LISNASKEA Emmetts were beset by an almost unfathomably awful set of tragedies either side of their All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship triumph in 2011.
GAA fans outside Fermanagh may be aware that their captain and spiritual leader Brian Og Maguire was killed in an industrial accident while working at Quinn’s concrete factory in September 2012, just two weeks before Lisnaskea were defeated in the senior championship final against Tempo.
It isn’t over-egging things to say that the club has yet to completely recover, but it wasn’t the first time disaster struck in that era.
Ciaran Woods – brother of the team’s impressive wing-back John Woods – was murdered in the summer of 2010 at a house in Tempo, while Nicholas Kille – brother of the team’s score-getter-in-chief Daniel Kille – was fatally struck by a lorry on St Patrick’s Day in Bundoran in 2009.
Hopefully this places Lisnaskea’s magnificent All-Ireland win into some sort of context, and we’ve spoken to John, Daniel, and Niall McElroy about a special moment in an otherwise turbulent period for the club.
The road to national glory began in the Fermanagh Intermediate Championship. Then a Division One team, Lisnaskea were nonetheless forced to field at Intermediate level as a result of a recent change to the system, so hopes were high from the off that they could nab their first silverware in 16 years.
Aghadrumsee were first for the chopping block, followed by Coa, and then strolled by Irvinestown in the final, but Fermanagh teams have fared horribly at provincial level down through the years so they weren’t dreaming of an Ulster Championship title just yet.
Daniel Kille, who was peerless from free kicks throughout their campaign, says their opening round victory over Down side Tullylish opened their eyes as to what was achievable.
“We were going into the unknown so we didn’t really know what to expect from the other team.
“All we could do was control the controllables, but we played well and it made us realise that we have a good group and could achieve something.”
Supporters who attended their Ulster Championship semi-final victory over Rasharkin would have been forgiven for asking their money back. Blanket fog ruined the game as a spectacle, and the players themselves could barely see what was going on, recalls Niall McElroy, who popped up from wing-back to score a goal (and it wasn’t the last time he scored an important goal that season…).
“By rights the game probably shouldn’t have gone ahead, I’m sure the ref had it under control but it was still half-dangerous.
“I remember scoring a goal in that game and coming back out and it wasn’t until I was half-out out the pitch that the crowd started to cheer, I couldn’t even see it.”
In terms of the secret of their success that year, Lisnaskea had a lot of things going for them. Club legends Peter Clarke, Gerry McElroy and Collie Curran formed a potent mix on the sideline, while Killyclogher native Terry McCann wasn’t just an excellent trainer but an immensely popular figure within the dressing room.
They also had a settled team that year. Skipper Brian Og Maguire and Conor Curran were excellent in midfield, Mark Little was enjoying an Indian summer, while our three interviewees were possibly in the best form of their careers.
They were expected to fall short against Monaghan team Doohamlet in the final, and John Woods says nerves did start to creep in after the game was postponed twice.
“We each other inside out and were generally pretty relaxed about the whole thing. We didn’t work on anything too specific tactically – if I made a run other players knew to drop back as they’d played so long with me. It was so automonous and worked perfectly for us.
“We knew Doohamlet were good, they’d beaten Derrylaughan in the semi-final and I knew Tyrone teams were very strong so we were thinking we’re up against it here.
“The final was cancelled twice which didn’t help nerves – that was the time of the real bad frost. I’d actually booked flights to Leeds to go to New York for Christmas, and I had to cancel them because the game was postponed.”
The Ulster final eventually went ahead on December 11, and it was a cracker. Doohamlet led for most of the contest, but the game seemed to turn on a piece of heroic last-ditch defending from the Emmetts’ veteran player Pearse Collins. His goal-line clearance seemed to inspire his colleagues as they outscored their shell-shocked opponents by 0-8 to 0-1 in the final quarter to become the first ever Fermanagh team to win a provincial club title on a scoreline of 0-13 to 1-7.
Niall McElroy remembers that it wasn’t the only piece of individual brilliance in the closing stages of the contest.
“We were three points down and on the ropes. Both sets of supporters probably thought it was going to be Doohamlet’s day.
“But we dug it out. I remember Kevin Curran, who was playing corner-back, came up and hit a score from 50 yards out on the run, the type of score that can really change a game.
“His brother Conor hit a great score from the sideline as well and he’ll tell you that scoring isn’t his forte. Johnny got man of the match that day and he was excellent, and Brian Og and Conor got a real foothold in the middle.
“Everyone stood up and drove the thing on and it was sheer euphoria when the final whistle went, the celebrations were a sight to behold in Lisnaskea.”
