IT was all good last Sunday on the way into Brewster Park on the team bus. The team had just met up and had their pre-match meal and gone through a few last-minute instructions, and were set for the match against Limerick. If they won, it meant promotion.
For Niall Bogue, it was a special moment. The team captain Ryan McCluskey had been struggling with a leg injury over the previous few weeks, and vice-captain Barry Owens had felt some trouble with his hamstrings tightening up. In their absence, Peter Canavan approached Bogue. He told him he would lead the county out for the first time.
As the ball was thrown up, he was marking the Limerick captain, Ger Collins. Three minutes later, Collins had turned Bogue and slotted the ball into the top corner past Chris Breen. A rude awakening and the first goal conceded in the league campaign all at once, as he recalled the day after.
“I suppose I was caught cold then, was expecting him to turn onto the left, he turned inside on the line. It’s something we would have talked about, keeping boys turned inside so that if help comes back, they would obviously come in goal-side. A split second was all it book and he was away. I’m raging, but sure what do you do?”
In keeping with most of Fermanagh’s games throughout the league, they had nothing easy. The first half had left them with plenty to do and they had to reel Limerick in when they had slipped behind a couple of times. Eamon Maguire was sent on as sub and won a few breaks. When he had a sighting of goal at the death, he sliced it off the outside of his boot. In the end, a draw was a fair result, but it pooped the promotion party.
Still, there’s nothing like playing. 12 months previously, Fermanagh football had crashed and burned. Two successive relegations had left them among the bottom-feeders in division four. When they couldn’t extract themselves from the mire, the cracks in the relationship with manager John O’Neill became yawning chasms. Players walked away, convinced they were wasting their time.
Bogue winces when you ask him about it. Even at this remove, he’s clearly not comfortable talking about the heave against the then manager. “I suppose I wish things had have turned out differently. I know from my own point of view… We didn’t do everything right. Now it’s a new year.”
When the disaffected players released a statement outlining their position, it carried 11 signatures. Listed in alphabetical order, Bogue’s name headed the list. Some took this as him being a ringleader, but he dodged the flak by being sensible. When players talk about not reading papers, you can normally take it that as a lie, yet you believe this man when he says, “To be honest, I stopped reading. I saw articles here and there, but I tried to stop it because there was too much rubbish going on. I don’t know what way people read into it, but I don’t really care to be honest.
“Last year, in an ideal world it wouldn’t have happened. There were mistakes and there are regrets. But that’s it. As a squad this year we dealt with it at the start of the year. The feeling is that we have moved on. I certainly feel that anyway.”
Quite rightly, he points to the character of the Fermanagh team this year, how they have had to come from behind to win games and take up their place at the top of the league. This, he maintains, is an example of the healing that has taken place.
“I don’t think we would be in the position we are in now if there was disharmony in the squad. People can judge our performances and we have come through it in games. I think there’s a good spirit developing.”
There’s a sense of everyone being glad to move on, and Fermanagh received the biggest boost possible when Peter Canavan was appointed as manager. Taking it as an accepted fact that most counties broke the training ban last year, Fermanagh realised that there was little time for further introspection. They needed to get cracking.
“We were always conscious that at the start we were slightly behind all the other sides. They [management] didn’t ask us to meet at six in the morning to train, they just asked that whenever we were training, we would do it right, push ourselves. Boys seem to have done that because there has been great improvements in fitness testing, stats in games and that, it is improving. Based on yesterday’s performance [against Limerick], there’s plenty more room for improvement!
“Some years, boys would be messing about and there would be trainings missed here and there. But there’s been none of that, everyone has given it full commitment.”
From the first game, a cult figure was born with Seamus Quigley helping himself to 1-8. Quigley had weighed in here and there with Fermanagh in the past, but this was the first time he was there from the outset. Indeed, it was his first time to start a McKenna Cup game. In the meantime, he has become the player who gets the John Vesey Stand buzzing when the ball comes his direction in Brewster Park.
A lot less rotund than the figure he was in early January, he is the one forward in the county that packs serious scoring power. And while things did not go all his way when he was tightly marked by Stephen Lucey last Sunday, he gave a few glimpses of his vision, hinting at a maturing in his play.
“He’s an enigma and a cult hero and all that,” comments Bogue, “but this year is the first year I have properly got to know him and he’s a good lad. He can do stuff that others can’t, and that’s why the big players are the ones that fans like to see. Seamy has this thing where he doesn’t look like your prototype Gaelic footballer, but he can kick points. If he gets space, anything within 40 yards could be over.
