So Saturday evening sees Fermanagh take to the field in the first final of Pete McGrath’s reign. The county are undoubtedly there on form with the pain of a narrow championship defeat to Laois last year being used to good effect.
They upped their physical preparation over the closing months of 2014 and that has borne fruit in the shape of a promising McKenna cup campaign and a dominant run through NFL Division 3.
But while Croke Park will certainly add a sprinkle of stardust to the occasion, the familiarity of the opposition mean Fermanagh are unlikely to be stage-struck on the big day.
The Ernesiders faced Armagh under lights in a bruising encounter in the Athletic Grounds in the fourth round of the league and needed a Ryan Jones point with the last kick of the game to grab a share of the points.
“That game was a typical Ulster championship match,” said Jones. “The intensity level in that game was different to anything we experienced throughout the league. We started poorly and the conditions were tricky, especially in the first half when we were playing into a gale force breeze. But I think in games like that you can’t afford to just play for spells, you have to be in top form from the start. That’s something we realise we’re going to have to bring into the match in Croke Park. We’re have to be going hard at it from the beginning.”
Indeed, there were plenty of lessons learned that cold night in the Orchard. Lessons that helped Fermanagh see their promotion campaign to a successful conclusion. Now they will be trying to use those lessons to best Armagh and put some rare national silverware in the Brewster Park trophy cabinet.
“You want to try and play to your strengths and that’s something we’ve been working on in training,” said Jones. “We’ll be seeing aspects of our game that we feel need to stick to and aspects of Armagh’s strengths we maybe need to stay away from, whether it’s their size and physicality. We have to deal with that with the right approach.
“But as well as that Armagh have quality players in their forward line, Jamie Clarke and the likes. We’re going have to work on them and, if at all possible, make sure that they don’t have as big an influence on the game as they would like.”
One incalculable is the Croke Park effect. How Fermanagh come to grips with the peculiar dynamic of the Big House will likely have a big bearing on where the garlands ultimately rest.
“It’s Croke park and it’s not somewhere Fermanagh teams have been that often, this group of players hasn’t been there. Armagh, even last year in their All-Ireland run, have more experience of playing there so we’re just going to have to make sure that we don’t become overawed by the situation and that, mentally, we’re focused and that nothing takes us by surprise,” said Jones.
Pete McGrath has been something of a lucky general. This game has given Fermanagh valuable focus in their championship preparations. In Armagh, it also offers a high tempo game against Ulster opposition which will serve as a perfect rehearsal room ahead of the clash with Antrim at the end of May.
“It’s an extra game, which is brilliant, but there’s something to play for,” said Jones. “Both teams will be going full tilt and that’s perfect preparation going into an Ulster championship match four or five weeks later. It’s a league final against Ulster opposition which also makes it beneficial. Armagh are going to be similar to Antrim and the rest of the Ulster teams in that they’re all very physical and play with numbers behind the ball and break at speed. In that sense we are delighted with the extra game, but it’s a final so we’re not just there to get an extra game before the Antrim match, we’re there to win it and that will be the mindset going down on Saturday.”
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