'Come the All-Ireland final I couldn't even bring myself to watch it, it was still so raw': Former Fermanagh player Raymond Johnston takes a walk down memory lane
Position: Wing half-back
When did you play for Fermanagh?
From March 1997, after the under 21s finished – we were beaten by Derry in the Ulster final and Pat King brought me onto the senior panel after that. My last game was in 2008.
What do you do nowadays?
I’m a PE teacher, split between two schools – the new amalgamated St Kevin’s College in Lisnaskea and St Aidan’s High School in Derrylin.
Are you still involved in Gaelic football?
Not on the playing front anyway. In 2009 in a club game I suffered a bad knee dislocation. I was lucky not to actually lose the lower leg as a result. The doctor told me a couple of days after the operation that it took him 10 minutes to find a pulse in my foot, they thought an artery had been severed which would have meant losing my leg from the knee down. It’s not what you want to be hearing when football’s a big part of your life.
But lucky enough they did get a pulse and it wasn’t damaged, so I was able to make a good recovery from it, even though I was off work for about 11 months.
You went straight into management after that. Are you involved with anybody at the minute?
I’m involved with Currin in Monaghan. Dick Clerkin was managing them last year but he changed jobs and had a third child there so he wanted to take more of a background role.
It’s going back to my roots because that’s where I initially started playing football as a youngster. My home-place is very close to the Monaghan border, literally a stone’s throw, so my school-mates were playing for Currin and me and my brother got involved at underage.
Before that I was four years working with Pete McGrath and Fermanagh – a very quick four years. It was a privilege to work with Pete, he’s so knowledgeable and so passionate. He’d talk football from morning until night if he could.
I learnt a lot from him and hopefully I’ll be able to pass that on now.
What do you remember about your first game for Fermanagh?
It was a McKenna Cup game against Armagh in the Athletic Grounds. I started at wing half-forward but only ended up playing a half because I went up to catch a high ball and got a knock. I made my Championship debut that year against Cavan, the year they went on to win Ulster. We played them up in Breffni and we should’ve beaten them that year, but they went on to bigger and better things.
What’s your best memory from your playing days?
You probably could say the whole run in 2004, the way the year transpired. We were managerless at the start, a few players had retired, a few didn’t come back. We were struggling to get teams out in the McKenna Cup, we were calling boys on the Friday and Saturday to try and scrape a 15 together.
Charlie [Mulgrew] came in and although we were relegated in the League, once the Championship kicked in we got a bit of confidence.
We played Tyrone in Clones and probably should’ve beaten them, so that gave us a lot of confidence.
In the Qualifiers, Tipperary didn’t play us so we got a bye and then we just got on a run, one win after another.
The most memorable game was the All-Ireland quarter-final against Armagh. We were total underdogs but we believed in ourselves.
And the worst?
The All-Ireland semi-final. We probably should’ve beaten Mayo both days but the first day in particular we were a kick of a ball away from a final spot.
We had a chance to get Fermanagh to an All-Ireland final and we didn’t take it. It was just utter dejection after and it took a while to get over. Come the All-Ireland final I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it, it was still so raw.
Who’s the biggest character you played with?
There’d have been different characters throughout. In the early years probably the likes of Collie Curran, he was like a teacher and companion, but in terms of craic you’re probably looking at the likes of Paul Courtney. He was always the man for the banter at that time.
Are you glad you played in your era rather than today?
Between me finishing playing football with Fermanagh, and then getting involved however many years later, I’d have seen the level of commitment completely change. It’s got so much professional, so much more scientific. I was glad I played in the time I did but then part of you would love to experience the more professional side of it.
Not making that All-Ireland final and maybe not achieving as a team, but also individually. 2004 was my best year and not showing a greater level of consistency in other years is a bit of a regret.
Interview by Neil Loughran