By Larry Cooney
Enniskillen is the destination for Stan Murray-Hession’s Lancashire hurlers on Saturday as they look to secure a victory over Fermanagh that will earn them an historic trip to Croke Park, and a final date with Sligo on 23 June in the Lory Meagher Cup.
Their round 3 clash with the Ernesiders will also be Lancashire’s seventh match this year – six of which have been in Ireland.
And they have won all but one of their games with their only defeat being a one-point loss in Manchester to this year’s Lory Meagher Cup finalists Sligo.
However, as their fine second round performance against Cavan in Ballyconnell has proven, that unlucky defeat against the Yeats County men is well and truly out of Lancashire’s system.
A visit to Brewster Park is always a formidable test for any team, but it is also where Cavan managed to force a draw with Fermanagh in the opening round of this year’s Lory Meagher.
Fermanagh’s hurlers, though, will also not be anything like the team Lancashire faced in their maiden league outing in Allen Park, Randalstown, last January.
Last Sunday’s amazing success of their football team against Monaghan is also sure to inspire their hurlers, especially when there is a place in a Croke Park final up for grabs.
— LancsGAAofficial (@lancsGAAofficia) June 6, 2018
After from their opening round draw with Cavan in Enniskillen, Fermanagh travelled to Tourlestrane to take on neighbouring Sligo in Round 2, where they lost out by four points and so guaranteed a return to Croke Park for the defeated 2016 finalists (Sligo).
Sligo and Fermanagh also met in the 2015 decider when Fermanagh won their only Lory Meagher Cup title, with Warwickshire and Lancashire among the teams they defeated on their way to their Croke Park triumph.
In the aftermath of the Shane Mulholland tragedy earlier that same year, it was some indication of how well Fermanagh could refocus as a team and go on to eventually lift the silverware. They also came from behind that day in Croke Park despite having three players sent off.
So with that kind of pedigree behind the men in green, Lancashire manager Stan Murray-Hession is in no doubt about the formidable task ahead of the Exiles.
“I was delighted with the team’s supreme second-half effort in Ballyconnell but this Saturday’s encounter in Brewster Park also has the potential to be make or break for what has so far been a very satisfactory year for the team,” Murray-Hession told the Irish World.
And he fully expects their Fermanagh opponents to have done their homework on Lancashire since their first meeting in Allen Park.
“That was a dreadfully wet day in really strange conditions on a 4G pitch with lots of different colour markings, but somehow the boys eked out a very commendable result and performance on their league debut.
“It was a result that set us up for the promising year we have enjoyed so far, but reaching Croke Park really is the Holy Grail for this team and nothing less.
“The Fermanagh team has changed considerably since they won the 2015 title with JP McGarry one of the few survivors but they ran Sligo to four points and we will need to settle well from the throw-in and not allow them into the game like we did against Cavan in Ballyconnell a couple of weeks ago.”
However, it would appear that all these games on the road has really galvanised this Lancashire team as a unit, and they seem to enjoy an exceptional club team spirit.
Most of the team are Fullen Gaels clubmates who are also no strangers to the Croke Park experience having being involved in two All-Ireland club finals since 2013.
But apart from including one of the best placed-ball strikers in the game, in Ronan Crowley, Lancashire also have a strong half back line led by team captain Greg Jacob.
Flanked by the consistent Nathan Unwin and Simon Wallace on the right wing position, this line really stands out and especially when the team comes under pressure.
In the absence of the unlucky Martin Hawley, who is unavailable through injury, Edmond Kenny looks set to resume his duties on the edge of the square where he will be handful for Mark Slevin – the Fermanagh full back.
The half forward line is also likely to pick itself with Darren Crowley, Tommy Duane and JJ Dunphy all impressing against Cavan in the last round.
The suspended Daire Maskey will be a loss in attack but his absence will also give an opportunity for one of the panellists to make an impression ahead of a possible Croke Park appearance.
Fermanagh will be another tough test for this high-flying Lancashire team, but the Exiles are maturing with every game and look set to continue with another narrow victory and progress to Croke Park final date on 23 June.