Fermanagh expect no fairytale qualifier run this time round

It’s 10 years since the county produced the greatest outsiders run the All-Ireland football qualifiers have seen

 Liam McBarron of Fermanagh (right) in action against Mayo’s Fergal Kelly in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay in August 2004. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Liam McBarron of Fermanagh (right) in action against Mayo’s Fergal Kelly in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay in August 2004. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho


It doesn’t feel like 10 years but it is. This afternoon in Portlaoise, where they face Laois, Fermanagh’s footballers will be expected to bow out of this year’s championship. But in 2004 the county produced the greatest outsiders run the All-Ireland qualifiers have seen.

Although the Ulster title remained elusive – they and Wicklow are the only counties not to have won a senior provincial championship – Fermanagh ended up in the All-Ireland semi-finals before bowing out to Mayo after a replay.

“I suppose when you reflect back on it,” remembers centrefielder Liam McBarron, “there was something absolutely magical about the summer.”

Drawn against All-Ireland champions Tyrone in their first Ulster match, Fermanagh had reason to be wary having sustained heavy defeats in two Croke Park fixtures the previous year – a league semi-final and All-Ireland quarter-final - but on this occasion there were only four points in it and the hint of something to come.

“One of the managers I learned most from was Charlie Mulgrew, ” according to McBarron. “Even today in the small bits of coaching I do, I use his approach and philosophies. I remember immediately after losing against Tyrone, Charlie cut short the interviews and got us together in the changing room.

Lit the flame

“He said that now was the opportunity for us to buy into the back door and see where it brings us. You could see the effect on everyone. I still believe that those words were what lit the flame for us that year.”

The teams that fell before Fermanagh in 2004 constituted an impressive portfolio: Meath had been All-Ireland finalists just three years previously and champions two years before that, whereas Donegal just 12 months earlier were All-Ireland semi-finalists.

Beating Cork by six points in Croke Park was an obvious highlight but as much for what happened afterwards.

McBarron’s wedding to Ann Marie Cahill – then a member of the Dublin women’s football panel – was fixed for the same day. The nuptials were delayed until later in the afternoon and a helicopter took the happy groom to Kinawley on the Fermanagh-Cavan border.

The most famous conquest was the defeat of Ulster champions Armagh by a point in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

“We didn’t refer to it as the quarter-finals or give them a name; to us they were just orange jerseys.”

McBarron accepts Mayo were the better team in the semi-final but naturally feels regret about how close Fermanagh came – drawing 0-9 each the first day before losing by two points in the replay – to an All-Ireland final. Would he have given his team much of a chance against Kerry, who had beaten Fermanagh by 17 points in the qualifiers of 2002?


“We had such confidence and belief in ourselves. Páidi Ó Sé said at the time if we had got to the final we would have known how to beat that Kerry team, which was nice to hear even if hypothetical.

I was back in Queen’s talking to Dessie Ryan and Seán O’Neill said once you get to a final, it’s always 50-50.”

If the years have flown, life hasn’t stood still for McBarron, who left teaching to pursue business ideas. Waste disposal company EcoSense was established and more recently he and Ann Marie launched Julie’s Favorite Granola (www.juliasgranola.com), named after the youngest of their three children and complete with American spelling. Ann Marie spent her childhood Stateside.

Home has been Dublin for 14 years and he continues to help out in Kilmacud Crokes. His heart will be with Fermanagh this afternoon.

“I think small counties should be aiming higher,” he says. “I know counties like Fermanagh can’t hold it together all of the time like the Kerrys and the Dublins but instead of cribbing about what they don’t have they should look at what they do have and go for the fairytale, shoot for the stars.”

And unusually in the case of fairytales he’s speaking from experience.

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