In Focus – Eamon Maguire – Fermanagh’s free-style forward

IT seems like something from a bygone age now – a time when anything was possible, when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and northern upstarts were ruling the roost at Croke Park.

Eamon Maguire was one such upstart; then a fearless 21-year-old rookie, he lit up the championship summer with a Fermanagh team that bowed to nobody, pulling off the upset of upsets when they dumped  Armagh out in the All-Ireland quarter-final before taking Mayo to a replay in the semi-final.

Maguire established himself as one of Fermanagh’s key players long before their campaign came to an end – an energetic, creative half-forward who played the game as he saw it, his light physique belied a teak-tough competitor who was also brilliant in the air.

Fast-forward 17 years and he’s still starring for his club St Pat’s, Donagh – he even won a Fermanagh  Club All-Star award in 2018 – but he’s happy enough that his intercounty days are at an end.

He never officially retired as such – he made fleeting returns to county football during Pete McGrath and Rory Gallagher’s tenures in charge – but it’s fair to say that the modern game isn’t for him.

The diary-filling demands “absolutely sickened him” and weren’t exactly compatible with his occupation as an off-shore electrician, while Gallagher’s innately conservative game-plan was at odds with Maguire’s naturally adventurous spirit.

But anyway, Fermanagh’s wondrous run to the brink of an All-Ireland final was arguably a serendipitous consequence of the fall-out from Dominic Corrigan’s departure  the previous year. The county failed to find an immediate replacement, and a number of starting players packed up and left. Charlie Mulgrew was appointed in January and went on a trawl through the county for new players, and that’s where an eager young lad by the name of Eamon Maguire came in (though it should be noted that he had experience of playing for Fermanagh at minor and u-21 level).

He was stationed at wing-half forward, with Mark Little from nearby Lisnaskea manning the other flank. Little’s impressive progress served as a source of encouragement for Maguire, who had nailed down a starting berth by the time their Ulster Championship first-round clash against Tyrone came around. Fermanagh lost out by 1-13 to 0-12 in a commendable display, but there was little indication of what was to come.

Maguire said: “I went to primary school with Mark, and we went to the same secondary school as well. We played on vocational teams together and made a few Ulster finals. I knew him so well and when he was playing well he gave me encouragement to think I could do it myself.

“I didn’t really have a set game-plan. It was more or less to go out and express myself and that was really it. Once we got going we had a settled team and we all had our various roles down to a tee.”

A dramatic victory over Meath in the Qualifiers set up a Croke Park date with Cork. It turned out to be the first of four visits to GAA Headquarters that year and Maguire relished the experience.

“It was magical. Coming from Fermanagh we obviously don’t get to Croke Park too often. I’d actually played hurling at Croke Park for my school during half-time of an All-Ireland semi-final. I was P7 at the time. I was mad to get there again some day.

“People ask what playing at Croke Park is like, but it’s only now that I truly appreciate how great it was. It suited me as well. I was 21 and full of running, and we liked to run at defences, so it was an ideal environment.”

Fermanagh weren’t given a chance of overturning heavy-hitters Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but the lack of external pressure worked in their favour and they ended up on the right side of one of the biggest upsets in GAA history.

Maguire said: “We always had respect for any team we played, and Armagh had a lot of big names, but that gave us a bit more encouragement as we wanted to see if we could compete against them.

“We were going in with no expectations, we had a carefree attitude which was probably dangerous for them. It didn’t matter who we were going up against, we knew what we were going to do and tried to enforce that.”

Tom Brewster struck a remarkable winning point for Fermanagh in injury time, and in hindsight it shows how much the game has changed that Paul Hearty thumped the restart straight down the middle rather than trying to maintain possession from a short kick-out. Maguire recalls trying in vain to distract the big Crossmaglen man.

“I have good memories of Tom scoring the winner, and he actually hit a similar score out on the wing about 15 minutes earlier, so I was fairly confident that the right man had the ball at the right time.

“I remember the ball going over the bar, and my first instinct was to try to stop Paul Hearty getting his kick-out away, but sure he was three times the size of me. I thought I’d walk in front of him slowly, but he nearly threw me out to the 45. I was just trying to waste time at that stage.”

Maguire also has vivid memories of the sheer bedlam after the final whistle as thousands of Fermanagh fans poured onto the pitch to greet their heroes.

“I remember the stewards trying to hold people back, but once a couple got in it was like the floodgates opened.

“I remember seeing my father and mother and my younger brother. My brother actually had a wee friend from  Kerry with him, who’s a relation of my uncle by marriage, and they both ended up in the changing room afterwards.

“Charlie was trying to quiet  everyone down, and the two boys were standing on a bench in the changing room, and he turned around and asked them, ‘who the **** are yous?’, we all got a good laugh out of that.”

It’s no coincidence that the players were a united bunch in 2004, and they weren’t afraid to let the hair down after their various victories.

“We lived in the moment. We enjoyed every day we went out. The previous year hadn’t gone so well, and all of a sudden a different group of players came in and everyone got on so well.

“It’s a testament to Charlie as he helped bring everything together, and it wasn’t a strict regime like you have nowadays. It was about going out and expressing yourself and taking it from there.

“There was no major pressure on our shoulders, and every time we won a game we partied like it was our last. It mightn’t have been the best thing to do in terms of preparing for a match but it brought everyone together, and not only the starting 15 but the subs as well.”

Fermanagh’s journey came to an end in an All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat to Mayo. For the first time that year, the magnitude of the occasion seemed to affect the team as there was an uncharacteristic caginess to their play on the first day out.

