Ronan Gallagher and Ryan McCluskey reflect on Fermanagh’s 2008 Ulster final saga against Armagh. Shaun Casey writes…
2008 was one of those summers where everything just clicked. Derry have just gone through one, Cavan experienced it in 2020, Monaghan and Donegal done likewise over the past decade. A team comes along out of the blue and has a season to remember.
The only difference being those teams had silverware to show for their efforts come the winter. Fermanagh experienced one of those years in 2008 when everything pointed to a memorable campaign, but the Erne men didn’t get over the line.
Success follows Malachy O’Rourke wherever he goes, as the recent history of his club and county management career shows, and O’Rourke worked his magic in Fermanagh, guiding them to their first Ulster decider in 26 years.
“Malachy was unreal from the start,” said Ronan Gallagher, Fermanagh’s goalkeeper that season. “The level of organisation and I hate using the word professionalism but the commitment he required from everybody was enormous at that time.
“We were doing collective gym sessions and collective training sessions as well so for people like myself that weren’t living in Fermanagh it was a huge commitment but whenever you saw what Malachy was doing and his vision, you were more than happy to buy into it.
“The big thing I would say about my time under Malachy was that he always had you believing that you would win, no matter what game you played. He would have installed that sense of belief that you were equally as good as anyone.
“We obviously knew Malachy from his playing days with the county,” added Ryan McCluskey, who spent 19-years playing for Fermanagh. “We were well aware of his commitment and what he had done in the green jersey, and he was a leader for many years wearing it.
“We knew of that side of things and what he was like on the pitch and then obviously he had been involved in a few gigs at club level, I think he took Loup to a Derry Championship by that stage, so we knew he had a bit of pedigree behind him. He was a Fermanagh man as well so that sort of galvanised the whole thing.”
O’Rourke built a strong management team around him and with the help of the county board, Fermanagh earned promotion from Division Three and fought their way to the provincial decider.
“We had training camps in Carlton House where everything was organised to a tee,” recalled Gallagher. “We had Leo McBride there, Mike McGurn was doing a bit in the background, he wasn’t actually doing the weights, but he was leading out what we should be doing.
“It was so well organised and a pleasure to be involved and to be fair at that time one of the big things, and Fermanagh has always been this way, the county board and Club Eirne were so supportive.
“Not just in 2008 but every year they back us and because Fermanagh don’t have so much success the likes of Club Eirne don’t get any recognition but there’s so many generous people in Fermanagh.”
The path to the final couldn’t have been much more difficult. Fermanagh faced the Ulster finalists of the previous season, Monaghan, who had also pushed Kerry all the way in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter final, before meeting Derry, the National League Division One winners.
McCluskey was part of the team that defeated the Orchard County in the 2004 All-Ireland quarterfinals and that belief, along with the momentum built up through the championship, gave Fermanagh a real chance.
“We came through a number of difficult tests to get to that Ulster final and none more so than against Derry and we knew after that, even though it was four years down the line, that we had a chance against that Armagh side,” added McCluskey.
“We were carrying that belief from ’04 through and we had a number of battles with them throughout that period and we thought we had built up a bit of momentum going into the game but unfortunately that first day was the day that got away.”
To win Ulster, O’Rourke’s men would have to see off an Armagh side that had lifted the Anglo Celt seven times in the previous nine seasons, but that great team was beginning to break up. Kieran McGeeney had retired. Oisin McConville was now an impact sub. Enda McNulty couldn’t get his place. Armagh were still strong, but Fermanagh had a chance.
“Kieran (Shannon) was our psychologist or performance coach or whatever you want to call it, I thought he had a huge role to play in the mindset,” said Gallagher. “He helped create that belief system that we had as well. His father is a Fermanagh man, so he had a very personal interest in it.
“It was probably the beginning of the end for that Armagh team, but you still had (Paul) McGrane, Paddy McKeever, (Steven) McDonnell, Ronan Clarke, Marty O’Rourke, Finnan Moriarty, Andy Mallon, Francie (Bellew) was still play so you still had a really solid team.
“There was certainly a feeling (in the Fermanagh camp) that it was the beginning of the end for that great team. They still had a real solid team and were hard to beat but we didn’t do it and I live in Armagh now and I’m reminded of it every day of the week.”
The harsh reality is that the underdog usually gets one go. If they don’t take it, then the opportunity slips away and that’s what happened to Fermanagh. They trailed by eight at one stage and hauled it back to earn a draw before losing the replay, but did they miss their chance?
“I would say we probably did,” admitted Gallagher. “I know people talk about our lack of economy up front and free kicks and all of that, but Armagh certainly weren’t on the boil. I remember some of their players making certain mistakes that they usually wouldn’t make.
“We probably did miss our chance but after the game there was no sense of that from a player point of view. Our mindset heading into the replay was, this is brilliant, we’ve waited 26 years for an Ulster final and now we have another one in a weeks’ time.
“I thought that was really good, another chance to go and play in an Ulster final. They got a goal after half time in the replay that sort of sealed it form them.”
McCluskey added: “To be honest we probably just kicked it away the first day and we can certainly hold our hands up and say on the second day we just didn’t really get going and Armagh were the better side so we can’t have any complaints there.
“Unfortunately, we missed a couple of frees that most days we would kick, and we created a number of scoring opportunities that we should have capitalised as well.”
That season came to an abrupt ending with Fermanagh losing 0-11 to 0-5 to Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare in the Qualifiers. It took a decade for the green and white to return to the Ulster final and Gallagher believes that was all down to the players.
While Fermanagh didn’t build on what was an incredible season, they have the memories that will last a lifetime. “I vividly remember the training before the Kildare game was good, the energy was good, we stayed down the night before and the fact it was in Croke Park was a big lifter for everybody. Fermanagh don’t play there too regularly so there was certainly a mentality of right this has happened but we’re still in the All-Ireland series and let’s go for it. Kieran McGeeney and Kildare were only at the start of their journey and maybe there were a couple of question marks at the time.
“We just didn’t bring a pile of energy to it that day but neither did Kildare, they were there for the taking too but we were very uneconomical again in front of goals and the other thing is, history would show it was the beginning of the end for that Fermanagh team as well.
“In ’09 we were relegated, a really poor performance in the championship, all of the players, myself included would feel we let the management team down in 2009. We probably didn’t have the same bite and energy, as much as you try, I know I didn’t give it as much in ’09 as I did in ’08.
“There was another relegation the following year, so we ended up in Division Four and that was largely down to the players. Malachy and his management team didn’t dip in their approach or their performance or their desire and hunger, in fact if anything they upped the ante in those couple of years after.
“As a playing group we didn’t match that. At the time it was a really, really good journey and that Saturday evening in Omagh (against Derry) is something that will live long in my memory and the memory of a lot of other Fermanagh people.
“The minute that Barry’s (Owens) goal hit the back of the net was just pure euphoria and at least we saw it out.” It’s the one that got away and while McCluskey regrets not getting over the line, the game is about so much more than just the end result. “To eventually get that Ulster medal would have been an unbelievable feat but it wasn’t too be unfortunately and it still in a sense haunts us.
“You play the game, and you want to win but when you sit down over the years and you become a bit older and apparently a bit wiser, you look at everything. You look at the journey that got you there and the memories made, and you look at the friendships and it is about more than just the result.”