Malachy O’Rourke chats to Gareth Cauldwell about that memorable campaign in 2008

2008 was a memorable year for Fermanagh footballers as they came within a whisker of claiming that elusive first Ulster title, losing a final replay to Armagh after a great comeback the first day out.

Malachy O’Rourke had taken over the reins from Charlie Mulgrew who stepped down at the end of the 2007 season and a strong league campaign that saw promotion to Division Two secured was followed by a championship run that included wonderful wins over Monaghan and Derry before the final heartbreak against the Orchardmen.

For O’Rourke though the biggest disappointment was not the actual defeat but the fact that they did not kick on over the next two years and build on 2008.

“There is no doubt that it was a great year and as a Fermanagh man, to have had the privilege of leading the team to an Ulster final and to see the joy that it brings to so many people and the support it brings was brilliant.

“Also, for the group of lads themselves, so many of them had given so much to the county and it meant so much to them and their families. They are a great bunch of fellas and it was a great time but I always just feel that the one thing I would regret the most is not actually the defeat, I look on it that you get your chance and you either take it or leave it, if you don’t take it move on. I was just disappointed that over the next couple of years we didn’t drive on, we regressed instead of progressed, but that’s the way it goes. We could never get back to the level we were at that year,” said O’Rourke.

O’Rourke came into the Fermanagh job with an excellent club management CV that included an Ulster Club with Loup and county titles in Tyrone and Cavan. And he felt it was a good time to take on the Fermanagh job.

“There was a lot of good players there and a lot of lads in their prime and it was a case maybe of restoring the confidence and getting the belief back in the squad and getting a run going. I felt there was an opportunity to build something and that was the way we looked at it,” he explained.

And the league campaign could not have went much smoother with Fermanagh building momentum throughout as they secured promotion along with Wexford after an unbeaten run.

“We used the league to look at players and try and get a settled team and a system of play in place but also when you are winning you are enjoying football, you are enjoying training, there is more of a momentum behind you and a good vibe. That was very important.

“As I said we wanted to get the boys believing in themselves and to go out and play good football. The more wins you have that creates its own momentum and you can build on that all the time.”

The Division Three league final was played as the curtain raiser for the Division One final between Derry and Kerry in Parnell Park and it was to end in defeat to Wexford.

However, lessons learned from that loss proved invaluable moving forward into the championship.

“We conceded three goals and it was a great learning experience for us because I know after that day we realised that going into championship if we are leaving the defence open like that and conceding 3-15 against Wexford then we would be in trouble against Monaghan. It was a timely sort of a jolt for us to say right we have to keep things tighter at the back and the system of play has to be better to make ourselves more secure at the back and then have an attacking threat as well. That was a day that stood to us going forward,” said O’Rourke.

And learn they did as Fermanagh produced an assured performance to see off the Farneymen at Brewster Park and keeping a cleansheet into the bargain.

“Monaghan had a very good year the previous year and they were maybe looking ahead at Ulster finals at that stage whereas we were looking at the first game as our Ulster final. We were looking at it as a big standalone fixture. We did a lot of good work and preparation before it and the boys were going in in a good frame of mind. I suppose things did go well on the day, we were solid at the back and were probably in a fair degree of control all through the game.”

This win and performance just added to a sense within the squad that they were serious contenders and O’Rourke says that is something that they had been trying to instil since taking charge.

“One thing I do recall is that before the National League we were going away for a training camp and we met in the Donn Carragh in Lisnaskea.

“I remember talking to the boys and l suppose we were trying to get the mindset right for the year ahead. I remember saying something along the lines of imagine coming back here on July 20 to the Donn Carragh with the Anglo Celt Cup, that was the sort of picture we were trying to paint, that this is possible.

“Our thoughts were that we have the players and if we get everything right, our preparation right, this is the goal we had in mind. Then when you do start winning games the confidence starts to build up and then beating Monaghan only further added to that and boys started thinking we’re probably a lot closer to this than we might have thought 12 months ago,” stated O’Rourke.

With the likes of Ronan Gallagher, Shane McDermott, Ryan McCluskey, Marty McGrath and James Sherry there was plenty of leadership and experience in the ranks and O’Rourke felt that there was a good blend within the squad.

“There was a lot of leaders and then you also had younger boys like Tommy McElroy and Mark Murphy who had great attitudes and were really keen and ambitious to push on. There was a nice mix and it was a case of pushing on and seeing how far we could go.”

Next up was an Ulster semi-final on an unforgettable Saturday night in Omagh. However, with the Bradley boys on form Fermanagh looked in all sorts of trouble early on in the game.

“The day we lost the Division Three final Derry actually beat Kerry in the Division One final and going into the semi-final Derry would have been hot favourites but they would have been very dependent on the two Bradleys in the full forward line.

