‘Enniskillen opener whets appetite for Ulster Championship feast’

It may have arrived a little earlier than usual, but the Ulster Championship is up and running once again.

Admittedly, it felt a little strange packing half an Easter egg for Saturday’s trip to Enniskillen, but the excitement was palpable upon arrival at Brewster Park. After all, neighbors Tyrone were in town for their first championship game since winning the All-Ireland in September.

It was a funny old start to the year for Tyrone. In their first season in possession of Sam Maguire since 2009, the Red Hands have had to contend with a raft of departures from the panel, a miserable Dr McKenna Cup campaign and a topsy-turvy Division One adventure during which they flirted with the ignominy of relegation.

Their status as overwhelming favorites against Fermanagh was untouched, but given the Ulster Championship’s penchant for delivering landscape-altering upsets, it would have been reckless to wholly discount the Ernemen’s ability to rip up the script.

And 22 minutes into the provincial curtain-raiser, it looked as though Kieran Donnelly’s side sensed a gilt-edged chance to do just that as they chased a first championship win over the Red Hands since 1982.

They started impressively. Having seen the minor team battle to a 2-9 to 1-9 win over Down in their own Ulster preliminary round game, Fermanagh kicked four scores during an energetic eight-minute spell to establish a three-point lead at 0-5 to 0 -2.

Conor Meyler
Conor Meyler’s 33rd-minute goal helped Tyrone lead by a point at half-time against Fermanagh

Fermanagh were playing some eye-catching stuff, too. After Sean Quigley’s ’45 restored parity, Ryan Lyons, Ciaran Corrigan and Ryan Jones engineered a goal chance for Conall Jones, who instead swiped a right-footed effort over the bar.

Lyons then tapped over a free before slotting a beauty between the posts from the left.

It was still early, but Tyrone’s sluggish start offered the home fans hope that their side were capable of something special, a result that would have sent shockwaves across the sport.

But the Red Hands have a handy knack for digging themselves out of a hole, and while they were far from firing on all cylinders, they stubbornly refused to let Fermanagh build on their promising start.

Indeed, the first half stirred memories of Tyrone’s Ulster opener last year. Facing then champions Cavan in the quarter-final at Healy Park, the Red Hands didn’t have it all their own way and trailed 0-7 to 0-6 after 25 minutes, but were able to rely on the brilliance of Darren McCurry, who kicked 0-7 in the first half to ensure they led at the break and ultimately got the job done.

Here, the Edendork forward again was a key first-half figure, kicking three scores, outshone only by the effervescent Conor Meyler, his superb solo goal helping Tyrone lead by a point from the break.

From there, just as they did against Cavan, Tyrone put the game beyond doubt, hitting an unanswered 1-8 against a tiring Erne outfit early in the second half to ensure safe passage to the last eight.

Tyrone, of course, won’t be getting too excited about their performance, or how they ended the game.

Lapses in concentration let Fermanagh score two goals; the first coming after Frank Burns was beaten by Ryan Jones’ lofted pass to allow Josh Largo Elis to fire past Niall Morgan, the second arriving when the Red Hands were caught out by Sean Quigley’s quickly-taken free that put Conall Jones in.

The goals salvaged some pride for Fermanagh who, despite being blown away by a prolific third-quarter surge from the All-Ireland champions, can certainly approach a maiden Tailteann Cup voyage with their heads held high.

“The last 10, 15 minutes I have nothing but credit for our players,” said Fermanagh boss Donnelly.

“They’re young and they responded, that’s what we asked of them and they showed resilience and scored a couple of great goals, so I’m proud of them.”

Tyrone, however, will recognize the need to tighten up at the back before they take on Rory Gallagher’s Derry – who at one stage looked destined for promotion to Division One earlier this year – for a place in the semis.

But given the discussion around the departures of seven players – Paul Donaghy, Ronan O’Neill, Mark Bradley, Lee Brennan, Tiernan McCann, Hugh Pat McGeary and Michael Cassidy – from the squad, Tyrone joint-managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher will have been heartened by the impact of their substitutions against Fermanagh.

Liam Rafferty scored their second goal while Conor McKenna was electric after replacing Michael O’Neill at half-time, although his involvement against Derry is in doubt after being sent off following a stoppage-time skirmish. Still though, their second-half endeavours were an illustration of Tyrone’s depth, even without experienced absentees Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly.

It only gets better

Tempers flare at the final whistle of Donegal and Armagh's Division One encounter in Letterkenny
Donegal and Armagh will renew hostilities on Sunday after their tempestuous Division One meeting in Letterkenny last month

Saturday’s Enniskillen opener was enough to whet the appetite for a feast of championship action as we build towards the All-Ireland final on 24 July, the showpiece’s new home on the calendar.

This weekend’s action is not to be missed with two eagerly-anticipated quarter-finals down for decision. On Saturday, Antrim face Cavan in what could be a spicy atmosphere at Corrigan Park following the Breffni men’s unsuccessful attempt to move the fixture away from the Belfast venue because of concerns over its capacity.

Six out of the nine Ulster counties supported Cavan’s motion. The Saffrons will surely be fired up for their first championship game at home since 2013.

Antrim v Cavan will be live on BBC Two NI while on Sunday BBC One NI will show an expected ‘Ballybofey Blockbuster’ as Donegal host Armagh in a game featuring two counties with serious designs on prising the Anglo-Celt Cup from Tyrone’s grasp

Like Antrim-Cavan, that one has an intense backdrop as Donegal and Armagh resume hostilities following their fractious Division One encounter in Letterkenny that led to suspensions for Donegal duo Neil McGee and Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Orchard trio Ciaran Mackin, Aidan Nugent and Stefan Campbell .

So here we go again. Tyrone have picked up where they left off, and their bid for back-to-back titles promises to be just one storyline in an Ulster Championship brimming with its usual mix of intrigue, animosity and emotion.

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