By Damian Dolan
Fulham Irish captain Michael Murphy has warned his teammates that they’ll need to raise their game considerably in Sunday’s final with Tir Chonaill Gaels (McGovern Park, 3pm), if they’re to make it back-to-back titles.
The defending champions go into the season’s decider with a 100 per cent record in this year’s championship, but have needed a strong second half showing in each of their four matches to see them home.
Fulham went in level at the break against Round Towers in their semi-final, only to end up winning by 11.
Greg McCartan’s side had opened their campaign with a nine-point win over Parnells having led by one at half-time. Against Kingdom Kerry Gaels they were up by five at the break, and the winning margin was 11.
And against Tir Chonaill Gaels, Fulham actually trailed by two at the interval, before getting on top in the second half to win by three.
Tyrone native Murphy says that won’t be good enough on Sunday to beat Tir Chonaill Gaels, and it’s a trend they need to buck.
“You don’t win championships that way – we need to look at that,” Murphy told the Irish World.
“It’s a reality check for us; it’s only in the second half that we’ve pushed on and got ahead. The results themselves are probably flattering.
“Going in against Tir Chonaill Gaels, who have been there for seven years in a row, we know that won’t be good enough to beat them.
“We know we have to up the ante, but we know we’re capable. But TCG will be coming in confident, knowing that they can beat us.”
The champions had actually started their semi-final with Towers brightly, opening up a four-point lead. The signs were beginning to look ominous for Towers.
But Paul O’Donoghue’s goal from a long ball in knocked the champions off their stride, and they needed half-time to regroup.
“We were disappointed at half-time. Greg was quite vocal on how we’d played and rightly so,” said Murphy.
“There was no excuse for the first half performance. We let ourselves down badly over 15 minutes to let the lead go.
“We owed it to ourselves to go out and put something on in the second half. We knew we were better than we were playing and we decided to go hard at it from the start of the second half.
“Whether that’s enough to beat Tir Chonaill Gaels, I doubt it. You can’t play for 30 or 40 minutes against TCG and expect to win.”
A big, physical but skilful side, what was glaringly obvious against the Towers was Fulham’s dominance of their opponent’s kick-outs. This will be one of many fascinating aspects of Sunday’s final.
They applied a similar squeeze in the second halves against Parnells, in which Murphy claimed a stunning hat-trick, and against the Gaels in Round 3 when both sides had already guaranteed their place in the semi-finals.
That win stretched Fulham’s winning run over the Gaels to three matches, but Murphy is dismissive of any notion that they now have a physiological edge over the Greenford outfit.
“You’re talking about the kingpins of London. It’s only three games in less than a year of football. They’ve been there for seven years and continue to contest the final,” he said.
“We’re not taking anything for granted against them. Physiological stuff like that wouldn’t enter Paul Coggins’ head.”
Murphy believes both sides are stronger than 12 months ago. Fulham lost Rowan Turley, Dan Eastwood and Sean O’Sullivan and Benny Martin – all “key players” in winning a second senior title for the club.
But they’ve brought in some good replacements in the likes of Gavin Nugent (Rathgormack, Waterford), David Givney (Mountnugent, Cavan), Michael Walsh (Tara) and David Connern (Tuam Stars, Galway), while former London and Cavan star Lorcan Mulvey has returned for another spell.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is Fulham’s desire to be crowned county champions. The “hunger is there” says Murphy adamantly.
What they have lost, however, is their underdogs tag, and they’ve had to deal with the added pressure and expectation that goes with being champions. Sunday’s final is no different.
“At the start of last year when people would have been looking around and asking ‘who’s going to win the championship?’ Fulham Irish wouldn’t have been at the top of the list. We might have been in the top four, but definitely not the top two,” he said.
“From the start of this year we’ve been talked about a potential championship winner’s.
“That’s something we’ve had to battle with as a team. But we’ve good enough leaders not to get carried away with ourselves, and so far so good.
“We’ve got to the final, we’ve won every game, but it will count for nothing if TCG beat us.
“But if we can get over the line it will be a great achievement, and as good as, if not better, than last year.”