By Michael McMullan
THE last time Fermanagh won a match in the Ulster Championship; current Derry boss Rory Gallagher was at the helm for a 1-8 to 0-10 win over Monaghan to book a spot in the 2018 decider.
It took a punched goal from Eoin Donnelly in stoppage time, in the mould of Barry Owens’ sinking of Derry 10 years earlier on the same Healy Park sod.
Nine of the Erne players playing in that emotionally-charged finale will face their former boss on Saturday as Derry put their Ulster title on the line at Brewster Park.
This time last year, a revved up Derry tore Tyrone asunder to end the Oakleafers’ seven-year wait for a championship win.
They had no answer to Gareth McKinless battering them on the front foot since his “can I come back and play” plea to the Derry management.
It sparked a successful summer that has spilled over in the winter and a McKenna Cup title laid the foundations for a successful promotion tilt on its heel.
Kieran Donnelly’s side, although not having the same control, have navigated themselves back to Division Two football for next season. They needed Sean Quigley’s wand and impact from the bench.
Both teams will be licking their mental wounds and massaging any brittle, negative thoughts this week.
For all the positive spin, defeat always prompts a combination of doubt and questions. Like a drawn championship game in old money, whoever can apply the best coat of polish usually wins, so long as the cracks aren’t deep.
Fermanagh will be trying to engineer a plan to give Ultan Kelm a platform to show the country what he is about. Only Shane McGuigan and Pat Havern have scored more than his 3-12 from play across all nine Ulster teams in 2023.
Rory Gallagher made comment on the addition Lee and Che Cullen will bring to the table. It will be what Fermanagh do in the middle third that will prevent goalkeeper Sean McNally from being as busy as he was against Cavan.
They’ll need Johnny Cassidy and Shane McGullion to take the game to Derry. Ryan Lyons can pick a pass, Aidan Breen has been chipping in with scores and Darragh McGurn has the potential to score from outside a defensive shield.
Derry have their own reflections from defeat. They also conceded countless goal chances – eight actually – against the Dubs, but five came after Conor Glass was replaced.
Like Glen’s setup, the one thing Glass has brought back from Australia is a combination of athleticism and positional sense that make him the best defensive midfielder in the country. Playing at full-back on Glen teams above his age gave that natural instinct.
Also, the absence of Chrissy McKaigue forced Conor McCluskey into a marking only role. When Clare and Derry set up as a mirror image of each other, it would’ve been a stalemate only for two players – McCluskey and Ethan Doherty.
In Croke Park, there was a Dublin jersey lurking in the area of Doherty’s backdoor cuts, with McCluskey having nothing in his head only Con O’Callaghan.
The other element was Dublin insisting Brendan Rogers wasn’t allowed to go toe-to-toe with Brian Fenton. Instead, James McCarthy was touch tight and without the Sleacht Néill man’s turbo engines fired, Derry were more restricted. Aside from McGuigan burling half a dozen points, their only leading light was Paul Cassidy. He never stopped.
Saturday looks like coming too soon for Oisin McWilliams. A troublesome shin turned out to be a fracture he was playing through and after downtime since the win over Dublin, he is expected back in full training this weekend.
Aside from that, Rory Gallagher expects to be picking from a full squad with Ciaran McFaul making a return since his arrival home from Boston.
An ever-present during Gallagher’s first two seasons, McFaul was following Derry’s fitness progress across the pond, but – barring a few games for Donegal Boston – hasn’t played a game since Derry’s win over Meath, just over 12 months ago.
How much will he play? That’s anyone’s guess, but it’s another body in training, it’s an impact man and it gets him back in the fold for club and county, with Division One action to follow in 2024.
Fermanagh have picked the same team since Che Cullen started against Westmeath three games ago. Sean Quigley is listed, but doesn’t start. It’s hard to see that changing against a Derry defence that bombs forward as much as it defends.
Captain Declan McCusker can’t force his way in and Garvan Jones – who scored a goal against Derry in the McKenna Cup – has notched 1-9 despite only starting two games.
Fermanagh will relish Saturday. It’s a free shot. Derry are favourites and it’s hard to strongly argue with them not making a successful first step of their title defence.