Schools GAA: Barry Owens - Forged in cauldron of the MacRory

‘I had never really played full back, so it was Dominic who started me off playing there – and it stuck’

21 June 2008; Barry Owens, Fermangh, turns to celebrate after scoring his side's goal in the second half. Ulster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi Final, Derry v Fermanagh, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

21 June 2008; Barry Owens, Fermangh, turns to celebrate after scoring his side's goal in the second half. Ulster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi Final, Derry v Fermanagh, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

 

From 1999 to 2002, when St Michael’s Enniskillen famously reached four MacRory Cup finals in a row, the school laid the foundations for arguably Fermanagh’s greatest ever team, not to mention unearthing one of the province’s greatest ever full backs.

Before Barry Owens moved to the school for his final two years of study in 1999, playing under the tenure of Dominic Corrigan, who would bring him into the county senior panel as a selector in 2001, he had never even played in the full back position.

In fact, he was only starting in that 1999 MacRory Cup triumph because the regular full back was missing, forcing Corrigan to revise his options. But the result was that Corrigan discovered probably the most talented full back of his generation.

“I came into St Michael’s in sixth year, myself and Marty McGrath, and I think the team we came in to had already been relatively successful at first year and all the way up.

“You see up here it’s sixth and seventh year – so after fifth year you leave your high school and go on to your grammar school – so that’s what brought us in.

“I played in two MacRory Cup finals, two of the four. Dom Corrigan was the PE teacher and he took us for MacRory Cup in the school and then he got involved for Fermanagh with John Maughan at the end of 2000 [as well as managing Fermanagh in 2003] and he brought a lot of us through after that. I was straight in after school.”

Owens may not have been a ready-made MacRory Cup star when he entered the school, but within five years of his senior schools debut, he was an established intercounty player and an All Star full back.

The early teams of the MacRory Cup ‘four finals in a row’ also contained Fermanagh’s Marty McGrath, another All Star in 2004, the duo only the county’s second and third ever All Star award winners.

“Marty was midfield for two years for the school, I probably wasn’t going to be starting for the team in ’99, only the regular full back went away on holidays for a couple of weeks, his family went to Australia I think and I got my chance.

“I had only joined the Fermanagh minor panel at the time. For the club I would have played at midfield mostly and centre half back, I had never really played full back, so it was Dominic who started me off playing there – and it stuck.”

Springboard McGrath and Owens weren’t the only two to use the experience of the MacRory Cup as a springboard for their future Fermanagh careers. Another key component of the Fermanagh team that took the 2004 qualifier series by storm, reaching the All-Ireland semi-final was Colm Bradley, while Shane McCabe also went on to represent the Ernesiders for a number of years.

“When we arrived Colm Bradley was the star. He was the main man up front and I remember he kicked 2-3 or 2-4 in one of the MacRory Cup finals.

“The MacRory was probably a higher level than county minor was when we played. In the final in 2000 we were playing against the likes of Seán Cavanagh from Tyrone and Ronan Clarke and Malachy Mackin of Armagh. They beat us in that final by a point but these were all quality players who went on to do well with their counties.”

During two years of MacRory Cup action, that 2000 final is the game that stands out in Owens’s memory as the highest quality encounter.

“Against St Patrick’s, Armagh I marked Ronan Clarke in the first half and Seán Cavanagh in the second. Them lads came in to the senior intercounty set-ups at more or less the same time as I did, maybe a year in the difference as they’d have been a year younger than me.

“They were the main men and we all knew about them and that they were the best players, so we would have been very wary. Cavanagh started at centre forward and then Clarke was full forward, but they switched.

“I think Cavanagh got the winning goal as far as I remember, so it wasn’t too memorable now.”

Three of St Michael’s six MacRory Cup triumphs came during that remarkable run of finals from 1999 to 2002. In total, the school has reached 13 finals, while they have also appeared in two Hogan Cup finals, losing out in both 2002 and 2012.

“Ulster is always very even. I suppose St Pat’s Maghera are the main ones, but much like with the counties, any team can beat any other team and it does take a lot out out of you winning Ulster. So that’s why a lot of teams go on and get beaten in the Hogan Cup.

“When we won it in ’99, we played Good Council of Wexford and they beat us by two points in the semi-final in Parnell Park. Rory Stafford was playing for them and they were a strong team.”

Compete

“We lost then in 2000, and then 2001 was the year of the foot and mouth outbreak, so ourselves and Omagh shared it, but I was gone at that stage. The following year we won it again and went on to compete in the Hogan Cup, but again St Jarlath’s beat them in the semi-final.”

Fermanagh went on to become one of the country’s most consistent teams during the mid-2000s, pulling off some thrilling Ulster championship victories, but in particular they became masters of the All-Ireland qualifiers series.

In 2008 they reached the last eight of the championship; in 2004 they were only edged after a replay by Mayo in the semi-final; in 2006 they were amongst the final 12 teams in the championship, and again in 2008 they were in the last 12 via the Ulster final this time.

“A lot of counties would have different lads from different teams and then at different grades, but we had the same lads around us and were playing together the whole way through.

“It definitely helped when we were senior. We went out and we didn’t fear anyone, whether we were playing Kerry or Cork or Dublin, we always knew we could hold our own and we had that togetherness. For a county like Fermanagh to be competitive like that, it was definitely a great time.”

For Owens, though, with the game at his feet, his luck would turn sour on the injury front. Firstly heart surgery held him back for much of the Ulster championship in 2008, although he did appear with great effect during the latter stages of the campaign, displaying his versatility in the forward line.

Next he suffered a cruciate ligament injury, which ruled him out long term, while the final years years of his intercounty career were hampered with minor niggles before he retired after last summer’s championship.

“There were a lot of lonely nights on the side of the pitch watching the other lads training and me just doing my own bits of running, trying to keep my own bit of fitness going, but I enjoyed my time in it.

“My family was probably the main reason I left. My wife and I, we have been together through the whole lot, probably from the start of the MacRory Cup and I think we needed a bit of a break from the football for a while.

Good run

“Then I suppose with the injuries too, it was fantastic whenever I got a good run, but I only got back last March and I didn’t really have time to give to it.

“When you’re young, football is your life, you were just training, football, training, football and that’s what it was and you know I suppose it was hard – but I actually find it hard to fill my time now after it all.

“But no, I think Pete McGrath [Fermanagh manager] knows it’s time for the young players now.”

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