McCusker takes captaincy in his stride

By Niall Gartland

PROMOTION is a big target for the Fermanagh footballers this year, but their captain Declan McCusker says playing in the Tailteann Cup certainly wouldn’t be a booby prize.

The Erne County can avoid the de factor ‘B’ competition if they achieve promotion out of Division Three, though McCusker sees many plus points to the Tailteann Cup, a competition that achieved, in a sense, legitimacy with the way it played out last season in its first year of existence.

McCusker has played in some glamour ties down the years, including a 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin at a rammed Croke Park and an Ulster final defeat to Donegal in 2018, but the Omagh-based primary school teacher is a pragmatic sort at the same time.

“I can understand why it’s frustrating to miss out on the All-Ireland Championship, but at the end of the days there’s about five or six teams with a realistic chance of winning it, and unfortunately at the minute we’re not one of them.

“If you can compete with those big teams it’s only going to bring you on, but at the same time the Tailteann Cup brings the rest of us a chance not only to win silverware but to play in Croke Park, which is always an ambition of mine as it isn’t something that comes around every year.

“It’s a huge target and hopefully we’ll get to play in Croke Park at some stage this season whether it’s a league final or the Tailteann Cup final, and there’s a few other incentives like a team holiday that would be great to get. I think the Tailteann Cup was a great success last year and if don’t we get promoted it’s certainly something we’ll be setting our sights on.”

The Ederney clubman was handed the captaincy last year by their new manager Kieran Donnelly, but it hasn’t particularly affected how he conducts himself – lead by example and the rest will follow, whether you’re wearing the captain’s armband or not.

“It was a big honour when I got the news, I probably wasn’t expecting it, but it hasn’t changed my role much. When you’re one of the older boys on the team and have been there a long time, you’re probably seen as a leader anyway. You’re going to try to set an example for the younger lads regardless so it doesn’t change much. I get dragged out to the odd event but I don’t think the players are expecting me to give big speeches. It’s just about leading by example and carrying yourself properly.”

Whether they feature in next year’s Tailteann Cup or not, the Erne footballers will want to give Ulster a rattle as they go in search of that elusive provincial medal. They’ve a tough draw – they take on Monaghan in the quarter-finals with Derry or Tyrone awaiting in the last four, but they can take heart from how they performed against the Red Hands in this year’s championship.

They played extremely well in the first half, but a sublime individual goal by Conor Meyler was a bit of a sucker-punch and they faded after the break. Still, there were positives to take from the game.

“The first half was very good but the second half turned out to be bitterly disappointing. We probably should’ve gone in ahead at half time but the goal changed things. It’s difficult enough trying to upset the odds when you’re an underdog so it left us facing into an uphill battle.

“Conor McKenna made a massive difference when he came on as well, and we were dealing with a few injuries at the time, so we didn’t have the strength-in-depth to counteract the subs Tyrone were bringing on.

“Hopefully this year we’ll have a stronger panel and we’ll be better placed to deal with that kind of thing against the bigger teams.”

McCusker’s club Ederney won their first Fermanagh Senior Championship title in more than five decades with victory over Derrygonnelly in 2020. The Harps bounced back in 2021, and on the whole it seems like a much more well-rounded club scene with Enniskillen Gaels the latest winners of the senior title. Not only does it make for a more appetising prospect from a spectator’s perspective, but it can only benefit the county team going forward.

“Derrygonnelly obviously dominated for a long time but I’ve seen a big change in club football with other teams improving. We put it up to Derrygonnelly for a while and then in the last year there were five or six teams who could have won it.

“Enniskillen are obviously very strong, Derrygonnelly’s still there and the likes of Kinawley and Belnaleck are getting stronger.

“We have a good team so its a far more competitive championship than a few years ago.We also had a group stage this year so every team had a few games and that can only make things better at county level as well.”

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