AS earnestly as we in Mayo crave a third All-Ireland title, so do Fermanagh people burn passionately for their first Ulster success. On four occasions the Erne County reached the provincial final and lost ... twice to Cavan and twice to Armagh, the last in a replay in 2008.
When they arrived in Markievicz Park in 2003 to cross swords with Mayo in the fourth round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers, they had already dismissed Cavan and Meath.
It had been the highest point of Fermanagh achievement.
Now they faced a Mayo feeling their own way through the championship but with a graph far higher in general opinion, and predicted to win without much effort.
Not for the first time had Mayo stumbled into a mental trap. Their defeat to the northerners in the league the previous year (2002) at Charlestown was shrugged off as of no consequence since Mayo had already qualified for the play-offs.
This at Markievicz Park would be different. Knockout was the consequence of defeat. But knocked out they were. Fermanagh dictated the vital sectors, and although Mayo rallied near the end, they did not deserve to win. Their mind had played tricks with them.
It was an occasion also notable for the inclusion of three Mortimer brothers — Kenneth, Trevor and Conor — in the Mayo side. Trevor’s goal in the 63rd minute threatened to spoil the party for Fermanagh, who had dominated the play but they held out for one-point win.
That was 13 years ago, and lining out at left half-forward for Mayo was Alan Dillon, who has straddled the chasm of the years with depthless dedication and resilience.
Among the subs were Andy Moran and goalkeeper David Clarke, all three still remarkably vibrant and offering significant contributions to Stephen Rochford’s cause.
The following year (2004) the two counties were forced to lock horns again, this time in the All-Ireland semi-final, Fermanagh beginning to believe that the Sam Maguire might be a more feasible acquisition than the Anglo-Celt Cup.
The air reverberated with effort. Mayo’s hopes balanced unsteadily after wing forward James Gill was sent to the line early in the second half. Somehow they managed to wring a draw from their instability, and six days later they were back in Croke Park to finally settle the issue.
Mayo, with David Heaney at full-back, James Nallen at centre half-back, Ciaran McDonald, Conor Mortimer and Dillon in attack, eked out a victory by two points, but were walloped by Kerry in the final.
Since that meeting Mayo have won their two last league confrontations, and Fermanagh are still searching for that first Ulster title. But shrewdly managed by Pete McGrath, they are on the rise again, and last year reached the quarter-final of the championship again, losing to the eventual All-Ireland winners Dublin.
In the meantime Mayo’s All-Ireland pilgrimage continues, more shakily this season than in any of the previous five. Having scrapped so hard for so long, all of those near misses, the joyous journeys that ended so tortuously close to the top must have come back to haunt them in their defeat to Galway.
Was it all in vain? Have the old demons found a way back into Mayo heads? Was that a smile of disdain Bernard Brogan wore looking out from the back cover of the Connacht semi-final programme?
We won’t have to wait long for an answer. Unlike the last day – when they stood back and let Galway dictate the trend of the game – their starts during Connacht supremacy conveyed conviction. You could judge that their heads were right from the beginning and in harmony with legs and lungs. They earned what they won.
Fermanagh are outsiders once again, but Mayo this time may not feel as comfortable in the role of firm favourites as they seemed in the semi-final. How they start may determine their attitude, how hurt they have been, how eager to atone.
Big games needed from ‘big two’
THERE will be no shortage of advice for Stephen Rochford in structuring a winning team. And whether he employs Kevin McLoughlin in the sweeper’s role again will depend on his own convictions, whether that and the transfer of Keith Higgins to the forward line are more than profitable gambles.
The unexpected implosion of midfield against Galway was a big factor in the failure of the Mayo plan. Being outplayed in that sector for much of the 70 minutes had not been contemplated. If he had taken up position in front of the half-back line rather than behind it, as he was most of the time, would McLoughlin have been more productive?
In trying to lay a foundation for a possible upset, Fermanagh will target midfield, where Eoin Donnelly and Richard O’Callaghan are tough and competitive opponents.
Following the black-carding of O’Callaghan in their win over Wexford, the manager moved Ryan Jones from centre half-forward to midfield, where he also performed with energy and enterprise.
If their club performances are an indication, Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea are ready to lead the fight-back from the centre. And fit-again Barry Moran is also an option.
The Mayo defence will most likely be on similar lines to that against Galway. In place of Ger Cafferkey, Kevin Keane was positive and composed. Seán Quigley at full-forward will provide a stiffer test, but the Westport man is adapting with some confidence to opponents with diverse skills.
A fair old scrap will ensue between Ryan Jones and Lee Keegan or Colm Boyle at centre back, and in each of the corner spots, Ruairí and Tomás Corrigan are prolific scorers.
But once again the attention of the Fermanagh defence will dwell mainly on two central figures in the Mayo forward line. Aidan O’Shea and team captain Cillian O’Connor symbolise Mayo success. Together they emit accuracy, guile and muscle, and if they are off colour, the team as a whole seems also to suffer.
In studying Galway’s win, that observation will not have escaped wily Pete McGrath. So the two Mayo stars are already marked men, and will have to devise measures to beat that trap.
More rapid off-loading by Aidan with perhaps Cillian starting at corner forward (where he has played some of his best football) might help unsettle whatever strategy Fermanagh have conceived.
Of course, the path to victory does not rest there. We place our hopes, too, in the leadership that Com Boyle, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons and Jason Doherty generally transmit. Full engagement of all is paramount if history is not to be revisited.
If Mayo are to regain their pre-Galway lustre, if they are what many outside the county think they still are – the team that offers the greatest challenge to Dublin’s domination – let them show it on Saturday.