Shane King recalls Fermanagh's vital Ulster SFC victory over Monaghan in 1999
FOR quite some time it seemed like Fermanagh's Championship consisted of a day out and a night out. Even when they ended a seven-year Ulster winless streak against Monaghan, they still partied – well, it was 1999.
That victory may only have been in the preliminary round, and Tyrone won well in the subsequent quarter-final, but the 2-12 to 1-10 success in Clones was definitely a significant breakthrough for the Ernemen.
The late Pat King was manager and explained what it meant to his adopted county afterwards: "I can put it very simply into words: Fermanagh has waited a long time for this day. We wanted to walk down that hill into Clones as victors waving green flags."
Asked by a Dublin-based reporter exactly how long it had been since Fermanagh had won a Championship match, King quipped: "I don't know. I was a Tyrone man then."
His son Shane, who scored 2-2 that day, knew the precise answer: "It was a big one because we hadn't had a win in a long time, since '92 against Antrim.
"In '91 and '92 I was playing for the Minors, who hadn't great success back then either, but we won in Casement and the seniors won there too. We won the following year in Irvinestown."
Yet Fermanagh hadn't been able to beat anyone other than Antrim since 1983 and returned to losing ways, as Shane recalls:
"There was the capitulation against Armagh [in '93, when Fermanagh lost having had a nine-point lead late on in a replay at the Athletic Grounds] but we had played quite well against Tyrone in '95, but then got a hiding in '96."
That proved to be a turning point, with Pat King taking over for the 1997 season, to good effect.
"When he took over Fermanagh we were in a pretty bleak situation, we'd had an awful hammering in Omagh by Tyrone [1-18 to 0-9]. Now, they got to the All-Ireland Final [in '95] and went on to win Ulster again [in 1996] but a lot of journalists gave us an awful hard time after that defeat.
"We turned that around as motivation. The question for us was 'If we don't deliver now, when are we ever going to deliver?' That winning mentality reaps rewards.
Change was coming, but a Championship victory remained frustratingly just out of reach. "'97 was Cavan and we drew with them before they went the whole way to the All-Ireland semi-final.
"We had won the McKenna Cup in '97, had beaten Tyrone, and should have beaten Cavan in Breffni Park [in the 1998 Ulster SFC]. We were two or three up and Rory [Gallagher], very uncharacteristically, missed a free – and they finished stronger than us. We ran out of steam.
"Back then we weren't very economical, we had to expend an awful lot of effort to get two or three scores on the board…"
Belief was building, however, insists Shane: "It was long overdue. We'd won the MacRory Cup in '92 [with St Michael's, Enniskillen] and the Ulster U21s [in 1994]. If we hadn't got the win that year things might have fallen through.
"All of a sudden, for any new players coming on the panel, there was an expectation there.
"Whereas, my first couple of years, you went and played Tyrone, you got the game over and done with, and you had your shirt packed for the night out.
"The expectation wasn't that real. But after the two years against Cavan it really was time to deliver…
"These were the days before the 'back door', when everything had to be put into the one basket, you tried to peak for that game…
"Even though the game was in Monaghan [Clones] I was fully expecting us to win, although they had some quality players. Declan Smyth was very good at the time, quality defenders like Dermot McDermott – I would still buy my trainers off Dermot.
"We played them the following year in Enniskillen and had played them a lot in the League; they were always great battles. They beat us in an All-Ireland B Final in Scotstown [in 1998]."
The doubts persisted about Fermanagh, though: "Damian Barton had said Fermanagh are the sort of team you want to get on the back foot early on, let them think the game is over – but as that game went on, we grew stronger, we were probably fitter than we'd ever been.
"There was a real expectation of delivering – but Monaghan got a penalty against us and I thought I was hard done by for a couple of opportunities for frees as well…"
That penalty was awarded inside the opening minute, and converted by Smyth.
"I think we were 1-3 to a point down at one stage, but slowly worked our way in – Tom [Brewster] kicked a couple of great points, I got a handy free, eventually; the referee was from Derry, [Mickey] Convery, he was very hard on us."
However, fortune soon favoured Fermanagh. "Then we were very lucky, someone picked the ball off the ground in the small square and I got the penalty and we tagged on a couple of points straight after that."
When a Tom Brewster free put the Ernemen for the first time, 1-5 to 1-4, it was a lead they would never lose.
"Tom Brewster was very good that day, Paul [Brewster], Tommy Callaghan out of the half-back line, a typical Tommy Callaghan performance.