The rest of the country hadn’t got the hint, yet: Kildare side Ballymore really fancied themselves when the two teams met in the semi-final, but they soon realised that Lisnaskea were no mugs when they found themselves trailing from early on in the contest. Video footage of the game on Youtube reveals the extent of their shock.
Woods said: “They were really confident and actually recorded the video of the match. One of their key players got injured in the first-half and when you watch the half-time analysis, he’s interviewed and sounds almost dumbfounded.
“Mark and Aidy Little had unbelievable games and at half-time their player was going ‘what’s going on here?’
“We actually beat them very well. I don’t know if I had the most amazing game myself. It’s funny, we were going into an All-Ireland final and I was raging with myself because I hadn’t performed.”
Daniel Kille, who scored nine points in their semi-final victory, says the whole experience of even reaching an All-Ireland final was an amazing one.
“We went to Croke Park a week before to get a look around and that alone was a great buzz.
“On the morning of the All-Ireland final when we left Emmett Park there were loads of supporters sending us off as we left the club rooms.
“Running onto Croke Park was just surreal. You nearly forget how special it is because you have a match to focus on, it’d be nice to be able to actually enjoy the moment more.”
Opponents St James’ of Galway were more than worthy opponents, and the game ebbed and flowed this way and that throughout the first-half. By the three-quarter mark, St James looked the more likely victors only for Lisnaskea to produce yet another sensational recovery. That brought the game to extra-time with Kille landing two pressure free-kicks right at the death (Dean Rock, eat your heart out).
Extra-time was just as tense until Niall McElroy hammered home a goal with minutes remaining to secure a 1-15 to 0-14 victory. The man himself has vivid memories of the goal and subsequent celebrations.
McElroy said: “For whatever reason I’d a bit of a knack that year of hitting the net.
“I was out of my feet by that stage of extra-time and I actually went into full-forward knowing we might need a goal.
“I was in the right place at the right time, finishing off a great team move. I drove through the ball and thankfully it went in. I remember ending up on the ground and getting up and thinking, thank God, that has to be it over now.”
He continued: “You didn’t know what to do, it really was unbelievable, the substitutes and the rest of the panel poured onto the pitch.
“Fans weren’t allowed on the pitch but because it was such a small crowd you were able to see most of the ones down at the front at the stand, you soaked it in.
“When Ogie climbed the steps to lift the cup, as cliched as it sounds it really was a dream come true.
“By the time we got back up the road it must’ve been one or half-one in the morning, but when the bus got into Lisnaskea, you’d have thought it was the evening with the amount of people about.”
“By the time we got up the road it must’ve been 1 or 1.30 in the morning before we got back into Lisnaskea but when the bus got into the town, you’d have thought it was 5 in the evening.”
The victory was particularly poignant for John Woods, whose brother Ciaran was murdered six months earlier.
“My brother Ciaran had been on the last Lisnaskea team to win the senior championship. He was a good bit older than me, he was my coach at U-12 and U-14 level and at junior and senior level as well.
“He was my biggest critic but biggest supporter as well, as family members often are.
“On that journey to the All-Ireland final, I often thought that it would’ve been nice to have Ciaran there for advice. It was a tough time but I suppose it was a good distraction as well. It was good for my family as well to have it as an outlet too.”
“I still have my three medals openly displayed at the family house, it’s not a gloating thing and sometimes you forget about it, but when I’m back home I’ll go to my room and look at that and think ‘jeez, we did that’.”
Daniel Kille had also suffered personal tragedy when his brother Nicky was hit by a lorry on St Patrick’s Day in Bundoran a few years previous. The team captain Brian Og Maguire’s death in 2012 after an industrial accident is still sorely felt as well by all in the community.
Daniel said: “It wasn’t easy. I was on the Fermanagh team when Nicky died, I got great support there but you never think they’re all going to be in the house for a wake.
“Brian Og was a major blow, he was on the county team with me, John and Niall. He died between the senior championship semi-final and final and to be honest things haven’t been right since that. Whatever it left behind, we haven’t won many championship games since.”
Niall McElroy agrees that the club has never truly come to terms with Brian Og’s death, but he says that memories of their captain on the steps of the Hogan Stand helps a little bit.
“We were never the same team again. That happened the year we got to the Fermanagh senior championship final. Obviously we wanted to win it but when we lost, we knew there was something bigger hanging over our heads, and that’s no disrespect to Tempo who were superior on the day and beat us fair and square.”
As for whether it’s tainted the All-Ireland win, he said: “Probably not. I’d say if anything it makes the All-Ireland more special.
“Our lasting memory of him is the picture everyone knows, of him standing on the steps holding the trophy, but your memory still wanders and says – what if?”
By Niall Gartland