No sooner have we shaken off the dust of 2016 than the new season is upon us. Fermanagh have become used to making steady strides forward under Pete McGrath, but this McKenna Cup sees him with a fair job of work on his hands.
There has been a considerable turn over in personnel in the off season. Niall Cassidy, Marty O’Brien and Damian Kelly all decided to hang up the boots, while Richard O’Callaghan, Ciaran Flaherty and Conall Jones will be unavailable this term. McGrath will also have to navigate the McKenna cup without key attacking firepower, with injury ruling out Sean Quigley and Ruairí Corrigan. Elsewhere talismanic midfielder Ryan Jones is undergoing rehab for a hip problem and is touch and go for the start of the National League, while Ryan Lyons is recovering from a back issue, but should see action later in the McKenna cup. Others unavailable include James McMahon who will be lining out for Queen’s, and St Patrick’s Pat Cadden and Erne Gaels Barry McCann who have departed the panel altogether.
Counter-balancing those departures Lee Cullen and Eddie Courtney are both back for the first time since being regular starters in 2014. And, as usual, the McKenna cup also features its share of fresh faces. Half forward Cian McManus saw five minutes in last year’s seasonal curtain-raiser, but having starred as DCU captured the 2016 Freshers A All-Ireland title there will be great hopes that 2017 will be the year the Teemore man makes his mark on the senior inter-county stage.
Another attacker who will be looking to make his mark in the absence of more established names is Tommy McCaffrey, the young sharp-shooter having finished the Fermanagh SFC as joint top scorer with 0-12. Maguiresbridge defender Ciaran Corrigan is also new to the panel, while Conor Murphy’s 1-1 in Kinawley’s IFC winning campaign has earned the wing back a call up to county colours.
Nevertheless the losses can’t be under-stated and it is perhaps up front where they present most significant problems. Almost 85 percent of Fermanagh’s scores came from full and half forward in 2016 and losing key operators in that sector is a concern.
“Ruairí Corrigan is out for the next couple of months,” said manager Pete McGrath. “Sean Quigley is back doing a certain amount of pitch work and might possibly see action in the last McKenna Cup match, we’ll just need to see where his fitness levels are, and obviously Ryan Jones at centre half forward won’t be around for the first couple of matches either.
“But we have a lot of lads coming in, Tom McCaffrey’s one of them. Eddie Courtney has trained exceptionally well after an injury stricken couple of years. Daniel Teague has been training very well. James Duffy, Eoin McManus and Kane Connor are all possibilities in the half forward line, so there are options.
“Daryl Keenan is not that far away from playing either, although he won’t be available on Sunday. You would love to have Ruairí and Sean available, but there are choices there. We have to try a couple of things and people will get opportunities and that’s what the Dr McKenna Cup is about.
“But you are right, the shape the forward line will take come the National League is problematic at the moment. We have lot of very strong, experienced defensive players, good midfield players and when one or two forwards are unavailable you might look around and say there’s a bit of a gap there. It might seem like the from the outside, but I don’t think it is. In effect it’s just a case of us coming to terms with the options that are there.”
Given the attacking situation there will be excitement about the potential return of Daryl Keenan to county colours. McGrath says that isn’t far off.
“This past couple of months Daryl has done good rehab work with James Melarkey, our physio. He took full participation in a pitch session at the weekend and what he needs now is more intense pitch work and then matches. All of those things are on the agenda for him and he’s looking very enthusiastically and positively at getting back into the full cut and thrust of inter-county football. He looks a talented player and hopefully he’ll come through and contribute to his full potential and if he does that it’ll be a big benefit to the team.”
Also on the plus side of the balance sheet Chris Snow has committed for another season. In addition Ryan McCluskey and Tiarnan Daly have returned after long lay-offs with injury and Pete McGrath has confirmed the duo will see action in Clones.
“Both of them have done a good deal of the training and they both need game time to get them back up to speed. I would say both will see some time against Monaghan on Sunday,” said the Erne boss.
That meeting with Malachy O’Rourke’s men is a foretaste of the summer’s championship clash. The sides lining out for those meetings are unlikely to bear much relation to one another, but McGrath doesn’t intend to go with a totally unorthodox selection on Sunday.
“Of the three matches in the McKenna Cup Monaghan (this Sunday) looks the most formidable. It’s in Clones, they’re an experienced, battle-hardened team. I’m sure they will be experimental to an extent, so will we. But we will still have a core of experience in our team because in order to see the best of inexperienced players you need some experienced men there to guide them and stabilise the thing. If you were to put out a purely experimental team I think it would do nobody any favours.”
Looking ahead to the league, now less than a month away, McGrath is unambiguously targeting promotion.
“I certainly feel that the team is capable of getting promotion from division two. I think a number of teams in division two could legitimately make the same claim. It’s going to be highly competitive, with a lot of very good teams it. We’ve four away matches, but sometimes away matches, particularly if they’re overnight stays can be positive experiences for the squad.
“There’s nothing there to fear, and that’s why you want to be in the upper echelons of the league, to get matches against these teams and to pit yourself against the best. That’s what we’ll do and we’ll do it with confidence. We have to look positively at the prospects of the league and I know that we are as capable of winning that division as any of the other teams in it.”
Fermanagh’s Dr McKenna Cup squad v Monaghan – Sunday 2pm at St Tiernach’s Park – Ref: Noel Mooney (Cavan)
Christopher Snow, Aidan Breen, Che Cullen, Cián McManus, Ciaran Corrigan, Conor P Murphy, Danny Teague, Declan McCusker, Eddie Courtney, Eoin Donnelly, Eoin McManus, James Allen, James Duffy, Kane Connor, Lee Cullen, Thomas Treacy, Mickey Jones, Paddy Reihill, Patrick McGovern, Paul McCusker, Ryan Hyde, Ryan McCluskey, Tiarnan Daly, Tom Clarke, Tomás Corrigan, Tommy McCaffrey.