By Niall Gartland
IT’S hard to overstate just how momentous it was when Fermanagh pipped Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2004.
The Orchard County were feared across the land to the point of stereotype in those days – burly mean machines in the eyes of the ignorant, but there was no doubting their footballing talent with the likes of Stevie McDonnell, Oisin McConville and Paul McGrane at the peak of their powers.
Fermanagh, meanwhile, had embarked on an impressive run in the qualifiers, with a victory over Cork taking many by surprise, but few outside the camp expected them to put up much of a fight against Armagh (I mean, they were whalloped by Tyrone by 1-21 to 0-5 in the previous year’s quarter-final).
The game went pretty much according to script in the opening stages as Armagh racked up a 0-4 to no score lead, but Fermanagh were nothing if not resilient and by half-time had opened up an 0-8 to 0-6 lead.
Enda McNulty’s dismissal for a badly-timed high challenge on the cusp of half-time was obviously a major moment in the game, but it would be unfair to say it was the decisive factor in the overall outcome.
Fermanagh played out of their skins in the second-half and with ten minutes to go it was 0-11 apiece.
They missed a few late chances but they kept kicking at the door and one of their best ever players, Tom Brewster, popped up with the winning point in the fourth minute of injury time.
It was no more than they deserved, and the scenes at full-time with what seemed like the entire population of Fermanagh flooding the pitch live long in the memory.
They’d get another two days out but they narrowly lost out in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo. Nonetheless they’ll never forget their famous win over Armagh on August 7 2004.
McCluskey – Our relaxed approach paid dividends
FROM a playing perspective we knew at the time that we had the capability of getting one over Armagh. I remember we were strong underdogs but we knew ourselves that because of the momentum we’d built up in previous rounds that we’d a good chance of winning that day.
I remember at the start of the game possibly the first soccer goal scored in Croke Park. When the Armagh team came out, they were visibly very focused on the game. They all had their headphones in and they were in the zone.
We were a bit more relaxed, however, and I remember that day Shane Goan running from the half-way line, nutmegging a couple of players and he put it in the top corner past Gary Maguire from 10 or 15 metres.
I just remember all of us being relaxed and laughing at this episode unfolding on the pitch. If the social media platforms from today were available it surely would’ve been an internet hit. I think that set the tone leading into the game.
We had the work done. We’d a number of ding-dong battles with Armagh in previous seasons and we knew that we had the personnel to get a result that day.
I was given the task of marking Stevie McDonnell that day. I remember a bit of a bit of an incident between us but that came with the territory. Stevie was possibly lucky enough to stay on the pitch but it was a war and I’d given as good as I’d got.
I remember I was part of that move at the end that led to the winning score and I knew it was in safe hands when it went to Tom Brewster, a clubmate of mine. I knew he was going to put it over the bar.
The elation obviously after the game was incredible, it was unprecedented for us to get to an All-Ireland semi-final.
It might sound mad to people outside the county but we weren’t astonished either as we had a lot of winners at underage level in our ranks.
We enjoyed ourselves that night but it wasn’t too mad as we knew we had a semi-final to prepare for.
My dad was alive at the time and didn’t go to many games but talking to him afterwards and my whole family was something I’ll always cherish.
It’s a game we didn’t watch back too much but it’s nice to relive those moments. We didn’t win anything and that haunts us but those days are still talked about and cherished as a player and from my family as well.
I also remember barely being able to sleep in the hotel the night before. Under that management team we rotated who were staying with. I think I stayed with Liam McBarron and he snored the whole night.
I’m a very light sleeper. I think it was the CityWest and I slept in the bath because I couldn’t listen to him snoring. That player rotation might have built team spirit but it didn’t build sleep and recovery!
McDonnell – Fermanagh deserved their victory
FIRST of all, my overriding memory of that game is Tom Brewster kicking the winning point!
We actually got off to a great start that match and in the first-half things had been going quite well. We didn’t go into the game complacent and we never did that with any team. We were fully focused on every match.
To be fair to Fermanagh that day, they kept chipping away no matter how far ahead we were. When I’m coaching I always preach to my players to keep chipping away. It’ll all add up and could make a big difference. That’s what Fermanagh did to get themselves into the game.
I remember players like Mark Little causing us all sorts of problems as well. He was excellent, he was small and mobile and we found it hard to handle. It was probably the start of my on-field battles with Ryan McCluskey as well.
Myself and Ryan have great respect for each other off the field, but he was always a fierce competitor and a very good man-marker, and a player who I always loved challenging myself against.
If you came out on top against Ryan, you knew you were probably going to win the game. I think that was the first time he marked me and even though I kicked four or five points I would say Ryan came out on top when Fermanagh had the upper hand in the second-half.
When a team gains a bit of momentum like that it can be very hard to stop. Enda McNulty had been sent off and that made it more difficult as well.
Unfortunately when they were looking for a winning score the ball fell to one of their more experienced players and Tom finished it with a cool head.
It was very disappointing from our point of view. We’d been to two All-Ireland finals in a row so we wanted to win another All-Ireland, but Fermanagh had different thoughts.
I was in a state of shock after the match – you ask yourself serious questions straight away like “how the hell did that happen”?
Fermanagh came in with a great mindset and whoever’s leading at the end of a match deserves to win. They put themselves in a great position to get the result, and while we got off to a great start, in the second-half we didn’t get going. That came back to bite us.
That year we’d been on a road for a couple of long seasons and it came to a head maybe. You live and learn and the following year we went 16 games unbeaten and got to the semi-final and weren’t far away. Fermanagh went on to prove in the semi-final against Mayo as well that they were very much worth their victory.
We should’ve been further ahead says Owens
THE year before we’d been to the league semi-final and All-Ireland quarter-final, and Tyrone gave us bad beatings both days, but most of that 2004 team was fresh. They hadn’t experienced those defeats, and we got a good qualifier win over Cork and that gave us confidence. Croke Park seemed to suit us as we’d a lot of flyers like Mark Little who could run all day. We felt that would suit us, we were a bit more nimble than Armagh.
When the game actually started though Armagh went three or four points up after ten minutes and I remember Diarmuid Marsden cracking the crossbar.
That really sticks in my memory, if that had’ve gone in it would’ve been all over, but we settled that and grew into the game.
At half-time we were two points up but we probably could’ve been further ahead.
I suppose it was a typical Fermanagh team, our scoring let us down, but we kept on chipping away and put ourselves in a great position in the final ten minutes.
We missed a few chances late on as well but we always felt we were going to win, we just seemed to be on top of them all over the pitch.
The extra man probably helped, but maybe the pressure on Armagh got to them a bit as they were one of the favourites to win the All-Ireland. It was probably a mix of both because we played really well as well.
I was on Ronan Clarke, I did alright on him. I marked him a lot during the years, he’d get the better of me one day and I’d get the better of him the next. It was tit-for-tat between us.
I remember lads saying that morning that their brothers or cousins were ringing saying that we were 9/1 to beat Armagh. A lot of relatives had put money on us to win. It was a perfect footballing day and we always felt we had a chance, with all the young lads we had we weren’t afraid of the likes of Armagh.
The scenes were great after the match, one of the first persons I saw was my uncle from Kinawley, that was a good memory to have. It’s a great memory but I still think the game was trumped in my mind by the Ulster semi-final against Derry in Omagh in 2008.
That got us to our first Ulster final in 26 years so that was maybe my biggest highlight, but the Armagh game is up there too.