There was a period in the early noughties when Stephen Maguire was among the best full forwards in the game.

The Belcoo man was a strong, ball winning full forward who had an eye for a score as well as being good at bringing his teammates into play.

There were numerous man of the match performances and crucial scores as Fermanagh battled it out with some of the best in the country.

However, it did not happen overnight for the attacker at inter-county level and he is the perfect example of showing patience and a willingness to work and learn his game.

Maguire first came into the Fermanagh squad in the 1996 season under Terry Ferguson, but it would be a few years until he became a permanent fixture in the side under Pat King.

“When I look back now, it was a learning curve and thankfully I had plenty of patience because it took a few years to break in and get established. I had a lot of work to do in terms of my physical build and of course you are learning your trade at a young age.”

And he says that patience is something he advises any young player to have if they want to make it at inter-county level.

“What I would tell other young fellas at the club is if you do get on to a county team early have patience as very seldom will you break through in the first year, it takes a few years to establish yourself. There are high demands nowadays in terms of fitness and physicality and most of all you have to be disciplined on and off the field and have a good work ethic and if you can combine all those and stick at it, that would be the advice I would give to most young players looking to break through,” he commented.

The young forward though began to make his mark under King, making his Ulster championship debut in the replay loss to Cavan in 1997.

“I was up against Ciaran Brady from Gowna and playing at full forward in those times you got a fair degree of ball, so you were quite busy. We lost that day, but I gained valuable experience from starting that game,” he added.

2000 though was Maguire’s breakthrough year. He was man of the match as Fermanagh defeated Monaghan, torturing the Farney defence, before the Erne side also claimed the scalp of Donegal to set up a semi-final showdown against Armagh.

“That win over Monaghan was an important win, especially as it was in front of our own supporters in Brewster Park. The Fermanagh fans are very loyal and follow the side through the good and bad, so it was nice to give them something to smile about.

“We then went to Ballybofey and won which is a very difficult place to go and try and get something out of,” he stated.

The semi-final against Armagh was a tight, tense tussle. Maguire was again in fine form with Armagh continually forced into fouling the full forward, but they came up just short with the Orchard shading the game by a point.

“It was a hot day and Armagh were physical which they always were. It was a tight game throughout, and we had chances to probably win it, but we just didn’t take them and they did. They went on then to win the Ulster final after that with victory over Derry. It was a great opportunity to get to an Ulster final, but we just came up short.

“Pat did a fine job during his time and had things moving in the right direction,” he added.

When King stepped down at the end of that season, Mayo man John Maughan look over the reins.

“I got on well with John, he was a hard, physical trainer, we did a lot of work in St. Michael’s and I personally felt very fit under him. Being an army man, he was regimental, he liked things done and he was very high on discipline,” explained Maguire.

That year saw Fermanagh defeat Donegal after a replay but there was disappointment as they slipped to a loss to Monaghan at Brewster Park.

“We played Donegal in Ballybofey, it was a good Donegal team and it was another tight affair. The first day was an open game that ended in a draw and there was late drama in the replay with Mark O(‘Donnell) snatching it at the end.

“We were probably fancied to beat Monaghan in the next round, and we were at home too, but we just didn’t turn up that day. The disappointing thing about it was that we were in front of our home crowd and expectation was high, so it was a hard pill to swallow.”

Maughan left after that year and was replaced by Dom Corrigan, a man that Maguire has high praise for.

“I thought he brought a very professional set up to us. He had a very good trainer in Martin McElkennon and he had a very effective game plan. Everything was planned meticulously.

“In 2003 we had a very good year and because of 2004 people maybe forget about it. We got to the Division One league semi-final which was a good feat and in the championship we had a great run through the back door and got to the All-Ireland quarter final but we came up against a Tyrone side on both occasions and they were by far the best team in the country that year.

“I thought we played some great football that year. We beat a strong Mayo side in Sligo, that was a result that sticks out for me.

“Dom is a great Fermanagh man and has done some great work with St. Michael’s and those players coming out of St. Michael’s is a very important line for the county team,” said Maguire.

The Belcoo man also feels that the introduction of the Qualifiers aided Fermanagh’s progression.

