There can’t be many times when Fermanagh have gone into a match against Derry rated as clear favourites.
The bookies have the Erne men 1/2 on to get the better of the Oak Leafers, that despite them recording a good win over Offaly last weekend.
The Ernesiders are victims of their own success here. Only Tyrone have got the better of them this year, and their flawless start to the Division 3 league campaign has them marked out as early promotion contenders.
By contrast, new Derry manager Damian McErlain has got his reign off to a stuttering start. Shorn of his Slaughtneil contingent, Derry have struggled for form and went down to defeats against Westmeath and Longford.
What those sides had in common was a well-drilled game plan which left Derry stumped for answers when they approached the opposition 45.
The team coming to Brewster Park on Saturday evening is a side in transition, with McErlain looking to bring through the best of the minors who reached the All-Ireland final last year and meld them with some of the hardened campaigners back-boning the team.
A typical example of that is seen around the centre of the pitch where 19-year-old Newbridge starlet Conor Doherty has been lending a hand along with the likes of the mercurial veteran Emmett Bradley. Further back we have the experienced Kevin Johnston anchoring the defence with the youthful Ruairi Mooney offering energy and enthusiasm.
Derry’s strongest line is half back where Carlus McWilliams and Michael Bateson are the fulcrum of the team, breaking opposition momentum and spring-boarding attacks.
Perhaps the greatest example of McErlain giving youth its head is up front where the likes of Peter Hagan, Paudie McGrogan and Danny Tallon have tended to be favoured as starters ahead of established names like Mark Lynch and James Kielt.
One man who his holding his spot though is the ever-reliable Enda Lynn and that faith has seen him emerge as the side’s top scorer this season.
What side Damian McErlain goes with for the visit to Brewster is up for debate with so many positions still fluid.
If Derry are in transition though, Fermanagh are much closer to the finished article. There’s evidence of that in the free reliance stats. While Derry are still trying to figure out their attacking philosophy they are strongly dependent on frees for scores. The Ernesiders are a lot more sussed on that front and after ending the Pete McGrath era with 42.13 percent of scores coming from dead ball in 2017, that figure is now down to a much more dynamic 16.67 percent.
While supporters might bemoan the failure to really put a side to the sword this season, there is no debating the fact that Fermanagh have been able to get the scores when they’ve needed them.
There is a big tally in this team, but given the underfoot conditions it is unlikely to arrive until the ground firms up.
If Derry are struggling for inspiration in the attack, they are unlikely to get much charity from a Fermanagh side who showed after shipping three quick points against Sligo that they can reconfigure on the fly to smother attacking avenues.
In addition Fermanagh have the forward firepower to really hurt any side not tuned in to the task of tracking the flurry of runners.
The hosts have the equipment to make it four wins from four, but it’s worth remembering they also have motivation too.
A late late Conor McAtamney goal on the last day of the league in 2017 saw Derry snatch what had looked an unlikely victory at the death to condemn both themselves and Fermanagh to relegation.
That was a blow to the pride of this group of Fermanagh players, and they will be looking to repay it with interest on Saturday as they bid to return to the second tier at the first time of asking.
Posted: 7:00 pm February 23, 2018
Rory Gallagher’s men travel to Longford’s Pearse Park knowing whoever wins will be playing Division 2 football in 2019.
Column – Barry Owens – The Last Line With the postponement of Fermanagh’s game with Sligo it means that...