Thursday 18 January 2018

Darkness in the drop zone

Some home truths are being absorbed in counties that have known better days, says Damian Lawlor

L AST Wednesday, the GAA and GPA made their first stab at resolving the impasse that saw ten players depart the Fermanagh football squad. It was a first test for the new joint dispute resolution framework.

Dessie Farrell and Fergal McGill kick-started the process by asking the players, management and county board to refrain from commenting further to the media.

Aware of ramifications for the future, both the GPA and GAA agreed that there could be no calling for the head of manager John O'Neill. Instead, the ten affected players were asked if there was any way they would return to play for the manager. The replies were negative and for now the show goes on without them.

This dispute smouldered over the winter and finally ignited last weekend when some players refused to travel to Carrick-on-Shannon for the game against Leitrim, which Fermanagh lost by one point.

Afterwards, the county board asked for a list of their grievances. Some of the players had tasted good times under Charlie Mulgrew and Malachy O'Rourke and enjoyed the odyssey of 2004 which culminated in an All-Ireland semi-final appearance. They also helped Fermanagh reach Division 1A in 2006 and the Ulster final two years later. Their expectations were high.

But the solid foundations of those five years have been slowly crumbling and maybe that final defeat to Armagh was the catalyst. They have since endured successive relegations and lie ahead of only London and Kilkenny in Division 4 having lost five games on the spin before yesterday's win over the Cats.

With only 21 clubs to pick from in the county, Fermanagh needs this dispute like a hole in the head, but the players are soured by more recent issues, from player welfare to O'Neill's management.

Money has become a buzzword. It's in scarce supply and the Fermanagh board have cut their cloth, while Club Erne, the supporters' group, has nothing near the resources of the past. A management structure that once featured sports psychologists, specialised weights instructors, a comprehensive medical team and rehab specialists is now a much more scaled down unit. There was no doctor present at a recent training session when one player was knocked unconscious.

On a less serious note, players are also unhappy with gear allocations and say that communication between management and the squad is poor.

The exodus has been frightening. Mark Little, their dashing and exciting forward, Seamus Quigley, former skipper James Sherry, Shane Lyons, Fergal Murphy and James Connolly all went swiftly. Tommy McElroy, Peter Sherry, Niall Bogue and Ciarán Flaherty left last week. On top of this, Ryan Keenan hasn't even featured under the new regime. Former All Star Barry Owens, has stayed put, but it hasn't lifted the cloud hanging over them.

"There's just a rotten feeling about here," said a source within the camp. "Our best players are gone and we've too small a playing pool. But the county board is just hoping we'll beat Kilkenny, London and Clare and then the lads might come back for the championship. That won't happen."

After the Leitrim game last week, O'Neill tried to put a positive spin on things. "We had 27 players at training," he said. "The absentees all had entirely legitimate reasons. We have two fellows with long-term injuries. A couple of weeks ago, two other senior players, who have been on the Fermanagh panel for eight or 10 years, decided to call it a day. They felt they couldn't give the commitment at this time and we accepted it. These reports (of a crisis) have been blown out of all proportion."

But they haven't. The next county board meeting is on April 6 although their Management Committee will meet tomorrow night to discuss a report by the GAA and the GPA of a meeting between some players and members of the County Board.

Two divisions up, it's not much brighter for the Meath footballers. Seamus McEnaney is the county's first outside manager and he's already under the spotlight.

Their recent six-point defeat to Donegal -- regarded as the worst Meath display in decades -- drew serious criticism. In his newspaper column, Bernard Flynn described it as "one of the worst performances I have ever seen from a Meath team". He added: "We looked so disjointed, there was no method to our play, fellas were switching between backs and forwards without any real purpose or cohesion, and the biggest glaring issue for me was the bad attitude and lack of passion from the Meath players." The natives are even more restless after Kildare made it four out of five defeats last weekend.

That was Meath's seventh successive league defeat on the road. They have only won one game from their last 13 outside of Navan which indicates there were underlying problems before McEnaney (pictured right) took charge.

Whatever uneasiness there may be around the county, mutiny from within the camp is unlikely. Word is they're training too hard, looking to peak later in the year, but that's a dangerous ploy.

On successive Sundays in the 1990 League Meath lost to Roscommon by 18 points and Antrim by 16, but actually went on to win the competition outright and later the Leinster title before losing to Cork in the All-Ireland final. Such a turnaround looks unlikely now. They must beat Derry and Tyrone to avoid relegation and could be knocked out of the 2011 provincial championship by either Kildare or Wicklow if they don't shape up soon.

There is a positive on the horizon, however, with key players like Cian Ward, Kevin Reilly, Graham Reilly and Stephen Bray on their way back from injury.

Meath's nearest relegation rivals, Antrim, could themselves be out of the Ulster championship by mid-May as they face a rampant Donegal in Ballybofey.

Liam Bradley took over in 2008 and led Antrim from Division 4 to the second tier. It got better; the 2009 championship was their best in 39 years -- they beat both Donegal and Cavan to qualify for the Ulster final.

But 2011 is a far cry from then. Three weeks ago, they could have saved their Division 2 status against Sligo but wasted four goal chances and gifted Eamonn O'Hara the match-winning goal. Bradley was totally honest. "Mathematically, we can still stay up but, realistically, it looks as if we are going back down again."

With influential players like Michael McCann, CJ McGourty, Kevin Niblock, Tomás McCann, Colin Brady and Aaron Douglas missing through injury, Bradley hasn't been able to compensate.

He has tried to inject new blood into the team and youngsters like Mark Sweeney and Mark Dougan have quickly matured, while Dungannon Swifts goalkeeper Sean O'Neill looks impressive. But with relegation on the cards and a daunting championship date ahead, the landscape looks bleak for Antrim. After such a promising few years that's a real shame.

In Galway, the horizon is just as downcast where Tomás ó Flatharta's side last weekend succumbed to their fifth straight league defeat. Losing by only three points to Cork was almost a moral victory after the thrashings by Mayo and Kerry.

Not everyone in Galway was behind the appointment of ó Flatharta (pictured left) and his cause hasn't been helped by the continuing absence of Pádraic Joyce and Seán Armstrong.

Morale may appear low but the Cork performance shows there's some spirit left. And if Galway could spring a shock against Mayo in Castlebar this summer, their dismal spring won't even be remembered. With relegation almost a certainty, a win in Castlebar might seem unthinkable but you get the feeling that's what ó Flatharta is craving.

For Galway, Meath, Antrim and Fermanagh, it will take a serious upturn in fortunes to turn their seasons around. Even in March the omens are not good.

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