When small Fermanagh victories mean as much as All-Irelands do to Dublin
Fermanagh’s Tomás Corrigan was fourth highest scorer in last year’s championship
Tomás Corrigan: “Coming from Fermanagh, I didn’t realise that there were Irish people who didn’t know what Gaelic football was. People who didn’t follow it”
In his early days studying law at Trinity, wedged into lecture-room rows with yah-yah dudes from private school Dublin, Tomás Corrigan made a startling discovery. There are people in Ireland walking around among us this minute – not madmen, not loo-las, just people – and they know nothing about Gaelic football.
They don’t know about championship structures. Couldn’t tell you a thing about the black card. Kinsgpan Breffni Park means nothing to them.
That they had in their midst one of the best forwards in Ulster, one of the top free-takers in the country, similarly passed them by. Corrigan wasn’t of a mind to make them aware either.
“Even the Dublin lads, they wouldn’t know a thing,” he smiles now. “They’d just be, ‘oh yeah, he plays gah.’ So that was an eye-opener for me.
“And it was probably good for my mental state of mind to have it brought home to me that in the great scheme of the world, no one really cares about Gaelic football. It’s important to me, but you have to realise it’s a really small aspect of life.
“Coming from Fermanagh, I didn’t realise that there were Irish people who didn’t know what Gaelic football was. People who didn’t follow it. Growing up in Fermanagh, you go to matches, then you go to St Michael’s in Enniskillen, you play MacRory, you play for your club, you play for Fermanagh, and you literally think that the world revolves around Gaelic football.”
Corrigan’s world more than most - his father is Dominic Corrigan, a former manager of Fermanagh.
Tomás turned 14 in the summer of 2004, when Fermanagh were a kick of a ball from an All-Ireland final, the time of his life. He went to every training session, had a seat on the team bus, stayed in the hotels, all of it.
Putting out flags
“When I was a kid I used to put Fermanagh flags out the front of our house. And out on the road, and anywhere else I could put one. I would always put them out so that anybody passing could see them. And now that I’m playing for Fermanagh, to know there are kids putting their flags out just like I did, that gives me a great buzz. Like, you feel that connection.”
Is that enough, though? That’s the riddle of it. Corrigan picked a serious career for himself, one that deals in absolutes and certainties and strict, cold facts that feel nothing. The law makes no room for fluff and nonsense. He can’t think of another legal person anywhere else in the inter-county game. Eoin Brosnan is the best he can come up with, and he has retired since 2013.
He is in the middle of a two-year training contract with Arthur Cox. The firm is helpful and encouraging, but it is in Dublin city centre and the Fermanagh team trains in Lissan. For Corrigan to make a 7pm session, he has to be out the door by 4pm. The way to get ahead as a trainee is by staying late and asking for a bigger workload. He can’t do that.
“It’s no help to my career, obviously. To me, playing for Fermanagh is everything. And when you’re playing inter-county football you tend to put your career on hold. You have to if you want to excel. The amount of hours you have to put into it is huge, be it training, diet, mental practice all that.
“It’s planning. It’s the Sunday night planning your diet for the week, planning your sleep around training, managing your workload, deciding how much work you’re going to go looking for to allow you time to get out to training.
“After training you’re thinking about how you performed, how you’re going to perform the next night. You’re doing your mental imagery for an upcoming game even if it’s just a challenge.
“I was thinking one of the days about whether I would rather just park the Gaelic and get on with my career. And to be very honest about it, that day will probably come at some stage. I’d love to keep going the way I’m going but eventually that won’t be possible.
“It’s going to get to stage where Arthur Cox are going to say, ‘look, we’ve been very accommodating but do you want to do this or not?’ And I’ll have to pick between the two of them. Which means I’ll have to park the Gaelic. But at the minute I’m getting away with it because I’m still training.”
Choices. The best ones are those you can keep putting off.
In a county like Fermanagh where the pool is small and regularly drained, the choice comes at them all in time. Corrigan reckons 10 of the Fermanagh panel live and work in Dublin, around the same again in Belfast, ditto at home. Between injuries, retirements and walk-aways, 20 of the panel that faced Dublin in 2015 are not available this weekend.
Corrigan was the fourth highest scorer in last year’s championship, ending it with a higher scoring average than Cillian O’Connor, Conor McManus, Michael Quinlivan – everyone except Dean Rock, basically. Even if Fermanagh had everyone still in situ, Corrigan still couldn’t leave. Not while it’s possible for him to stay.
“I’d say I’m incredibly lucky. My first memory of Gaelic football is going to Clones to watch Fermanagh with one of those little caps with cardboard inside them and a flag, and thinking it was the best thing in the world. I have all these great memories of Gaelic football, so for me football isn’t a chore.
“It’s something that I have a love for that I developed before I was even able to think about it. I have a deep love for Gaelic football and for Fermanagh that came through my parents, so playing football well for Fermanagh nearly isn’t a choice. I mean, it is a choice, obviously, but it’s nearly automatic.
“It’s not like two people sitting in a coffee shop and one of them saying, ‘yeah, I’m going to work really hard and get my tax exams.’ It’s not a choice the way that is a choice. It’s a much deeper thing. It’s a love for your place, for where you’re from and for your family. If I wasn’t playing for Fermanagh I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d be working late I suppose!
“If it was linked to glory, there’d be no Fermanagh team. Because, like, what glory have we got? “The small little victories for Fermanagh mean as much to Fermanagh people as winning an All-Ireland means to Dublin people.”
If they muster up a win at all this summer it will likely be against the head. They were relegated from Division Two, blitzed by injuries right through the spring. They scored the fewest goals in the four divisions, had the lowest percentage of scores from open play, the second lowest scoring average per game, the second highest goals conceded per game.
If they’ve turned all that around in time for Monaghan in Clones on Saturday night it will be miraculous.
“A team like us has 18, 19 players. Once you’re down past that number and injuries eat into your squad, you’re playing lads who just don’t have the experience or who just aren’t as well prepared for those closing 10 minutes of games.
“The last game was against Derry. Holy God. I haven’t watched it back yet. I’ll watch it next year some time. I can’t bring myself to watch it now because the amount of chances we missed was outrageous. I honestly don’t know what happened.
“As one of the coaches said there last weekend, the team was on its knees after the league. We were just deflated. It was a dark, dark two weeks. But I think once we got our heads around it, and lads came back from injury, we got a bit of energy and positivity into the squad.
“And things started looking better. The weather picked up, and the pitch we train on, which had been a disaster through the league, got a bit harder and we could do better training. It’s a new season – championship is a whole new ball game.
“Nobody is giving us a hope at all. Fermanagh is a weaker county, and we play better when nobody gives us a hope. When we were playing Antrim the last two years we were favourites, and it was a strange enough situation for us to be in because we’re very rarely favourites in an Ulster championship game. So it’s not exactly that this situation is easier to prepare for, it’s more than we know this way of preparing for a game.”