Erne men dust off cobwebs in Ulster opener
Fermanagh 1-12 Antrim 0-9
Championship begins, but only in stutters as Fermanagh roused themselves from what their manager Pete McGrath termed a severe "power cut" to see off an Antrim challenge that had narrowed a gap from eight points to three with five minutes remaining.
And for all that, Antrim were utterly feeble for the most part here. Fermanagh were nowhere near the level of intensity for their final couple of league matches, but still had far too much in the way of organisation, smarts and finishing for their guests.
Donegal, in Ballybofey, now await them in the first round proper. It would be tempting to say it might be a poignant affair in a month's time for former Fermanagh player and current Donegal supremo Rory Gallagher, but the Belleek native is not given to poignancy.
From the start, Fermanagh were pro-active. They pushed up on the Antrim kickout, forcing Saffrons goalkeeper Chris Kerr to go long with all his restarts.
This might not have been such a problem only for the Saffrons to have lost their high-fielding midfielder Niall McKeever. The former Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules exponent had been troubled with a hamstring injury all week and his battle for fitness was lost five minutes before throw-in in the warm-up.
"No matter what you say, heads drop. People look around…" mused his manager Frankie Fitzsimons over the impact of the injury.
Without McKeever in his vicinity, Fermanagh's Eoin Donnelly lorded the skies. Even when Antrim's brief revival threatened, he took off on a long run to get on the end of a free and engineer a free off Sean McVeigh, for Tomás Corrigan to convert.
Four balls were played in towards Brian 'Bam' Neeson, Antrim's torturer-in-chief in this fixture two years ago. But Fermanagh had the tenacious Mickey Jones on Bam duties, and with James McMahon marking the space in front or else being on hand to pick up the break, they got no joy from the ploy.
One time it almost worked. From a Kerr kickout, Kevin Niblock fielded cleanly before being fouled. He moved the free on to Mick McCann who arrowed a delivery to Neeson. The speed of the movement left McMahon's sweeper role redundant and with Jones lagging behind, Neeson fastened on to the ball, thumping it on the pivot only to be met with a strong hand from Erne goalkeeper Chris Snow.
The rumours in the county were that Ryan Jones would vacate the centre-forward jersey to join Donnelly in midfield and while McMahon lined up at centre-forward at the throw-in, he was to play the sweepers role with the assurance of the veteran he has been groomed to replace in Ryan McCluskey.
The two standout moments of the first half came within a minute of each other. On 29 minutes, Sean Quigley's pass outfield was blocked down and it trickled over the sideline of the John Vesey Stand, 10 yards from the endline. Tomás Corrigan threaded the ball over the bar.
Less than 60 seconds later, Ricky Johnston beat Quigley to a ball to palm it over the line, this time at the 13-yard line, and the crowd hummed in anticipation. Corrigan did the impossible again.
By way of contrast, Antrim looked downbeat. On 18 minutes they were already 0-4 to 0-0 down when bright young prospect Matthew Fitzpatrick had a point-scoring opportunity. Although slightly to the right wing he was under no pressure whatsoever as he screwed his shot wide - the kind of wide that sucks the oxygen out of a teams' efforts.
The half-time score was 0-9 to 0-2, both Antrim scores coming from the boot of Neeson, from the dead ball, while Corrigan had compiled half a dozen.
Antrim began to empty their bench, and with the atmosphere turning muted in the hot sun the Saffrons began chipping away with points from Mark Sweeney and John Carron.
They began forcing turnovers deep in the Erne half, leading to a Ryan Murray point from play and a Tomás McCann free, and when Sean Burke bounced off a Che Cullen challenge to swing over with his left foot, the comeback looked on.
However, that was the moment for Donnelly to make his most telling contribution of the game. Sprinting from the middle of the pitch into space, he invited the tackle from McVeigh who was already on a yellow card. When Corrigan converted his ninth of the day, they could breathe a little more easily.
Any possible sting was taken out of the game when Paul McCusker - who was excellent throughout and drew a number of converted frees, began a movement along the Factory Road end.
He transferred to substitute Ciaran Flaherty who ferried to Corrigan. McCusker had continued his run and took the disguised pass, shifting it to Sean Quigley. The big Roslea man had only occasionally threatened in the game, but he used his frame expertly to turn marker Ricky Johnston and gather the ball in.
Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr was eagerly off his line, but Quigley skimmed his shot along the ground to the net.
SCORERS - Fermanagh: T Corrigan 0-9 (5f, 2s/l), S Quigley 1-1 (0-1f), A Breen, D McCusker 0-1 each. Antrim: T McCann 0-3 (1f), B Neeson 0-2 (1f, 1 '45), M Sweeney, J Carron, R Murray and S Burke 0-1 each.
FERMANAGH: C Snow; M Jones, C Cullen, M O'Brien; D McCusker, B Mulrone, A Breen; E Donnelly, R Jones; P McCusker, J McMahon, R Lyons, R Corrigan, S Quigley, T Corrigan.
Subs: C Flaherty for Lyons (45m), D Teague for R Corrigan (55), D Kelly for Breen (66), P Cadden for P McCusker (71).
ANTRIM: C Kerr; K O'Boyle, R Johnston, N Delargy; P McBride, M Johnston, J Laverty; M McCann, J Carron; M Fitzpatrick, K Niblock, M Sweeney; B Neeson, C Murray, T McCann.
Subs: S McVeigh for C Murray (half-time), D McAleese for Laverty (45), R Murray for Fitzpatrick (55), S Burke for Neeson (59).
Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone.)
Teams and scorers in here
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