TO BORROW the words of a famous fictional Roman general: ‘Are you not entertained?’ Ulster has shone like a beacon in what has been a mediocre championship but never so bright as on Saturday evening.
The province’s capacity for the unexpected has ballooned with each week this summer and Fermanagh were only too willing to play their part at Healy Park with the kind of storyline that pops up once in a generation. Literally.
Thanks to this defeat of the league champions and provincial favourites, the Erne County will feature in the Ulster final for the first time since Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland side bewitched the entire island in the 1982 World Cup.
Along with Wicklow, Fermanagh are the only county never to have won a senior provincial title but even that outlandish statistic doesn’t convey fully the fairytale of their season.
Just over 12 months ago, the embers of that unlikely run through to the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final finally seemed to have been extinguished after seven losses in seven miserable league games. And yet look at them now.
Syl Doyle’s final whistle saw the emotion, and what seemed like half the population of Fermanagh, spill out onto the pitch. It beggars belief what the scenes would be like if they go on to actually claim the Anglo-Celt Cup.
“There will be a lot of talk about that now but we are not worried about the past,” said goalkeeper Ronan Gallagher. “We will worry about this year. We have just been trying to win games and there was genuinely very little talk about it before this game.”
Gallagher shrugged off the suggestion with a sheepish shake of the head but the 28-year old teacher was the catalyst for the side’s victory with his penalty save 15 minutes in.
Fermanagh had started facing a vicious and bitter wind and suffered accordingly. Eoin Bradley’s goal after 12 minutes was the chief building block in Derry’s construction of a five-point lead.
Then Marty McGrath bundled Niall McCusker over in the penalty area. Fears of a rout rippled around the ground only for Gallagher to deny Conleth Gilligan a goal with what may well prove to be the save of the season.
“People have been saying it is luck and all that but it genuinely is a lottery. Before the game I thought Paddy (Bradley) would be hitting them and then Conleth stepped up. I remembered him scoring one as a minor and it checked out.”
The rot had been checked. Fermanagh scored the next four points and went in at the break only two points adrift and with the elements to their back to come.
“It wasn’t enough,” admitted Derry manager Paddy Crozier. “We let them back into the game and that’s the long and the short of it.”
The second-half was a procession with Fermanagh dictating the pace and Derry losing all semblance of shape. With four minutes to play, the favourites had managed just a pointed free in that second period.
In the end, substitute Barry Owens, who underwent heart surgery in January, was the difference, scoring a goal after 30 seconds on the field to give his team the lead.
“It has probably been harder for my family looking on because the operation I had was probably a lot more complicated than people were let know,” he said. “Luckily enough, I got through it. I’m fit to play on now, thank God.” By the way, the year Owens was born? 1982.
Scorers for Derry: E Bradley 1-1, P Bradley 0-3 (2f), C Gilligan 0-2 (1f), R Wilkinson 0-2f, M McIver 0-1.
Scorers for Fermanagh: R Keenan 0-4 (3f), B Owens 1-0, E Maguire 0-2, D Kelly 0-1, T McElroy 0-1, M McGrath 0-1, L McBarron 0-1, M Little 0-1.
DERRY: B Gillis; K McGuckin, K McCloy, F McEldowney; G O’Kane, N McCusker, M McIver; J Conway, J Diver; M Lynch, P Murphy, E Muldoon; C Gilligan, Paddy Bradley, E Bradley.
Subs: M McGoldrick for McEldowney (35), Patsy Bradley for Murphy (45), P Cartin McIver (59), C Devlin for Lynch (65), R Wilkinson for Diver (67).
FERMANAGH: R Gallagher; S Goan, S McDermott, P Sherry; D Kelly, R McCluskey, T McElroy; M McGrath, M Murphy; C McElroy, J Sherry, R Keenan; E Maguire, L McBarron, M Little.
Subs: S McCabe for McBarron (41), B Owens for J Sherry (53), S Lyons for T McElroy (71).
Referee: S Doyle (Wexford).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved