Erne men eye Ulster title after 'phenomenal year' in 2015
Published 30/12/2015 | 02:30
In many ways, they were the story of the football summer. Fermanagh's journey to the last eight of the race for Sam Maguire seemed to be something of a throwback to days when the underdogs had more days in the sun and a giddy run in the championship made a county's summer.
They had a group of players who started to believe again. In the spring, they gained promotion to Division 2 and in Pete McGrath they had a manager with a proven track record and a gift for delivering on big promises.
Fermanagh, he said, would be playing football in August. He was right.
The Erne men eventually bowed out, but not before Antrim (twice), Roscommon and Leinster finalists Westmeath were put to the sword. Four championship wins are not to be scoffed at.
In the All-Ireland quarter-final, they fell short against Dublin but even then they acquitted themselves well. Seamus Quigley's comical goal in that game meant they the scored more (2-15) against Dublin than anyone else in the championship. Only Mayo with 1-15 came close to matching that tally.
"2015 was really good for Fermanagh in terms of how far we got for a small county but kicking on for 2016, that's the plan," explains Erne defender Tiernan Daly, who is currently recovering from a serious knee injury.
"Division 2 is where we wanted to be and we have always said you have to be playing the top teams to really push on in the championship, so we are excited for that."
Pound for pound, Fermanagh were arguably the team of the football season. Numbers-wise Fermanagh are up against it. Pulling from just 20 clubs, their playing resources are dwarfed by most other counties.
And of the teams in the last eight, they were the only county never to have won a provincial title.
"We have a very small number of clubs," Daly agrees.
"So it's going to be tough, and we have been struck with emigration - there's a lot of good players, especially in my own club in Derrygonnelly, that have gone and you have that aspect to deal with.
"There's a lot of guys commuting to Belfast and Dublin, the same as every county, but it's just about trying to get the best of what you have got."
And he believes the panel could be strengthened before the start of the new season but warns that won't be at the expense of the team spirit they have built up under McGrath.
"There are a lot of good players that could potentially come in and strengthen our panel but at the moment there's a nice mix of youth and experience," he says.
"So we hope we get to know a format of playing and get to know what the guy next to you is doing so we can push on and get to those big games we think we deserve."
Despite their run, the year ended on a sour note.
Like many in Fermanagh, Daly was stung by some of the criticism of the scenes on the pitch after their defeat to Dublin. The Fermanagh players came back out on the field to meet family and fans which some interpreted as celebrating an eight-point defeat.
But rather than celebrating a loss, Daly insists they were simply acknowledging their supporters.
"There was a little bit of flak in the press in terms of the celebrations and stuff but it wasn't really celebrations," he counters.
"It was more respect for the fans that had followed us from the very beginning. We had a great turnout from them and it was a recognition of them more than anything.
"Your season finishes with your county when you lose in the All-Ireland Championship and that was the quarter-final for us.
"It had been a long time since we had been there. It was right that we could hold our heads high and that we gave a good representation of ourselves and our county and our families.
"I thought it was a little bit unjust the way we were treated because we didn't do anything wrong. Of course you are disappointed. I was very disappointed - you never want to go out to any game and lose, and when you got that sort of flak you just think, 'What was the point of that?'.
"It was a bit harsh that it was deemed we were celebrating our loss which it wasn't, we were celebrating a phenomenal year we had."
Fermanagh won plaudits for resisting the urge to set up defensively against the Dubs.
Admittedly, Jim Gavin's side looked comfortable from early in the game but McGrath's side kept chipping away and forced two late goals.
And while Daly agrees that the Dubs are an excellent team, he believes teams can show them too much respect.
"That is more a mental thing. The calibre of the counties that play, there is very little between all the players," he says.
"And it's maybe a mental thing that you've seen (Dublin) so often on TV and they have won titles that might just creep in.
"But you have to believe in yourself that you are the same as any player from any county, be it Tyrone, Donegal Kerry or Dublin.
"You are still and inter-county footballer, doing the exact same training and when you get out there maybe there's an awe but you get that out of the way and you just realise you are there to play a game and not just stand and watch great footballers.
"Because you know yourself and your team are great footballers too."
Fermanagh will gear back up for another campaign now. Whatever cover they had in 2015 will be well and truly blown by the time the League rolls around.
The GAA world in general is much more aware of the talents of Sean Quigley, Tomas Corrigan, Daly and Co.
Still they'll aim to drive on again. And the aim for 2016 is clear.
Is an Ulster title a real possibility?
"Definitely. We set out goals when Pete came in and with the calibre of players we have it's a matter of repeatedly playing big teams so once you come to championship you know what is needed," insists Daly.