So at the midway break we have the peculiar, but gratifying sight of Fermanagh topping the Division 2 table. It’s a position built on the best defensive record in any of the four divisions.
On Sunday the Ernesiders travel to Letterkenny to take on a Donegal side who would have been most pundits pre-tournament picks for promotion. It’s an Ulster final rematch, but that will be very much a secondary consideration for both sides with the result of this game setting the tenor for remainder of the league campaign.
“There’s a huge prize for the winners of this game,” says Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher. “They’ll put a bit of distance between themselves and the bottom and give themselves a reasonable chance going forward.
“The really pleasing thing from our point of view is to contrast it with the first three games last year. The difference in the level of the games we’re playing with regards to quality, the physicality, the decision-making, the pace. We’re happy that we feel comfortable in this environment.
“It could be argued that we could have five or six points, there’s no point crying over spilled milk now, but I’m very pleased to see the players develop individually and collectively as a team.
We saw in the championship against Armagh and Monaghan that we could live in this environment, and that’s a big thing, to want to play at the highest level you can.”
After three quickfire league games in succession, Gallagher admits the break has come at an opportune time, allowing Fermanagh to carry out some running repairs and replenish stretched reserves.
“The league is fairly intense so you don’t get much of a chance to analyse your previous games. It’s a case of quick fixes between one game and another and you move on.
“We’ve a few players with wee niggles and we’ll be looking to get them right. Then there’s other players coming in at various levels of fitness and we’ll be increasing the training load for them.”
Getting players back to full power is critical for Fermanagh given the thin resources the county is working from. After aggravating an injury against Kildare Eoin Donnelly is going to be touch and go for Sunday. Meanwhile, of the starting 15 of the Ulster final meeting between these sides last year Pat Cadden, Barry Mulrone and Mickey Jones are unavailable, while Che Cullen has been absent with work and Paul McCusker is struggling for fitness.
Rory Gallagher, pictured below, is acutely aware of the personnel issues, but, unlike other managers on the inter-county scene, he refuses to harp on about players he’s missing. He continues to work hard to try and develop competition in the squad.
“We cannot spend time worrying about who’s not there. We just focus on the boys who are training every single night and enjoy their hunger and willingness to be better for Fermanagh and improve as footballers. That’s very rewarding. We’ve Jonny Cassidy, Tom Treacy, Ultan Kelm, Kevin McDonnell, Garvan Jones stepping up to the plate.
“We wanted to build a squad and create huge competition within the group. We feel that’s moving in that direction. Shane McGullion, Darragh McGurn, we’ve Conor McGee and Ruairí Corrigan to come back into things.
“We were aware of Che’s [Cullen] employment situation and that he wasn’t going to be here for a few games. Mickey [Jones] and Barry [Mulrone] have obviously had kids and we’ve been in conversation with them. We still feel they’ll get back in when things get sorted. It’s not something we didn’t know already. We feel we have a lot of good players who are hungry.”
Fermanagh table topping position has been built on defensive resilience. In three games they have given up just 19 scores, 3-16 in total. The downside is that the draws against Cork and Tipperary could easily have been victories if the shooting had just been a little more economical. Rory Gallagher dismisses the suggestion that the absences of a marquee forward weighing in with heavy tallies, as Seamus Quigley did last year, has proved a problem.
“A huge amount of Seamie’s scores were from placed ball. Last year we had issues scoring from play. That was in Division 3, we’re having issues scoring from play in Division 2, however we are creating far better chances. Against Kildare I felt [Aidan] Breeno should have had a goal, Ultan [Kelm] should have had a goal, there was another chance where a pass out to Conall [Jones] could have got us a goal.
“If you could finish with 14, 15 points on the board it would be easier to win the games. Our conversion rate from placed ball has probably cost us in that regard, but I do think Sean [Quigley] coming back to full fitness will help. He had a hamstring which left him totally deprived of training and kicking practice.
“While I’m concerned, I’m not overly concerned. It’s something the players are aware of and despite winning a couple of big games last year I felt our first half against Kildare was the best this team has played by a country mile.”
Sunday is an Ulster final rematch and, as with the Kildare game, Fermanagh will be looking to avenge a heavy championship drubbing last season. Donegal suffered a surprise defeat to Tipperary the last day out, but Gallagher knows this Tir Chonaill side better than most and he’s expecting them to come out with all guns blazing.
“I think Donegal have a huge amount of talented young, u23 players. You’ve the likes Ciaran Thompson who’s a wee bit older coming into his own. Ciaran’s a very good footballer. Obviously Ryan’s [McHugh] there, Eoghan Bán’s [Gallagher] back fit, Niall O’Donnell’s a classy player, Jamie Brennan is a player I know well and I’ve seen the way he’s developed. At times Jamie looks like being one of the top players in the country, he’s got lightening pace.
“Overall they’ve got great talent, we’re aware of that, but again we’ll be focusing on ourselves, just as we have been for the past three games.
“We feel it’s a winnable game, that’s the first thing. There’s a huge Letterkenny factor for Donegal that has been made something of. I was involved in a few displays there, and a few of the Donegal players who have called in with me for coffee have been quick to remind me that I have a worse record in Letterkenny than them because I missed out on a win in 2014 when I wasn’t involved.
“They’ve had a couple of tough days there, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with the pitch or anything like that, it’s just one of those things.
“Donegal have a great record in Ballybofey and Ballyshannon, but we can’t be depending on Letterkenny. Obviously we respect Donegal, but we will be focusing on ourselves and trying to get the right level of performance, hunger and intensity. If we can do that and get the right attitude I feel it’s a game, like all the games in this division, that is winnable.”