits of most people’s imaginations. The Fermanagh management and players have emphasised the importance of a “performance” throughout the week, but they haven’t shied away from the fact that being here – in the last eight, in front of the Hill – is a big deal.

Different challenge

“All any team can do is put out 15 players,” Johnston says. “We have a squad going into this match in the belief that they can win. The belief in our squad is phenomenal and they have shown that over the past number of games.

“Yes, Dublin have got a lot of quality players and they are going into the game as strong favourites. It is about us going and playing to the best of our ability.”

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