Peter Canavan: The politics forced me out of Fermanagh - Donegal got more access to Brewster Park than we did in two years
I must say I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Ulster Championship match, and I make no apologies for cheering on this group of Fermanagh players against Antrim.
There is an attachment and a bond with the group which came with my two years there as manager. But ultimately, the politics behind the scenes didn’t wash with me at all.
I was asked to take over the county when they were in turmoil and disarray. Pat Spillane had them ranked as 29th out of the counties in his newspaper column after they lost to London in the 2011 qualifiers.
I spoke to Kieran Donnelly, my trainer with Errigal Ciaran and himself a former Fermanagh player. He had belief in them, that things were at a low ebb, but it could be turned around.
There were other former county players who informed me that the county and players were split after a player walkout the previous year. And I was assured that I would never get the county board together again.
So, they were right, at least regarding the county board. I was never able to sort that mess out.
From a players’ point of view, we had a serious meeting once we compiled a panel after a series of trials.
A lot of opinions were aired in the Manor House Hotel one Saturday afternoon in early January 2012.
We could not approach men to come back and then brush it under the table. Some had waited a long time to get stuff off their chest, but they wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for their love for Fermanagh.
Whether people felt they were right or wrong, there was only one way of getting it out of their system and that was by showing their commitment on the pitch.
They sorted it out, got on with things and trained as hard as any group of players I have been involved with. That’s why I respect them so much.
We had some good nights out with them on weekends away, and the way that they dealt with the tragic death of their fellow player Brian Óg Maguire in an accident in September 2012 was a perfect example of humility and dignity.
The characters – Barry Mulrone, Daniel ‘Cecil’ Kille, Shane McCabe – I still hear from them and get bad manners yet from some!
Counties with smaller playing populations – and Fermanagh, with only 20 clubs, fall into this bracket – will always struggle with one or two players that they would dearly love to be on board, but prove ‘difficult.’
We had that with Seamus Quigley (below). The first three or four months we were there, he was the first man on the pitch every night and we never had a cross word with him. He won the Ulster GAA Writer’s Player of the Month in January for his performances in the McKenna Cup.
Whether it was the pressure of knowing that he was the main man coming up to the summer, whether he felt he couldn’t handle it, I don’t know. But for whatever reason, he resorted to doing what he had done under other managers – he started missing training and we would have reports back of Seamie partying, and he was absent from a training session the week of our first Championship match against Down.
The great pity is that his kicking ability was as good as anyone in Ulster, without a doubt. If you saw Michael Murphy kicking the late free for Donegal against Tyrone a couple of weeks back, Seamie Quigley would do that nine times out of ten. He has done it and is still doing it for his club Roslea.
Eventually, we had to move on without him.
Then, there was the difficulty in dealing with the divisions in the county board, despite some officers doing their very best for us.
I noticed Rory Gallagher’s recent comments when he said that he had to be guaranteed certain structures had to be in place in Donegal before he took over, in order for him to concentrate on the players and preparing them.
This is an area that many more county managers are going to look about nailing down, and something the likes of Eamonn Fitzmaurice does not have to contend with.
In Fermanagh, we had huge difficulty with certain aspects of the county board.
Take something like training on Brewster Park in the lead-up to Championship matches, for example. We arrived there once to find the changing rooms locked. On other occasions we were told we could only train for a short time, or to pack up our cones and get going.
Donegal came to the Lough Erne Resort last year before the All-Ireland final. They actually got more access to that pitch that week than we did in the two years we were managing the county!
Various untruths that were put out there, leading to club delegates questioning everything.
One night, and this comment came back to me, it was asked why this team were training like a Division 1 team, when they were going to end up playing in Division 4?
That was being driven by a few individuals that had nothing to do with getting this management together.
The players embarked on a fundraising project weekend in late November 2012, with a boxing exhibition, bingo and a big Nathan Carter concert.
It was to pay for a training weekend we felt was necessary. They put in an astonishing amount of work, having to balance it with a tough pre-season.
Yet there was negative vibes about that, disputes over money. It was a non-stop knocking at the team and even the players.
So it gets to the stage where you are asking yourself, ‘what am I doing here, doing my best for a county, when others don’t want you there?’
Anyway! Back to this weekend, and it will be two cagey teams in Brewster Park.
A lot of the time, your tactical approach is shaped by the players at your disposal.
You can’t go man for man. Fermanagh are not in a position to go hell for leather; their emphasis is on defence and hitting teams on the counter.
In the meantime, they are fortunate that they have someone like Pete McGrath, who is football to the core and appreciates what is required.
I have no doubt that the players will give him the response he deserves tomorrow, with Fermanagh winning with something to spare.