This preliminary-round tie ended in near darkness at Clones, the absence of floodlighting at St Tiernach’s Park surely becoming a pressing issue, especially with the ‘Super 8s’ soon coming to town, but there was light on the horizon for Malachy O’Rourke’s side.
No longer can they be labelled as a one-man show. Yes, Conor McManus still top-scored with 1-3, but others have joined him on the big stage. They had points of attack from everywhere. Colin Walshe kicked two nice first-half points, when the game was at its most competitive, while Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron picked off points of memorable quality.
Owen Duffy came off the bench and his three-point scoring burst in eight minutes at a crucial stage in the second half took the game away from Fermanagh.
“Owen Duffy came in and really made a mark,” said O’Rourke. “There is great competition for places, but he was probably unlucky not to start. That’s what you want from your subs, to make an impact, and he certainly did that.
“The fellas who started today had first chance at it, but the next day it opens up again and other fellas will stake a claim.
“We knew Fermanagh would be competitive and, in fairness, they’ve had a number of fellas missing through injury and so on, and it was tough to keep it going. We were just delighted to come out winners in the end.”
Many Fermanagh fans feared the worst, but their team battled well and were right in the game for 45 to 50 minutes, with Tomas Corrigan their go-to man.
Monaghan kicked 10 points in a row in a 17-minute spell as the second half fizzled out, after a lively and action-packed first half.
There were a couple of talking points, including a black card for Kieran Hughes for a deliberate trip on Erne goalscorer Ryan Lyons after just eight minutes.
However, the biggest flashpoint came just before half time, involving Conor McManus and Ryan McCluskey. The pair got tangled up as they fell to the ground and, reacting to McCluskey’s attempts to hold him back, McManus came close to standing on the player on the ground.
The Erne fans were up in arms and booed off ref Derek O’Mahoney at half time, but TV replays appeared to exonerate McManus, and Fermanagh boss McGrath insisted foul play is not in the Monaghan star’s play-book.
“I honestly didn’t see it, but it’s an irrelevance,” he said. “Conor McManus is not the kind of guy who would intentionally walk on someone.”
The sides were level six times in the first half, before Monaghan went in 1-8 to 1-6 ahead.
Erne goalkeeper Thomas Treacy diced with danger once too often with his short kick outs before landing one straight to Jack McCarron. He passed to McManus, who dummied Treacy to slot home after 14 minutes.
Fermanagh could have folded, but far from it. Paul McCusker ran at the Monaghan defence and found the unmarked Lyons, who’d drifted into the square and finished smartly to the far corner after 22 minutes.
Gradually, though, Monaghan’s firepower and class up front shone through.
“The first half went as you hoped it would, but they begun to get a grip on the game,” admitted McGrath. “Their intensity, their superior physicality and their movement was starting to cause us problems.
“Once they opened up the four or five point gap, everything was going their way and we simply couldn’t repel that. That’s what makes them the formidable team they are.
“Maybe our lack of depth was another thing.”
Two years ago he led Fermanagh to an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin via a fun run through the qualifiers. Can they do the same this time?
“If we get a half decent draw, then I think we can make progress again,” said McGrath. “It’s well within the players’ ability.
“We knew the scale of the challenge coming here, but I am seeing more positives than negatives.”
Monaghan next play Cavan in a first-round derby at Kingspan Breffni Park on June 11.
O’Rourke was pleased to get through this hurdle against his native county, but reckons a similar display won’t be enough the next day.
“We gave them too much space, they were able to come up the field very easy. In the second half we pushed up more and put them under pressure and won a few turnovers. We were able to capitalise inside, but at times we weren’t clinical enough. We have three weeks to prepare for Cavan and we know we have to improve. It’s going to be a real local derby. There’s never much between the teams. We played them in Iniskeen in the league and it was seven points all.”
Darren Hughes is still recovering from a knee injury and is half-way through an expected 10-week lay-off.
“The Cavan game is obviously going to come too early for him, but hopefully we can keep performing to give him a chance in the future to play in the Ulster championship,” said O’Rourke.
C McManus (1-3, 1 free), O Duffy (0-3, 1 free), C Walshe (0-2), C McCarthy (0-2), J McCarron (0-2, 1 free), K Hughes, K O’Connell, S Carey, N McAdam, D Malone, F Kelly, G Doogan, D Mone (0-1 each)
T Corrigan (0-5, 4 frees), R Lyons (1-0), S Quigley (0-2, 1 free), A Breen (0-2, 1 free), L Cullen, E Courtney (0-1 each)
R Beggan; F Kelly, D Wylie, R Wylie; C Walshe, V Corey, N McAdam; K Hughes, K O’Connell; G Doogan, S Carey, D Ward; C McCarthy, J McCarron, C McManus.
R McAnespie for Hughes (BC, 9), O Duffy for S Carey (42), D Malone for Ward (49), K Duffy for Corey (58), D Mone for Kelly (63), M Bannigan for McCarthy (68).
T Treacy; M Jones, C Cullen, C McManus; A Breen, R McCluskey, C Murphy; E Donnelly, L Cullen; B Mulrone, R Lyons, P McCusker; K Connor, S Quigley, T Corrigan.
R Jones for Connor (49), E Courtney (0-1) for Quigley (49), C Beacom for Lyons (58), D Keenan for McCusker (58)
Derek O’Mahony (Tipperary)