The weather forecast was right: it rained all day in Clones yesterday. The forecasts about the match were right too, but we had to fight hard enough in the rain and the muck to grind out the two-point win. The playing conditions were woeful, on a heavy, leaden pitch where the ball refused to bounce and which made an error-ridden game a certainty to happen.
In such circumstances, a good start looked vital because scores should have been hard to find. So, when Fermanagh raced into a 1-2 to 0-1 lead after only ten minutes (and they should have scored at least one other goal before then), we looked in big trouble. Midfield (shorn of Brady and McGarritty) looked a disaster zone and Fermanagh’s quick, accurate passing enabled them to open up our defence at will. The fact that it was their All-Star full-back, Barry Owens, who waltzed through our backline to score the goal showed how lively and fluid they were. Our lads looked as if this was the last place in the world they wanted to be.
But, as is often the case, the goal conceded was a blessing in disguise as Mayo quickly realised their predicament and upped their workrate accordingly. Andy Moran moved out to an increasingly crowded midfield and stopped us hemorrhaging primary possession so, at last, we could start to attack ourselves. We went on to take complete control for the remainder of the half, reeling off six points without reply to reach the break two in front.
The only worry by then was the number of wides – we had clocked up half a dozen at that stage – but we seemed to be scoring for fun, with Conor Mort on fire and Campbell, Dillon and Trevor Mort scoring too. Correction – that wasn’t the only worry. Conor had, by then got his customary booking (for, I think, his customary bit of lip at the ref) but when he hauled down one of their backs as they tried to break out of defence soon after, it looked like an early bath was on the cards. This time, however, we got the benefit of dubious refereeing with Conor getting the black book waved at him and we could breathe again. That decision, given Conor’s performance, was instrumental in our claiming the points.
The second half was really messy. Fermanagh, knowing that defeat would mean certain relegation, battled hard and they continued to snap up plenty of loose ball around the middle. They couldn’t do anything with it, however, and, with far less ball, we nicked a few more points to edge further ahead. Eventually, they got a point from a free – after a 40 minute shut-out – and that signalled a more determined fight-back. They got as close as two points to us but no closer and so we ended up going home with the spoils.
On a day like yesterday, the result was everything and the win helps to keep us in the top four in the Division. We’re still third, level on points with Kerry but slightly behind them on the points difference. We’re not guaranteed Division 1 football next year but two more wins in our final three matches and we will be. Given the strong opposition in Division 1A (compared to 1B, where Westmeath and Louth lead the way – hello? Anyone at home?), this is good going.
Performance-wise, yesterday was hard to judge given the condition of the pitch and the incessant rain. Kenneth O’Malley did nothing wrong in goal and he’s a big lad with a monster kickout so Clarke could be warming the bench from now on. After the early wobble, the backs did okay. Kilcullen is obviously growing into the full-back role and BJP is settling nicely into the centre-back position. Both put in good performances as did Liam O’Malley and Keith Higgins in the corners. I like the look of Devenney – he took off a few times yesterday and seems to have plenty of speed but he’s also tenacious defensively. Gardiner was okay too.
The biggest criticism of the backline as a whole was that we tried to work our way out of defence with short handpasses, not the kind of game that gets you anywhere fast on a wet, boggy pitch. When we tried to alternate it with long ball the passes often went astray but, when we found the forwards, we quickly opened the Fermanagh backline up. We should really have got at least one goal but Niall Tinney was in cracking form between the sticks for them and managed to keep the ball out of the net more than once.
Midfield was a disaster zone. Nallen is transparently past it and was completely at sea there yesterday. Ger Brady tussled and fought beside him (he swapped places with Harte) but it was only when Andy Moran came out that we began to win any ball in the sector. With DB and Ronan out, we need to find a functioning midfield, and fast. I’m more than a little surprised that Johnno didn’t try out some other options in the area yesterday – was this because we haven’t any? What about Barry Moran and Seamus O’Shea?
Conor Mort was clearly the pick of the forwards, with seven points, four of which were high quality ones from play when we were in real need of scores. A welcome return to form for the younger Mort. Trevor played well too, one of the few who seemed to revel in the muck. He put himself about a lot and was involved in much of the play going forward. Andy Moran was excellent as well – he didn’t score (the only one of the starting six not to) but he did an enormous amount of work. Campbell, Brady and Dillon were all quieter but they all scored and that made the difference on the day.
None of the subs made any impact, apart from Heaney who got booked almost straight away, with the foul resulting in a pointed free for Fermanagh. Austie did nothing with the fair amount of ball that was pumped into him. His claims to a starting position look to be receding. Marty McNicholas came on for Harte in injury time but that was purely a tactic to run down the clock.
Positives and negatives, then. Midfield has to be sorted before the trip to Cork in two weeks time. A win there would be just great: it has to be viewed as winnable, given how crap Cork were against the Dubs but our record against Cork is poor and our returns from matches played down there is poorer still. Johnno said after yesterday’s game that “the league starts now” so we should be aiming to start with a win.