Saturday 17 November 2018

Dick Clerkin: Ulster kingpins will test Dublin as reality bites for Fermanagh

Ryan McHugh weaved his trickery all afternoon to devastating effect. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ryan McHugh weaved his trickery all afternoon to devastating effect. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Last Summer, Donegal limped out of the championship following comprehensive defeats at the hands of Tyrone and then Galway.

Few would have backed them to bounce back and reclaim their provincial crown in the emphatic way they did in Clones yesterday in front of a sweltering mass of green and yellow.

More significantly, they have firmly put themselves back into the All-Ireland conversation and, based on performances to date, stand as the sole Ulster side to justify a place at the top table.

Much of that backing stems from the strong spine of a Croke Park calibre that still drives this Donegal team forward.

Unlike last year, however, the All-Ireland winning powerhouses of Murphy, McGrath, McBrearty, McGee and McGlynn are now ably assisted by a new wave of talent that have quickly matured to reverse the slide many prematurely predicted.

Trickery

Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Paul Brennan and Ciaran Thompson led the new brigade with aplomb yesterday, contributing a goal and six points between them.

Amongst them all, Ryan McHugh, neither old nor young, weaved his trickery all afternoon to devastating effect.

On the surface, this Donegal team look to have real potential to go all the way. But - and there must be a but - one must take into account the quality of opposition, or lack thereof, Donegal faced en route to their fourth Ulster crown in eight years.

With Cavan and Down offering little or no resistance to Declan Bonner's charges leading into yesterday's Ulster showpiece, there was a hope that Rory Gallagher would use his intimate knowledge of Donegal to mastermind a historic upset for his native county.

But when McHugh sliced through the Fermanagh rear-guard on 16 minutes to set up Gallagher for the opening goal, their hopes all but vanished.

Walking down Fermanagh Street to St Tiernach's Park, the carnival atmosphere was something to savour.

Every Fermanagh Gael, home and abroad, must have made their way to Clones as the Green Army made the Monaghan border town their own.

A beer-infused waft of sporting romance was certainly in the air. The eventual script would sadly read a much more sombre tone.

The harsh truth of the matter is that Fermanagh had little right to stake a claim to the silverware on offer.

I don't say that as a bitter Monaghan man, but in reality Fermanagh simply haven't enough hard miles on the clock as a group to count themselves as genuine provincial contenders.

Yes, Rory Gallagher had them organised this year, and by all accounts they have put in a lot of hard training, but if they are being honest, they were in nothing more than bonus territory yesterday. Such a major milestone can't be achieved overnight.

I have no issue with how Gallagher sets up his team. A manager has to make the most out of what he has to be competitive, but how could he have assumed that their style of play would ever be good enough to go all the way and win the Ulster title?

As was the case against Monaghan, it might upset the odds once, but Donegal were forewarned and lightning was never going to strike twice.

Fermanagh's supporters can be proud of their team, but if this group of players are ever to win a provincial title they need to stay committed collectively for an extended run of three to five years - something the county's finest have plainly failed to do too often in the past.

Beatable

Much of yesterday's pre-match talk centred on Fermanagh's last provincial decider in 2008, when they lost out to a very beatable Armagh team after a replay.

Back then, a dearth in free takers ultimately proved to be their downfall. An absent then 29-year-old Rory Gallagher would have certainly made a decisive difference. The following season he would steer Antrim club St Galls to Ulster club glory.

If Rory is with Fermanagh for the long haul, he needs to learn from his and his county's past mistakes; he must retain and develop this current crop of players.

They have made huge strides in a short space of time and, regardless of what the rest of the summer brings them, they should reset their sights on moving another step closer to that maiden provincial title next year.

As for Donegal, they can enjoy their convincing Ulster title victory and look forward to a mouth-watering clash with Dublin in their opening round of the 'Super 8s.'

It could very well be the game to finally light up this year's football championship.

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