By Niall Gartland
FOURTH time’s the charm? Declan McCusker would be the first to admit his record in Croke Park matches isn’t anything worth writing home about.
There was the Division Four final defeat to Wicklow back in 2012 – not their finest hour with no disrespect towards the Garden County. Two Division Three final defeats to Armagh in 2015 and 2018 respectively, and their memorable day out against Jim Gavin’s Dubs in an All-Ireland quarter-final in the summer of 2015.
The Fermanagh captain is obviously hoping for a different outcome when they take on Cavan for the second time in a week in Saturday’s Division Three showdown on Saturday at Croke Park. Indeed, McCusker has never won any silverware in county colours so this is a big opportunity for him and the rest of the team.
“I’m looking forward to it. There’s a fair amount of fellas on the panel who have never played in Croke Park, then there’s the young lads who won a Hogan Cup a few years back. They’re the only players on the panel who have ever won a game in Croke Park, for the footballers anyway.
“My experience has always been losses so it’d be nice to get a win and a bit of silverware.”
It says something about the strength-in-depth on the Fermanagh panel that McCusker, after shaking off a calf injury sustained prior to the league, has been limited to a substitute role since making his recovery a few weeks back. He’s not throwing the toys out of the pram, however.
“I’m fit again but I can’t get into the team at the moment. The boys are playing well and winning games. It’s difficult to change up a winning team so I just have to keep my head down and see where it takes me.”
The Ederney clubman continued: “It shows how strong a squad we have. It’s as strong as we’ve had in a long time. There’s lads every week who aren’t even making the 26 who could do a job on the starting team. It’s brilliant in that respect, we’re really pushing each other on in training.”
It’s been a really memorable season to date for the Ernesiders. Last-ditch victories over Down and Antrim paved the way for their successful promotion push – though it didn’t always make for easy watching from the stands.
“Some of the games were a bit manic alright. It was probably enjoyable to play in but tough to watch from the stands, I was nearly tearing my hair out.
“We’ve tried to learn from those games, we probably should’ve won some of them more comfortably than we did. We’ve also rode our luck at times but you need that as well, and getting a few wins under our belts earlier in the league helped us pick up a bit of momentum.”
The players are doing the business on the pitch but that doesn’t happen by chance and McCusker singled out their new coach Ronan O’Neill for praise. O’Neill, who stepped away from the Tyrone panel in the wake of their All-Ireland triumph in 2021, is bringing all his knowledge to bear on the Fermanagh footballers.
“Ronan’s new to the set up. He’s very young, he’s younger than me actually but he’s confident. All the boys have nothing but great things to say about him. When he talks he’s one of those boys you listen to, he’s direct and there’s no waffle. Despite being such a young coach he brings a lot of experience from being on the Tyrone panel for so long.”
Characterised as a defensive team for years, Fermanagh have made strides on the attacking front. Sean Quigley is as dangerous as ever, Aidan Breen is in good form and younger stars Darragh McGurn and Ultan Kelm are playing extremely well. Their defence has also been strong but they’re conceding more goals than they’d like.
“Our scoring has been good. We’ve conceded that many goals that we’ve needed to score enough to overcome that and we’ve done that so far. Defensively there’s things we can work on though we were a bit unlucky to concede a few goals off the post. If we improve in that respect and keep our forwards ticking over, hopefully we can have a good long summer.”