In June 2000, the late Pat King brought his Fermanagh team into MacCumhaill Park with the ambition of doing something unprecedented: winning a championship game across the Border against their Donegal neighbours.
No Fermanagh team had achieved that since 1934. What unfolded was untelevised and unorthodox – and arguably the source material for the All-Ireland semi-final appearances both counties would make a few summers seasons later. Ten thousand supporters showed up, including an optimistic Fermanagh contingent, for an engagement that was fiery from the start.
"The things that went on in games at that time, off the ball in particular . . . you just wouldn't get away with nowadays, thankfully," says Shane King, who lined out at corner forward that day.
It was a game that had everything, including a missed penalty for Donegal, a huge shock and even, as correspondent Pat Roche delicately put it, "an apparent biting incident".
Fourteen yellow cards were issued over the afternoon and Tony Collins, the Fermanagh defender, drew the short straw and was shown red, leaving the visitors with 14 men at half-time.
Rory Gallagher, Fermanagh's playmaker, would contribute 1-6 but was carrying a damaged leg by half-time and would be forced to leave the field after 55 minutes. All the signs pointed to another Sunday of disappointment for Fermanagh.
It’s an occasion that Shane King treasures, not least for the memory of the talk his father gave in the dressing room at half-time. Pat King had had a distinguished Tyrone playing career before leaving vital imprints on the Fermanagh game.
“It looked like an uphill battle for us. He told us this story about playing for Tyrone 27 years earlier and they were behind and were a man down. And nobody was to give the ball away and it was all about work rate. I remember I had a free to go level thinking if I could land it, we were in with a real shout. Then Shane McDermott, who went on to captain the team, had come on as a substitute, kicked a fabulous point to put us a point up.
“And then I just remember the euphoria – the crowd stayed behind afterwards. We had won two games. Tyrone would give us an awful trimming in the [Ulster] semi-final. But it was the first time Fermanagh had won two championship games in a long time.”
It finished 1-12 to 0-13 to the visitors. Declan Bonner, Donegal's manager, stepped down immediately afterwards – it had always been his intention to do so when the season ended.
The game marked the beginning of an intense period of rivalry between the Border rivals. Donegal were still trying to reinvent themselves as a football force following the dissolution of the 1992 All-Ireland-winning team.
Fermanagh, meantime, simply sought respect. The following year, 2001, the teams were drawn again in the Ulster championship and once more, Fermanagh came into MacCumhaill Park and emerged with a result – this time a high-scoring, entertaining 1-16 to 2-13 draw.
The replay was a week later, teak-tough and low scoring and, crucially, staged in Enniskillen. Again, Fermanagh emerged victorious by 1-09 to 0-11, sealing the game and a memorable Saturday night with a last-minute goal from Mark O’Donnell. The result silenced any debate that the previous summer had been a flash in the pan.
"We have decided to train hard and see what we can do," said a crestfallen Mickey Moran, Donegal's first-year manager, looking ahead to the new improvisation of the qualifiers with no great enthusiasm. "And I'll tell you what, we will go further than Fermanagh."
They did too, by beating them in the first round of those same qualifiers, 0-15 to 1-6, after the counties were, unbelievably, paired again.
“They were a different outfit that day,” Shane King says grimly. “They were incredibly physical. It ended up being my last game for Fermanagh. The travelling up and down became too much and I transferred clubs and played with Down after that.”
But in 2003, Fermanagh had more misery in store for Donegal, serving up at 0-10 to 0-6 beating in Brewster Park, this time with Brian McEniff back in the familiar peaked cap and sideline role with Donegal.
Minutes after the game, the Bundoran man categorised the match as “the worst display ever given by a Donegal team”. Then, he dusted himself off and executed arguably his finest act, rehabilitating a broken Donegal squad to the point of reaching a riveting August All-Ireland semi-final duel against champions Armagh.
"In those years we had a good enough team and had the potential to win something but I think we lacked the mental strength to get over the line," says Tony Blake, Donegal's resident goalkeeper in that period.
"Brewster Park was always a tight place to go. It was a tight pitch and the crowd was in close to you. I think that was a factor. But they had big players, too, at that time. Shane [King] the Gallaghers, Paul Brewster; they had match winners there and those were days when it came together for them."
Blake belongs to the school of Donegal goalkeepers who excelled in both soccer and Gaelic football. An exceptional shot-stopper, he admits there was nothing he could do about the goal Rory Gallagher scored in Ballybofey that day in 2000 which sparked Fermanagh’s revival. Shane King broke down a speculative ball, Gallagher took possession and executed a chip that verged on insolence.
“That was the one he came in from the right hand side – our left,” Blake says now. “I still maintain he mishit it! Rory mightn’t admit it but he came in and as he was about to strike the ball he was tackled. And whatever way, the ball just looped over the top of me and into the goal. Rory will say he meant it and everything but I have my doubts! We have been in each other’s company a few times but have never approached the subject. But look, he was a phenomenal striker of the ball and a great talent. He stood out against better defenders in the country.”
King remembers Gallagher’s capacity for compiling huge score tallies with maximum economy but it was his playmaking capacity and his reading of the game that indicated his managerial potential.
“Football was a different game then – very physical and strong with heavier men. There wasn’t the same sort of mobility. You just had to win your corner. But it was Rory’s vision; he’d find a pass when there didn’t seem to be one on. He was a very methodical guy – you can see that in the way he sets his teams up now.
“His father, you know, was a very successful manager at club level and even when Rory was young in the dressing room, he was a vocal presence. He would say things to me like: if a free is too far out, come for it and you’ll get fouled closer in. In some ways we never saw the best of Rory because he had that groin injury and then he had moved away when Fermanagh got to the semi-final in 2004.”
The significance of those turn of the millennium local derbies were cast in a new light in the years to come. Nobody would have imagined that day in 2000 that either team would set the world on fire. But Donegal pushed the All-Ireland champions Armagh hard in the 2003 semi-final. A year later, Fermanagh, managed by former Donegal All-Ireland winner Charlie Mulgrew, created one of the biggest shocks in modern GAA history by defeating Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter -final.
Not only that, but they took Mayo to a replay in the semi-final, coming within minutes of making true a fantasy Fermanagh-Kerry All-Ireland football final.
Future Donegal manager Jim McGuinness played in those Fermanagh games and would go on to invite Rory Gallagher onto his backroom staff ahead of the revolution he instigated in the north-west starting in 2011.
Gallagher went on to succeed McGuinness as the Donegal senior manager before returning to take charge of his native county, where he masterminded a famous coup over Monaghan that brought them to an Ulster final last summer.
It was almost inevitable that they would face Donegal in that decider with Declan Bonner, whose first managerial term Gallagher had ended as a player, back on the sideline, this time as the victorious manager.
It confirmed the circular nature of the fixture and the fiercely localised character of this rivalry. Shane King has kept a close eye on his former team and predicts the sort of taut and thorny encounter that will be redolent of those locally famous years.
“I think there’s a really good dynamic in the Fermanagh management team. While Rory can be serious, he has that capacity for fun. He is very strong on match-ups. Fermanagh won’t hit massive scores so they will probably try and keep it low-scoring and be there or thereabouts with 10 minutes to go. These guys won’t be intimidated and Donegal can be hit and miss. Fermanagh will just want to create as much doubt as they can.”
Declan Bonner has already spoken of the difficulties of going into Brewster Park on Sunday to face a team that have already beaten them in the league this spring.
“It is going to be a cauldron,” he acknowledged.
It will and one which will grip the northwest. Ticket only; no jacket required.