“Anyway, we went down by about six points early in the game and I remember talking on the sideline, we had been playing with a sweeper and we discussed abandoning it but in the end rather than abandon it we decided to add another sweeper and tighten up the defence even more. We wanted to try and starve their full forward line of possession and have our defence really tight,” he said.

A rampant Derry though did have a chance to further add to their lead but a Gallagher penalty save proved to be the turning point in the game.

“Obviously, Ronnie saved a penalty and that was a turning point as if that had went in we would have been in serious bother but that gave us a boost at the right time.

“As the game went on then you could see Derry getting frustrated as what had worked for them early in the game wasn’t working as well. On top of that we started to counter attack very well, we used the ball well and picked off scores so there’s a combination of things, Derry were getting frustrated and we were gaining confidence and becoming more comfortable in the way we were playing.”

And a returning Barry Owens landed the crucial blow as he found the back of the net to put Fermanagh ahead in the game. Owens had went through heart surgery early in the year but was sprung from the bench in the final quarter to steal the headlines.

“Barry was such a great player and a great lad and it was just unfortunate that he wasn’t able to play for most of that year. But he came in that day and he lifts the crowd and then he gets the goal and that was just like a dream. There was also another incident towards the end of the game when a ball was on the ground in our square and Shane Goan couldn’t get his feet to it but he dived head long and got his head to the ball and it just summed it up the determination and will to get over the line. Shane was determined to put any part of his body there to stop the ball going into the net. It was just one of them evenings that you don’t get too often,” he added.

As the fans flooded on to the Omagh pitch to celebrate Fermanagh reaching their first final since 1982, the players and management quickly made their way to the changing room away from all the noise.

“That was something we had talked about it. We felt we had a great chance of winning the game and there is no point in seeing this as the end itself, it was a case of remaining focused. Obviously, you enjoy it and celebrate it but at the same time we weren’t going to get carried away and we were really focused on what was coming next.”

Over the next few weeks the excitement hit fever pitch as the county prepared for the Ulster final and O’Rourke acknowledges that can be difficult to deal with.

“The previous final was 1982 and I remember being at the game myself as a supporter. Fermanagh supporters are mad keen to get out and support the team and there was a real carnival atmosphere but that has it’s own dangers as well and for a county such as ourselves who don’t get to finals and be involved in the big occasions so much that is a mental drain and it is so hard to cope with that. You can try everything you want but we probably didn’t play as well as we wanted. And if you look back at 1982 and at 2018 the boys didn’t play in the finals the way they were capable of playing.

“The teams that are used to getting to finals, for them it is like business as usual and they are concentrating on their performance whereas for Fermanagh teams it is all new and there are new things to contend with,” he added.

Fermanagh had started reasonably well in the final but when Finnian Moriarty sneaked forward to find the net it put Armagh in control at the break.

And the game looked to be ebbing away from the Ernemen when Stevie McDonnell fired to the net early in the second half to put eight between the sides, 2-06 to 0-04. From that to the finish though it was all Fermanagh as they outscored Armagh 1-07 to 0-02 and were in complete dominance when the final whistle went.

“When Armagh got their second goal we looked in trouble but we played very well in the second half.

“Eamon Maguire got the goal and we started using the ball a lot better. We chipped away at scores and it was just unfortunate that we didn’t get over the line. You would have thought that the way the game was going we could have won it that day. We were in control of it at the end,” said O’Rourke.

O’Rourke admits there was obvious disappointment that they didn’t get the job done on the day but that they felt they had a good chance going into the replay.

“When you are so close and you see that dream in front of you, there is that bit of deflation there that we didn’t get over the line but we felt we had a good chance going into the second day. We felt if we got enough things right on the day we would have a great chance of winning that. Obviously, that sense of occasion we felt wouldn’t be there as much the second day which we felt would help but look we just didn’t do enough to win it and that’s it,” he said.

The game had been tight early on but that was mostly down to missed chances on Fermanagh’s behalf and in the second half Armagh pulled away to finish up deserving victors.

“You get your chance and you either take it or you don’t and that’s life. We kicked wides and that saps the energy too where if you are keeping the scoreboard ticking over it goes through the team.

“The game was still in the melting pot in the second half but we let it slip through our hands and Armagh were able to push on. It was disappointing.”

And the season came to an end a week later when they made their exit from the Qualifiers with defeat to Kildare.

“I think against Kildare we again had a lot of chances early on and we didn’t take them and it was maybe a case of deja vu.

“It was a disappointing performance and a disappointing end to the year but look that’s the way it goes. As I’ve said, it was disappointing that we didn’t build on this over the next couple of years but it was a great year to be involved in,” concluded O’Rourke.