By Niall Gartland
IT’S good to be back. Young Fermanagh forward Darragh McGurn has been diligent over the lockdown periods, but there’s only so much individual training you can do before tedium sets in.
The whole point of training is to prepare for matches, but Fermanagh have played only three of them over the course of the last 12 months – league clashes against Clare and Laois, and an Ulster Championship encounter against Down.
It’s not really the stuff of childhood dreams, but the league and championship dates have been set so at least there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
A final year Aerospace Engineering student at Queen’s University, McGurn commented: “It’s brilliant, it’s been a long year training on your own. Obviously we had a few matches in October and November but then we were back by ourselves again. It gets boring and monotonous, you want to be part of a team setting so it’s just deadly to be back.
“I actually enjoyed the first few weeks of lockdown last year, getting a bit of a break, but the longer it went on the harder it got.”
Still only 22, he made his championship debut in 2019 in a Qualifier defeat to Monaghan, coming on in the final few minutes, but he established himself as a starter last year.
There’s a lot of other young players bidding for starting positions – goalkeeper Sean McNally, corner-back Luke Flanagan and wing-back Josh Largo-Ellis made their championship debuts against Down last year and there’s a rake of others. McGurn knows they need game-time to improve as players, and cites the team’s relative inexperience as one of the factors behind their 1-15 to 0-11 defeat to the Mourne county in last year’s championship.
“Down are a very fit and athletic side. We put it up to them massively in the first half and we felt we could push on and win the game in the second half, but the goal after half time seemed to kill us off.
“I think it was just a bit of inexperience on our part, which is something we’ll improve on. Down have been building for the last couple of years and probably feel they can compete for an Ulster title. I thought it boded well for us that we were competitive even though we had that inexperience.
“Games are the only thing that’ll bring players on, especially in Fermanagh as we’re quite a young side. We only got three games in the last year. There’s only going to be three games in the league so that isn’t ideal.”
From the outside looking in, it seems that Ryan McMenamin’s team have a tough task on their hands to avoid back-to-back relegations as they’ve been pitted against Cavan, Derry and Longford in their regionalised league campaign. Those matches lead into their Ulster Championship quarter-final clash against Monaghan, who still have some top performers in their ranks even if the last couple of years haven’t gone well for them.
A team in decline? McGurn said: “People will say Monaghan are an ageing team but they have still have young players coming through. They have quality throughout the side, Conor McManus is still as good as ever and lads like Conor McCarthy, Ryan McAnespie and Niall Kearns are still young. I’m not sure what they think of us, but we know about the quality of their players anyway.”
McGurn plays his club football for Belnaleck, a team which has risen up the ranks of Fermanagh in the last few years, winning Junior and Intermediate Championships. They also took Derrygonnelly Harps to a replay in the semi-final of the Senior Championship in 2019, and McGurn, who’s grandfather Frank was a revered forward for club and county, says they hope they can get over the line at senior level in the coming years.
“Belnaleck are another team that’s fairly young and experienced. When we played Derrygonnelly two years ago we weren’t really expecting much from ourselves, but when we took it to a replay we realised we have the potential to win a Senior Championship so that’s the goal within the club.
“I’m happy that there’s another split season as I’ll be able to get a full run of it with the club. It was annoying before when we were in and out with the club, we’ve a few county players so we need everyone available.”
The Erne county were notoriously defensive during Rory Gallagher’s tenure in charge, albeit they managed to reach the Ulster final in 2018.
They’ve opened up a little since McMenamin took the post, but they still struggled for scores last season. McGurn says being a Fermanagh forward isn’t such a thankless task, and recognises that they won’t get far unless they have a strong defensive backboning the team.
“It’s not really what people make it out to be.
“Under Rory it was a bit extreme and that was obvious from watching on, but we know to win games we have to be defensively solid and that’s never going to change.
“I don’t feel we’re a defensive team as such – I think we try to play a similar style to most other teams. I know we’re to win games the forwards have to work just as hard as the defenders.”
McGurn also admits it’s disappointing that the Sigerson Cup was scrapped this year as it was a competition he very much enjoyed playing in last season.
“I am disappointed as I’m in my final year at Queen’s. I played last year and enjoyed it massively, we got our first win in a few seasons before losing in the quarters.
“That was my first season playing Sigerson, I opted out when I was in second year as I was new to the Fermanagh team, so I am disappointed that I’m missing out on that opportunity to have another go at it.”