"At that stage he was the equivalent of Tommy Walsh for Kilkenny hurlers for us, when Tommy Callaghan was playing well. I used to play in the corner and go across, Tommy would be coming up the opposite wing and that's the ball I would look for."
Despite his tally of 2-2, King had no qualms about Tom Brewster being named 'man of the match': "Tom Brewster had matured well, had been sitting on the line for a couple of years. He was playing centre half-forward and was very good.
"My second goal was very opportunist – I remember a high ball coming in and their goalkeeper and full-back went for it. I kinda jumped backwards, hoping to make contact, and it broke in front of me."
That put Fermanagh 2-6 to 1-5 ahead and they went on to win by five points. "I remember the relief that day too, even though it was expected."
Sharing that success with his dad, who passed away three years ago, was special:
"I remember how happy he was. When I look back now, it's a memory I will treasure. At the time, you couldn't have left the house, you were under scrutiny," he laughs.
"I can remember he used to take me off towards the end of League games to give people run-outs. We played Tyrone in the semi-final and again, the same thing, I got taken off – now the game was over at that stage but at the time you think it's personal.
"As I look back now I feel incredibly blessed. My father managed me nine years for Lisnaskea and four years for Fermanagh, and I was lucky enough to teach in the same school as him.
"Sometimes these things seem a bit of a burden but when I look back I was very lucky, a lot of people wouldn't get that opportunity. It was a great day."
A great night too, understandably. "We possibly celebrated a bit too much when we finally got our victory, but Gaelic football was different back then. When I first was on the Fermanagh panel the bus pulled in for a carry-out on the way home from training.
"That night out, I remember the whole team going to McCaffrey's bar in Lisnaskea, coming in late, and all the bags stacked at the door of the bar. It was just a real celebration.
"Even to have more than one day out for the first time was great. Training a couple of nights after [the win] was definitely enjoyable.
To outsiders, it may have seemed that little had changed with Fermanagh when they lost next time out by 10 points to Tyrone.
King, though, knew a corner had been turned. Indeed they didn't lose another Ulster opener until 2004, against reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone – and the Ernemen went further than any other northern team that year, to an All-Ireland semi-final replay.
"It was annoying, we then played Tyrone and didn't perform from the start.
"Funny, the next year, when we won again against Monaghan there was no celebration because we knew we had Donegal in the next round.
"Around that time there was a massive shift in everybody's attitude, which was what was needed.
"I would argue that Fermanagh have always had outstanding individuals, whilst the numbers are small, you could always have two or three guys who would push for their place on any team.
"Marty McGrath, Barry Owens – for us, Tommy Callaghan, Paddy McGuinness, Collie Curran, who was finishing up then, to me they were as good as any players I ever played against, but never got the opportunity or recognition until that day. First round championship matches weren't even televised then.
"The next year we had a great year - when we beat Monaghan, we concentrated, and we beat Donegal too with a man down, and were very unlucky to lose out against Armagh [in the Ulster semi-final].
"I still argue to this day that Shane McDermott scored a point that was waved wide. I was under the post and Benny Tierney, in typical fashion, ran out screaming at the umpire 'Wide! Wide!', almost in disbelief, like 'I can't believe they've missed that!'
Even so, Fermanagh had entered the new millennium with a new mindset, because of that May win in Monaghan, which altered attitudes, according to King:
"I'm sure the supporters were fed-up going with the sandwiches for just one day. All of a sudden you were looking forward to the next day out."
Ulster SFC preliminary round 1999: Monaghan 1-10 Fermanagh 2-12:
Monaghan: Glen Murphy; Padraig McKenna, Dermot McDermott, Noel Marron; Edwin Murphy (capt.), Gerard McGuirk, John Conlon; Joe Coyle, Frank McEneaney (0-1); Darran Swift, Damian Freeman, Peter Duffy (0-1); Declan Smyth (1-5), Stephen McGinnity, Ian Larmer (0-2).
Subs: Mark Daly for Larmer (44mins); John Paul Mone (0-1) for McGuirk (48); Phil McCaul for McGinnity (69).
Fermanagh: Cormac McAdam; Tommy Callaghan, Paddy McGuinness (capt.), Michael Lilly; Sean Burns, Tony Collins, Kieran Gallagher; Paul Brewster, Liam McBarron (0-1); Raymond Johnson (0-1), Tom Brewster (0-6), Dara McGrath; Raymond Gallagher (0- 2), Sean Quinn, Shane King (2-2).
Subs: Shane McDermott for McGrath (54); Colm Bradley for Collins (61).
Referee: Michael Convery (Derry).