Coming back from the brink

FEW counties have warmed to the underdogs status more than Fermanagh but their captain Barry Owens doesn’t find it as comforting right now.

He’s not playing possum when he talks down the advantage of coming into tomorrow’s Ulster quarter-final against Derry under the radar. The haemorrhaging of players during the league strike naturally contributed to that. If he is to believe the bookies, John O’Neill’s side haven’t a hope.

“I think New York were better odds to a win a match than we were at one stage,” shrugged Owens.

With 16 of the panel having no championship experience, he’s under no illusions just how difficult it will be for the visitors at Celtic Park.

“When you add up the rest of the lads’ championship experience, I probably have as much on my own!

“It’s a big step up for a lot of them but I suppose it has to happen some time.”

March’s madness, which saw 11 players make themselves unavailable to O’Neill, was the most trying episode in Owen’s career. The captain played the diplomatic card but was torn between his commitment to Fermanagh and friends with whom he had played alongside for most of 10 years.

“You want the best players playing for Fermanagh. You can’t change their minds once they wanted to go.

“We had dropped a couple of points and I suppose people thought we weren’t going anywhere and they’d be better spending time with their own work and that. Like, Shane Lyons is starting his own business. James (Sherry) got injured and felt he wasn’t going to get back.

“That was the word on the street anyway! What can you do?”

What frustrated Owens was the amount of coverage given to the rift in the media.

“It was more annoying than anything,” recalled the two-time All Star. “It was bringing the county down into the doldrums. We were in the media for all the wrong reasons. It could have been handled a lot better. The attention, especially from the southern media, was crazy. There were players left Cork and there was frig all said about it. They had their own reasons for leaving. I have played football with some of those boys for 10 years and a lot of them since ‘04. There is no bad feeling, we are still friends.”

Owens isn’t afraid to suggest there was fault on both sides. “There was probably bad communication between management and players and players and management and everyone really.”

Personally, Owens found it difficult to reconcile with the idea the team that reached the Ulster final only three years ago was being decimated.

“It’s hard as one of the more experienced players it’s hard to bring the rest of the lads on and keep everyone together.

“I suppose I know how Shane McDermott, Tom Brewster and Raymond Gallagher felt in 2004 when there was a big decimation that year too.

“ It’s part and parcel of Fermanagh football.”

That year turned out to be a remarkable one as Fermanagh reached an All-Ireland semi-final, pushing Mayo to a replay, but it would be more than wishful thinking for a repeat this year. Derry will show no mercy. The Teemore man won’t hear anything of their injury plight. “There was a stage a couple of week ago where we had two or three fit defenders. I’ll take that with a pinch of salt.”

So where are the positives? “We blooded a lot of players. Bar the Longford game, we weren’t outclassed in any (league) match. Against Wicklow we were winning with two minutes to go, Leitrim got a 13-yard free to level and Roscommon got a goal in the last minute. It’s just small things we have to work on.”

Owens (29) has stuck around to test himself against the best players.

“The only way you do that is inter-county level. And what’s the point being here if you don’t think you can win it?”

Fermanagh: J McGrath; J Woods, B Owens, M Jones; M O’Brien, H Brady, B Mulrone; K Cosgrove, R Jones; T O’Flanaghan, B Óg Maguire P Ward, T Corrigan, D Kille, S Quigley.

Picture: SITTING PRETTY: Barry Owens knows many of his Fermanagh team-mates lack experience but believes they need to sample a big game and “it has to happen some time”. Picture: Inpho

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