'When I walked through the pitch at the end of this year's Ulster final to go home I was thinking ‘f**k, back here again...': Former Fermanagh ace Tommy McElroy takes a walk down memory lane
When did you play for Fermanagh?
2006-2014. My last game was against Laois in Pete McGrath’s first year. I’d been having a right bit of bother with my knee in Peter Canavan’s time but played through it. I had tendonitis so when you’re playing football at that level it was starting to give me a lot of bother. I had a couple of discussions with physios and thought I’d rather be able to continue to play at a lower level and still be able to walk when I’m 50.
What do you do nowadays?
I’m an accountant with Ulster Bank in Belfast city centre. I was in Dublin for three and-a-half years and I’ve been in Belfast for four now.
Are you still involved in Gaelic football?
I’m focused on playing for now. Coaching might be potentially something down the line but I’m not currently thinking that way - I might want to get a few hours back in my calendar at some stage!
What do you remember about your first game for Fermanagh?
I didn’t play in 2006 because of a couple of ankle injuries, so my first game was the last League game in 2007 against Donegal in Ballybofey. I probably did okay and that led me into the Championship where I made my debut against Tyrone.
We lost by a point and I was marking Brian Dooher - I had to run around after him for a day. But sure, if you’re going to play at that level you may as well go against the best at the start.
What’s your best memory from your playing days?
I suppose the highlight would’ve been the build-up and the games leading into the Ulster final in 2008. We probably saw it a wee bit again there this year and it brought back a few memories from 10 years ago – good and bad.
I was still pretty new to the set-up, everything was pretty new to me then, but Fermanagh had been knocking about at a decent level. We were playing Division O ne football or a high level of football for a number of years. A large number of the ’04 squad was still kicking around.
We would’ve all played a lot of schools’ football as well, a lot of us went through St Michael’s and won MacRory Cups, so we were all 22, 23, 24 and then you had the likes of Marty McGrath and big Barry Owens.
We had the quality there, and Malachy’s a really good manager – he’s shown that in his time with Monaghan. There was the fresh impetus that comes with any new manager, but he was so well organised too.
That put a bit of belief into the lads and created a bit of a buzz, probably quite similar to what you’ve seen with Rory [Gallagher] this year. In all Malachy’s years the training regime was tough and, from what I know, Rory’s is the same so we were in good nick.
And the worst?
If you’d asked me a month or two after I’d have said the second day when we lost to Armagh after a replay because we didn’t turn up, but now the biggest regret is not taking our chances the first day.
It was massive for us to get to the final but, when you reflect on it, you think more of it now than you did then. Then, you think when you get to one you’ll get to others in your career, but I obviously didn’t.
So as the years go on it probably gets a bit harder to take. When I walked through the pitch at the end of this year’s Ulster final to go home I was thinking ‘f**k, back here again’.
It was just the same sort of scenario and you’d feel for the lads. I’d have played with nearly them all and I know how tough it is.
Who is the biggest character you have played with?
There’s plenty. Of the ones I would’ve come through with, probably Eamon Maguire who’s still there. He was an excellent footballer but it would always have been known that if a jelly baby hits you on the back of the head, it’s probably him that’s thrown it.
Are you glad you played in your era rather than the modern day?
It’s hard to know. To be fair I kind of fit into the modern game okay because it’s up and down. I would think I would be okay because, when Malachy came in, that’s what they were trying to get myself and Damian Kelly to do. We used to nearly have a competition between ourselves to see who could pick up the most scores, but that’s sort of the way the game’s gone now.
Not massively. There’s obviously disappointments, injuries you’d prefer not to get, but when you’re playing sport at a high enough level, injuries are going to come. You can’t live your life with regrets.
Interview by Neil Loughran