“He is a handful, he can win his own ball, high ball, great hands, it’s almost like a basketball thing, the talent is oozing out of him. Some of stuff he does, all you can do is laugh. It doesn’t always come off, but that’s the risk you take. Some of the passes he hits, I don’t know how he generates the power he does. Some of the points he kicks on the turn, I don’t know how he gets the power in the shot, but he can drop it over from the sideline.”
Quigley’s brother Conor is also making a huge impression in the half back line, already sewing up the number five jersey. He would have played Championship last year only for a cruciate injury, so his return has been a massive boost. Another returnee has been Shane McCabe, a forward not in the normal mould of Fermanagh attackers and one that Bogue rates.
“He has great vision, always wants the ball, always looking for it. Just has that bit of quality and it’s always good to have that kind of player about, that can do something different and special. With water-carriers like me, it has to be balanced out! Shane’s in great nick, and he’s training hard.
“I suppose, sub-consciously, [him coming back] does add to the thing, creates a bit of momentum.”
The management have brought in a culture of statistics this year. Without drawing needless comparisons, the methods and freshness of thinking has found favour with the current panel. Statistics now give the players achievable goals.
“I’m not a psychologist or anything, but it’s been shown that people respond to specific targets.
“If you send a boy out in football and say, ‘you have to work hard’, well then, what does ‘work hard’ mean? Whereas if you have the evidence, you can say, ‘this is what I need you doing this week, this is how many tackles you put in, how many turnovers you got, I need you to try and get two more.’ You can speak to people like that, show them what they have been doing, what you want. To me it’s common sense, easier to try and improve, whereas if you are given these concepts or vague words…”
At 28 now, the future of GAA sports, with measurable facets of play recorded and analysed, appeals to Bogue. He admits to wondering what level of expertise is within professional sports, and recounts a story of Arsene Wenger working with the medical team over a potential injury to Robin Van Persie, if Arsenal had released him for an international game.
Naturally, Fermanagh sat down and drew up their targets for 2012 before the season got underway.
“Our first one was to get out of division four, sure that speaks for itself. Hopefully we are on target for that, we have two games left and it would be disappointing if we didn’t manage that. Obviously we have targets for the Championship, but we will keep them to ourselves for the minute.”
It’s a modest approach from a maturing player who came into a team that was thriving, and has had to rough it in more recent times.
It was as a mere 20-year-old that he came into the Fermanagh team, called up by Charlie Mulgrew in 2004 after a raft of experienced defenders such as Mickey Lilly, Neil Cox and Kieran Gallagher retired after 2003.
At the height of the summer he was sent out to mark Diarmuid Marsden, as an almost completely unknown quantity at county level. He held Marsden to a point, and the interviewer cornered Mulgrew in the tunnel to ask him a question; ‘You must be delighted with Niall, who won Man of the Match?’ Mulgrew replied, “Niall who?”
“Sometimes, it seems like a lifetime ago, other times, not that long ago,” he reflects. “It was unreal and at that age you knew it wasn’t going to happen every year, but we certainly thought we would be pushing in and around division one.”
Instead, Fermanagh’s form oscillated. They lasted two games in the 2005 Championship. In 2006, they beat both Dublin and Tyrone in the league, before stitching together another back door run which stopped short of Croke Park.
The big disappointment though was always going to be 2008, and the lost Ulster final replay to Armagh. Bogue didn’t get the benefit of it though as he spent the summer in recuperation from his cruciate injury.
“You were still involved, I was still going to training and doing rehab, but you were still a step removed. It was frustrating but it was like being a sub, you had to accept it, do whatever wee bit you can. The boys done brilliantly, they didn’t miss me too much. But it was so close, and to pull up short.
“It would take a smarter man than me to say whether that was the source of the subsequent decline, it didn’t feel like that at the time. When you are involved and taking part in it, you are caught up in it.”
Last Sunday, Niall Bogue, Fermanagh captain for the day was close by when Limerick’s John Galvin got the ball. He turned outside and threw a dummy before cutting in. As soon as he planted his left foot, he kicked up a sod and fell to the floor.
Everyone in the ground knew who he was, and that his cruciate ligament was torn last summer. At 32, he couldn’t afford any more comebacks. A nervy week was ahead of Galvin. His career was on the line.
Niall Bogue knows what it’s like to miss football seasons. And now he’s determined to make the days count.