Wednesday 26 October 2016

Pete McGrath: Fermanagh not here to just defend - we'll have a go at Dublin

Parking the bus with 15 men and losing by a point is not the way forward for Fermanagh, says manager

Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath
Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath
Tomás Corrigan had a marvellous game for Fermanagh last week

Here's the good news for all you football romantics who fear that Fermanagh will try and do a Derry on it …

"You could get 15 men back and Dublin could win the game five-four," Pete McGrath muses. "To me, that would be a nonsense. You have to go out and try and win it yourself."

Maybe we're being a tad unfair on Derry but you get our drift: they didn't just go ultra-defensive against Dublin in the league last March, they went Jim McGuinness to the power of two … and after 62 minutes the game was tied at four points apiece. Zzzzzzzzz …

Then their Croke Park hosts contrived the most remarkable scoring riposte known to man: they hit four points in an eight-minute frenzy to win by 0-8 to 0-4. Not quite five-four, but pretty close.

"The death of Gaelic football," Jarlath Burns famously tweeted on the night.


Pete McGrath, that wily supremo who led Down to a brace of All-Ireland titles in 1991 and '94, is back in the big-time of August championship football. The fact that he has achieved this target with Fermanagh adds lustre to the achievement.

The flip-side of leading a relative minnow into the shark-infested waters of the All-Ireland series is that you could be devoured whole. That is what a majority of pundits have been predicting all week. McGrath has the onerous task of ensuring that doesn't happen while playing against a ticking clock: just one week to prepare for Everest.

READ MORE: No Blues for Pete McGrath over Dublin job that nearly was

In theory, it should help that Fermanagh have been fine-tuning their defensive system all season … unlike Westmeath who had just a fortnight to embrace the tactical nuances of 'the blanket' and still frustrated the Dubs for close to 40 minutes.

Still, it never threatened to be more than mere damage-limitation. McGrath fully appreciates the multiple advantages held by Dublin over his adopted Ernesiders … and yet he speaks like a manager with complete faith in his system, in his players, even in the possibility of the 'impossible'.

At the Fermanagh press night in Enniskillen, McGrath has just been asked whether he can draw encouragement from watching some of Dublin's previous struggles against defensive structures (think of Donegal last August, Tyrone and Derry last March).

"Practically any team - if they're faced with an iron curtain of defence - will take quite a while to get through it, unless they get a couple of early goals and that might open the floodgates," he replies.

READ MORE: Jim Gavin can't see himself serving as long as the 'iconic' Pete McGrath

"The Dublin forward line is very potent. And you have to realise that you're going to have to put a defensive structure in place that hopefully will frustrate that. By the same token, you can't rob yourself of the opportunity to do damage at the other end.

"There is that balance you're trying to strike, between being defensively sound and looking at the thing pragmatically - but you can't suddenly become a different team next Sunday from what we were last Saturday. I don't think that's physically or psychologically possible."

This Sunday's quarter-final can't merely be about stopping Dublin's marquee men: Fermanagh must maximise their own chances (however infrequent) in the scoring zone.

"As you go on further in any competition, obviously your opposition becomes more conscious of what you've got. And that's where the strength of the team - as a team - comes into play," McGrath surmises.

"Tomás (Corrigan) for example had a marvellous game last week and he had a good game against Roscommon as well. Seán (Quigley) obviously just wasn't as accurate as he normally is … but that could all change the next day. And some other player, be it Ruairí (Corrigan) or Paul McCusker or somebody else, could step out of the shadows and do something which, for him, is unprecedented.

"All great teams need that situation whereby, when key men are being neutralised, others can do the things that are needed. But we've a lot of good players and if Dublin succeed in neutralising them all, I would say fair play to them - but I don't think they will."

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