“When I joined the panel first it was just straight knock out in the championship and once you were beaten in your province you were out. I felt that the qualifiers were great in terms of progression, we had some great runs in the back door, and it gives great confidence. We maybe played with a bit more freedom when we got out of Ulster against teams from different provinces,” he said.

There was another change ahead of the 2004 season with Dom Corrigan stepping down and a number of players retiring.

Corrigan’s replacement was Donegal man Charlie Mulgrew, but the side had a tough time in the league resulting in relegation.

“It was a difficult league campaign because there was a lot of changes and it was a bit disjointed. Charlie was late coming into the job so it was a wee bit topsy turvy and morale would have been a bit low.

“Going into the championship we knew we would have been written off,” he said.

Defeat followed to Tyrone in Ulster but there was glimpses in the performance of what was to come over the remainder of that summer.

“Charlie liked to let boys at it and play football and it suited the speed merchants like Little and Maguire and then you had the more physical players like myself, Shane McDermott, James Sherry, Marty McGrath and Barry Owens so there was a nice blend and still a lot of quality.”

Fermanagh got that memorable run up and going with victory over Meath in Brewster Park and then they blew Cork way in Croke Park.

“We improved all the time. Meath was a difficult game in Enniskillen, but we stuck at it and it was a confidence boost when we got across the line.

“We then went to Croke Park to play Cork and they maybe didn’t give us much respect on the day but we took them out quite convincingly and we followed that up with a battling win against Donegal in a game that went to extra time,” he commented.

Maguire feels that win over Cork in particular gave the side confidence moving into a clash with All Ireland favourites Armagh in the quarter final.

“It is a great experience to play in Croke Park but winning in Croke Park is a completely different experience and we would have taken a lot from that win over Cork.

“Going there at the start you are maybe a wee bit daunted but when you win a game you go there relishing it. Playing there later in the championship is the place to be, the crowds are bigger and it’s every player’s dream to be playing on that stage.”

And Fermanagh were to cause the shock of the year as they saw off the Orchard thanks to Tom Brewster’s late point.

“Armagh were All Ireland winners in 2002 and they were finalists in 2003 and they were going for the All Ireland in 2004. We knew though that we would have a good chance against them. We played them regularly over the years and we knew what we were facing. They were raging hot favourites as well which probably helped.

“We produced a great performance and there was no luck in it, we won it fair and square. It was probably one of our most memorable victories and the support on the day was brilliant,” said Maguire, who came out on top of a big battle with Armagh full back Francie Bellew.

“Me and Francie have locked horns a few times in big games in Clones and it is always a tough day with Francie. We had a great battle, but I thought as a team we performed well and deserved to win.”

The victory sent Fermanagh through to a first ever All Ireland semi-final where they would face Mayo.

“There was a great buzz about the county. There was a lot of young lads wearing the jersey which is what you wanted to see.”

And the atmosphere on the day was something else according to the forward.

“It was a big occasion; the crowd was much bigger and the first thing I sensed going out on the field was the noise. You could hardly hear a player shouting at you from three or four metres away. It was a completely different atmosphere even than the Armagh game. I suppose there was a bigger prize too.”

The sides played out a draw on the first day with Maguire slotting over an equalising point for the Ernemen although they will feel that it was possibly one they should have won.

“It was disappointing as we had a chance especially when Mayo went down to 14 men. There were probably one or two chances that we should have taken. It is definitely one that got away.”

The second day though went the way of Mayo as Fermanagh’s fairy tale run came to an end.

“We as a team didn’t get going and Mayo learnt more from the previous game than we did. They had a few more players who had experience of that stage over the previous few years and that helped them. They also took their chances when they came.

“It was very disappointing because we firmly believed that we could get to the All-Ireland final, but we just didn’t perform.

“When you look back though it was a very memorable journey.”

Maguire played again in 2005 but it was a disappointing season as the championship campaign finished early and the big attacker took the decision to call time on his inter-county career at the age of 28.

“I suppose I had nearly ten years at county football and the body was maybe a bit tired. Looking back, I could probably have given it another year or two, but you make your decision at the time and you stick by it.

“Look, I had a very enjoyable journey and I made a lot of friends on the county team and also met a lot of lads from other counties.

“It would have been nice to have walked away with an Ulster medal in my back pocket, but it wasn’t to be. The guys in the future now have a chance and hopefully they can go on and win one.”