The Fermanagh footballers - the most tortured souls in Ireland
BEFORE his appointment, Charlie Mulgrew was a name that would test your memory recall. When the former Donegal footballer of the 1980s and early 90s was announced Fermanagh’s new manager, the Erne County was generally underwhelmed.
There was one certainty in 2004: The Fermanagh footballers would crash and burn. They did crash and burn – after an All-Ireland semi-final replay with Mayo.
There was something of the accidental hero about Mulgrew. Undoubtedly, he had built on the foundations laid by Dom Corrigan and Marty McElkennon, but Charlie must’ve had something going for him.
In an interview with former Fermanagh midfielder Mark Murphy, appearing in The Irish News tomorrow, he said: “Charlie was good at building the bond between us that year. The team, I suppose, was very much makeshift that year with a lot of retirements from 2003, and maybe there wasn't much expected from us.
“[But] Charlie didn't believe that anyone was any better than us, he didn't see why we couldn't beat Tyrone, Meath, Cork, Armagh etc., and that rubbed off on the players.”
There was a definite romance about Fermanagh in ’04 – so much so that I took up the invite to write a piece for their commemorative booklet, entitled ‘Dare to Dream’ – edited and produced by the team’s corner-forward and budding journalist at the time Colm Bradley.
Four years later, they’d reached their first Ulster final since 1982.
Malachy O’Rourke, the alchemist, was manager.
In the final, they faced an Armagh team that was on the slide.
Kieran McGeeney, John and Tony McEntee had left the stage while Peter McDonnell had the onerous task of following big Joe Kernan and moulding another team.
There was one last bite in the Orchard men when they denied Fermanagh after a replay.
Fermanagh should have beaten Armagh the first day in Clones. Even though they trailed by seven points, they came hammering back at Armagh and had the game been extended by one more play, Fermanagh would have been Ulster champions for the first time in their history.
But there wasn’t another play.
Armagh turned up for the replay and took care of business.
Fermanagh kept banging on the door but it never opened.
When you sift through their team-sheets between 2004 and ’08, Fermanagh had some fine footballers: Marty McGrath, Barry Owens, Ryan McCluskey, Shane McDermott, Eamonn Maguire Mark Little, Ronan Gallagher, Mark Murphy and Shane Goan were all quality operators.
McCluskey is still going 10 years on, as is Maguire – but the rest didn’t get as close again to an Ulster title in the remainder of their careers.
A week after losing an Ulster final replay to Armagh, Fermanagh were out of the Championship, losing a drab encounter to Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare.
Since ’08, Fermanagh have been a tortured soul - an angry, agitated soul.
I remember Fermanagh wore their game-faces right through 2008.
They were a serious group of people; probably too serious for their own good.
In ’04, everybody loved Fermanagh.
By 2011, and an Ulster title as far away as ever, the Erne County was in crisis.
Former U21 boss John O’Neill was handed a crack at the senior job and 11 players walked out.
In reality, there were more than 11 players that refused to play under the new manager.
Others were a tad more diplomatic and excused themselves through travel plans and work commitments.
O’Neill suffered some unkind criticism before their Ulster Championship mismatch with Derry at Celtic Park.
Players such as young Ryan Jones, Johnny Woods, Barry Mulrone and Daniel Kille felt it was more important to wear the green jersey through the good times and the bad.
They stayed and fought a hopeless cause. London knocked them out of the All-Ireland series and O’Neill was gone.
The Fermanagh footballers were no longer your loveable underdog. There was a ruthless core among them that would cut a manager if they didn’t think he was up to the job.
So they cut O’Neill.
The fact that Fermanagh were able to recruit Tyrone legend Peter Canavan as their next manager showed the ambition that resided among the senior panel.
Canavan got Fermanagh organised. The high point came down in Mullingar when they beat a fancied Westmeath side but Canavan’s Fermanagh couldn’t make an impression on the Ulster stage – losing to Down and Cavan in 2012 and 2013.
The Ulster Championship was the only competition that really mattered to the Fermanagh players.
Canavan stepped down after two years – but all was not well between the squad and county board.
The players enjoyed the few years they had under Pete McGrath before they cut him too.
It was another ruthless move – far more ruthless than cutting O’Neill six years earlier.
Absenteeism had absolutely ravaged McGrath’s squad in his final year in charge (2017).
The Fermanagh players kept their heads down in the aftermath.
Marty O’Brien, now retired, called out some of his Erne team-mates for the way in which they went about cutting McGrath.
And when it was put to them, no Fermanagh player could adequately explain the reasons behind McGrath’s enforced exit.
It didn't help the Fermanagh players that McGrath wasn’t prepared to go quietly, which caused reputational damage to the panel.
As they approach their first Ulster final in a decade, Fermanagh remain the great unloved. Their defensive style of play doesn’t endear them to many neutrals.
The weird and wonderful world of Twitter signalled as much.
That sense of ambivalence towards Fermanagh was keenly felt when I put out a congratulatory tweet to Rory Gallagher for guiding his native county to this year’s provincial decider.
Some replies, in no uncertain terms, suggested they could take or leave Rory’s Fermanagh team.
There is something of the ‘Millwall factor’ about Fermanagh – ‘No-one likes us – we don’t care’.
That begrudgery is their fuel.
What you have to respect about the Fermanagh footballers over the years is their ruthless ambition to win their first Ulster title.
They’ve lost a few PR battles along the road too.
But, of course, some county managers would kill to have that kind of ambition in their ranks.
This year, in particular, Fermanagh wouldn’t countenance another first round exit.
They have invested everything ahead of Sunday afternoon's final against Donegal.
Their pursuit of Ulster has nothing to do with wanting to be loved.
That’s Mills and Boon stuff.
If they create history on Sunday, Fermanagh football can finally rest easy and will no longer feel like a tortured soul.