At 2 o’clock tomorrow, the bells of the Sacred Heart Church in Clones will chime, the St Michael’s Enniskillen Scout Band will down their tools and David Gough will throw the ball in to start a most unlikely, unique and yet intriguingly complex Ulster final.
The handshakes – if there are any to be had – will be done, the stopwatches will be set and we’ll be all set to play chess on a board that Fermanagh have never managed to checkmate an opponent at this stage.
Rory Gallagher estimates that he had trained Donegal up to 800 times during a six-year involvement with the senior team, first as Jim McGuinness’s right-hand man and then for three years as the Tir Chonaill manager.
Gallagher lives in Killybegs, where he manages the local SuperValu, and has watched Eoin Ban Gallagher and Hugh McFadden emerge into cornerstones of the Donegal senior team.
At nearby Kilcar, he worked closely with Mark McHugh, Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty.
There are few things regarding the strengths and weaknesses of this Donegal squad that Gallagher doesn’t know as he bids to lead Fermanagh to their first Ulster crown at the sixth time of asking.
The Gallagher-v-Donegal episode has been one of the more enduring sideshows of the last fortnight but when the ball hits the piercing hot air inside Clones’ claustrophobic theatre tomorrow, it will be all about the pieces on the board.
Gallagher knows well the talent and the threat that will be brought by McBrearty, McHugh and Michael Murphy. Stopping, or even attempting it, is an entirely different prospect altogether.
Fermanagh managed to sneak past Monaghan, who seemed spooked for long phases of their semi-final in Omagh. Fermanagh snuffed out Rory Beggan’s kick-outs and Che Cullen managed to curb Conor McManus’s influence.
“You don’t underestimate Fermanagh,” was how Declan Bonner, the Donegal manager, assessed the Ernemen.
“I was at the game between Monaghan and Tyrone, when Monaghan had as good a performance as we’ve seen. Fermanagh on the day deserved the victory. We have to get the performance level right for Fermanagh.
“You only can play what’s put in front of you We know Sunday will be completely different in terms of organisation, set up and physicality. We have to be ready for the challenge.
“It’s a challenge that we are getting ready for. Once the Down game finished, it turned automatically to Fermanagh. It’s where we wanted to be and we’re 75 minutes away now.”
The semi-final unfolded perfectly for Fermanagh, who stayed in the game long enough to catch Monaghan on the hope, in the form of a late Eoin Donnelly goal that fired Fermanagh into only their sixth ever Ulster final.
Nomadic as a player, Gallagher was elsewhere when Fermanagh – under Charlie Mulgrew – reached an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004. Just a few weeks after his resignation as Donegal manager last summer, Gallagher agreed to take over his native county. The same principals he had in Donegal are evident again now. Fermanagh have become hard to break down and, as a result, hard to beat.
Their approach seems highly unlikely to change for this one.
“There is no point in coming up with a curve ball unless it’s good enough,” Gallagher has said.
“There’s no point in being different for the sake of it. You have to be very good at what you are doing.
“You’ve got to be better than the next team at what you are doing. It’s not necessarily about something new. But if there is something new we’ll try and come up with that as well”
Fermanagh have accounted for Armagh and Monaghan so far, in spite of posting modest scorelines. Next to Seamus Quigley’s 0-9, Eoin Donnelly – who has scored only that winning goal against Monaghan – is next on their scoring chart.
By contrast, Donegal have racked up 6-58. Fermanagh’s rearguard will have to go up another notch.
Donegal possess more long-range shooters than Monaghan. McBrearty, Murphy, Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson and Odhrán Mac Niallais are all quite adept at scoring from distance.
The pace of McHugh, Gallagher and Jamie Brennan will pose a set of problems and the darts of Shaun Patton – so efficient and effective so far in the Championship – will be under the spotlight, particularly in how Fermanagh go about counter-acting them.
With Murphy expected to be out the field pulling the strings, Cullen seems likely to be deployed on McBrearty, while Ryan Lyons and Donnelly, in Fermanagh’s engine room, will have their hands full with Donegal, including the influence and power of Murphy, out the field.
Donegal do have to find a solution to Neil McGee’s absence. With Quigley tipped to return to the Fermanagh attack, it could be problematic for Donegal, who are likely to deploy Stephen McMenamin or Caolan Ward to the number 3 spot. McFadden has been touted as a possibility to tuck back and negate the aerial problem, but that appears a notion and a scenario that won’t play out.
It could be argued that, while Gallagher knows Donegal and their players inside-out, this is a different Donegal. It’s an evolved Donegal from that which he bid farewell last summer.
And it’s a Donegal whose drive and ambition to win Ulster is every bit as raging as Fermanagh’s.
As a county, Fermanagh’s need is unquestionably greater, but the desire within a Donegal group that has lost two of the last three Ulster finals and has been four years without a provincial crown is hardly struggling to catch fire, either. This, too, is a Donegal dressing room that contains players who have grown up in what Bonner described this week as a ‘winning environment’.
The needs of Frank McGlynn, whose inter-county career looked done when Gallagher called him ashore just before half-time in that forgettable qualifier defeat to Galway last July, will be as great as anyone’s. But this isn’t a point-scoring exercise against a former manager – simply, it’s about winning another Ulster medal.
As a player, Gallagher often decried Fermanagh’s lack of confidence and, since being installed as manager, has helped improve and increase the self-belief.
“We felt we could add something. Belief is part of it, but there is no magic wand for belief,” he said recently.
“You’ve got to have belief when you arrive on Championship day knowing you’ve done everything right, you’ve improved, challenged yourself and become a better player and a better team as a result.”
Unquestionably, Fermanagh have improved under Gallagher and the squad’s decision to oust Pete McGrath last year has already been vindicated.
This Ulster final represents a big chance for Fermanagh.
So, too, though, does it mean a chance for Donegal to prove themselves as Ulster’s top dogs again. And that, even more than Fermanagh’s endless pursuit of a first drink from the chalice, could be the defining factor.
Verdict: A lot has to go right for Fermanagh and wrong for Donegal at the same time for the Erne to repeat the dose they inflicted on Monaghan. Too much, perhaps to tip the scales. Any lapse from Donegal can and will be seized by Fermanagh, but Donegal have the experience, firepower, know how and desire to avoid a late scare.Tags: