GAA Football

Iconic GAA moments: Barry Owens's goal

Barry Owens gets above Barry Gillis to punch home the crucial goal in Fermanagh's 2008 Ulster semi-final win over National League champions Derry.
Picture by Colm O'Reilly

FEW words have put Fermanagh’s longing into perspective as those uttered by their then-assistant manager Ryan McMenamin ahead of the 2018 Ulster final.

“I’ve played in as many Ulster finals as Fermanagh,” he said, bringing into sharp focus how rare an occasion provincial deciders are for the Ernemen.

That was prior to 2018, when Eoin Donnelly delivered a slap across Monaghan’s jowls in the very whitest of heats in Omagh’s stoppage time.

History could not have repeated itself any more closely. Ten years previous, Fermanagh reached what was then their fifth final by stunning National League champions Derry in a dramatic Healy Park tie.

The circumstances were almost identical, but the identity of their goalscorer in 2008 made it all the more dramatic.

Barry Owens was the best full-back in Ireland in 2004 and 2006, winning the Allstar gongs at number three in a time when the county threatened to drop all of their psychological baggage behind them.

They could, probably should, have reached the All-Ireland final in 2004, though Kerry would likely have stopped the cart going before the horse. An Ulster title is what they’ve always craved.

Owens, however, had other concerns. When he was 14, he’d gone into the Royal Victoria Hospital for an operation on his sinuses. The heart monitor placed on him detected a murmur and further investigation found a blockage in an artery.

It was monitored annually until he was 26 but in the end, the operation had to happen.

Derry had beaten Fermanagh in a McKenna Cup semi-final days before Owens went under the knife for open heart surgery that would last 13-hours.

A natural greyhound, he couldn’t so much as climb a flight of stairs for a while after. The summer’s football seemed a far off dream but as Fermanagh built confidence through a run to a Division Three league final, Owens began to find his sea legs again.

They were beaten that day in Parnell Park, when he travelled along with them but didn’t take any part. As they trooped off, Derry whooshed out past them on their way to collecting the Division One title by beating Kerry.

Their trajectories still appeared different after the Oak Leafers went up to Ballybofey and won their championship opener, and at 1-3 to 0-1 down and facing a penalty, Fermanagh looked in trouble in the Ulster semi-final.

Ronan Gallagher saved Conleith Gilligan’s effort and, although the subsequent 45’ was nailed, it sparked Fermanagh into life.

52 minutes in, they were still trailing and down to 14 men having lost Peter Sherry.

Barry Owens finished his warm-up, pulled off the tracksuit top and stepped back on to the field for the first time.

Rather than the Allstar full-back from 2006 step in to his natural home, he turned for the other end of the field and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Allstar full-back from 2007, Kevin McCloy.

“I don’t actually know where it came from,” he told The Irish News in 2018.

“Malachy [O’Rourke] just said at training one day that he might play me at full-forward. We never practiced it or anything. I think it was the Tuesday or Wednesday night before the Derry game he said.

“He might have tried me in training that night, but it was literally the week before. I didn’t think much of it.

“I played it an odd time for Teemore if things were going bad or I was injured, go in and stand there and see what you can do. Other than that, never really.”

He was hardly on the field 60 seconds when Marty McGrath careered off down in front of the main stand. He gave it Mark Little, who popped it to Eamon Maguire. Barely 30 yards out, he cut in to shoot only for the effort to drop short.

“He mis-hit it,” said Owens.

“I remember me and McCloy were standing on the edge of the box, I just drifted behind him. Next thing the ball was coming in and I made the dart across the six yard box and got there before Gillis. He should have creamed me.

“I suppose I always had a good leap. I wasn’t that tall when I was growing up and that’s where I got my spring, I would have been playing at midfield against taller lads.

“You always see big tall lads coming up through underage and they get up and they can’t jump, they’re just standing there like that [two arms up]. I was lucky I was able to jump.

“It probably came from acting the eejit around home and down at the pitch.”

At just over six foot, Owens togged out bigger than he looked. Barry Gillis was usually a rock of solidity beneath a high ball but he was jumping with a man whose forte was timing.

A little-known fact is that he still holds the high jump record for the primary school in Derrylin. He and Conor Boyle both hit 149cm on the same day, but Owens laughs that he claims the record because he jumped first.

From the moment he hit the net, it was just about surviving. They clung on as Derry tried to force a dramatic late goal of their own. The game ended with almost all 30 players within 20 yards of the Fermanagh net as Derry dropped one in and hoped. Their luck was out.

In the end, it was the year that Ulster got away from them. Owens came on at full-forward again in the final to help Fermanagh come from eight down and grab a replay, but his year took a disastrous turn when he twisted awkwardly and tore his cruciate minutes after coming on in the replay.

In so many ways, 2008 was a write-off for Barry Owens, yet it produced the single most memorable moment for one of the county's greatest sons.

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