“The first game was a bit of a blur. It was very cagey and there were no gaps in either defence. I think we were very cautious going into the game, but we had plenty of chances and could’ve pushed on.

“After the first game, in the changing room, I could sense a lot of boys feeling that we’d missed the boat.

“The next day we gave a gutsy performance, but Mayo are a very good team and we lacked that bit of experience needed to see out the game. I think the previous games had caught up with us as well and we didn’t have the legs either. There still wasn’t much between us which was the disappointing thing.

“In fairness Mayo were prepared for us. Some other teams probably didn’t give us the right amount of respect and maybe they thought we’d be easy enough to topple. Mayo saw the road we’d taken and did their homework and fair play to them for that.”

Mulgrew stayed on as manager for a further three years but 2004 proved to be the high-water mark of his tenure. Maguire says it was always going to be difficult to reach the same heights.

“We enjoyed 2004 but were disappointed at the same time that we didn’t get to the All-Ireland final. We probably expected to go on a similar run in 2005, but there was an element of second season syndrome for the lads who were brand new into the team.

“Other teams caught onto how we were playing as well, and how we’d managed to catch teams out, and that made it very difficult. I felt sorry for Charlie. It just didn’t happen for us and we were coming up great teams like Tyrone as well.”

Maguire himself was in the form of his career in the mid-part of the decade, so much so that he was the focal point of the team’s attack. It’s with that context that we turn to one of the low points of his career: He was knocked out cold in a qualifier defeat to Donegal in 2006.

Maguire, who had taken Donegal for five points – three from play, two from frees – folded like a rag doll after a collision  with  Ciaran Bonner, who had just returned to play after receiving treatment for injury.

It was a legitimate shoulder, but Maguire, unaware of the impending arrival, went flying head-first into the turf and was lucky to avoid serious injury.

Nonetheless, he suffered whiplash and other physical trauma and had to take time off work to recover. He says he watched video footage of the incident once – and once was enough.

“I’m a smaller player and I suppose you can’t dodge challenges all the time, but I didn’t even have a chance to try to dodge it.

“He got shouldered over the sideline and it happened after that. Players these days can only return to the field from a certain area on the sideline, but when that happened it was on our own 21-yard line.

“Our goalie kicked the ball out to me and out of the blue, the Donegal player came in and I was knocked out straight away – that was probably for the best because if I hit the ground while conscious I could’ve hit it with my neck full on.

“There was nothing broken thank God, just a bit of a soreness. So many supporters saw it coming and I didn’t, which was why it was highlighted in the papers at the time.

“I was very lucky. My mother was in the stand at the time and she was very annoyed about it, and rightly so, I was told afterwards that she tried to get down on the field to see me. Obviously they’d have seen what happened Paul McGirr.

“I was taken to the hospital in Enniskillen even though I actually thought I could play on. When I was in hospital a neighbour of mine was there working in the wards and was watching the game on the tele and he said ‘I knew you were coming to us’.

“I was discharged after two or three hours, once the scans were done. They had to make sure there was no bleeding on the brain. The thing that annoyed me was that I started off well. It didn’t help us anyway. I thought maybe the boys would have used it to motivate themselves but it just didn’t work out. Donegal had good strong players. They’re always hard to beat and were able to grind out a result and that was it.”

Fermanagh were unlucky not to get something out of an Ulster Championship quarter-final clash against Tyrone in 2007. A super Ger Cavlan free from 50-odd metres decided the contest in injury time, and Maguire recalls what it was like to come up against the mean Tyrone defence.

“I think I was marked by ‘Ricey’ McMenamin, but to be honest I’d go between the corner-forward position and the middle of the field, and ‘Ricey’ only picked me up when I was close  to goal.

“The Tyrone defence was that well-drilled, you wouldn’t lose your marker without another man picking you up. I think that’s why they won so much – you could hear them all the time, working for each other, and ‘Ricey’ was at the core of that.”

Mulgrew stepped down at the end of the year, and in his place came Malachy O’Rourke. It proved an inspired move and Fermanagh made an Ulster final for what was the fifth time in their history. While he was always a consummate team player, Maguire admits that he probably should have paid more attention to what O’Rourke had to say.

“Malachy was meticulous with everything he did. He left no stone unturned. I wish I’d probably listened to him more and given him the respect he deserved because he’s probably the best manager I’ve ever had.

“I did listen to managers but I probably should have taken more advice on board because Malachy knew what it took to get to the top level. Sometimes I wish I could wind back the clock, he was very, very good and he showed that in recent years with Monaghan. It’ll be the same with whichever county gets him next, I couldn’t speak highly enough of him to be honest.”

Fermanagh qualified for an Ulster final against Armagh in 2008, and while they engineered an impressive comeback to snatch a draw on the first day out, they likely would’ve won the game had they remembered to bring their shooting boots. A Stevie McDonnell goal was a killer blow in the replay, and Maguire harbours major regrets that they didn’t get the job done when they had the opportunity (although for the record he finished the year on a high when his club St Pat’s, Donagh won the Senior Club Championship for the first time in their history).

“I was in my mid-20s at that stage and was more conscious of the fact that those opportunities don’t come around every day for a small county, so it was brilliant to get to the Ulster final. It would’ve been brilliant for our older players to end their careers with an Ulster medal, and for Malachy as well.

“The shooting let us down, we just couldn’t take our scores. Ryan Keenan was hitting the frees and while it didn’t work for him, it didn’t really work for any of us. I remember I’d chances to score and I shipped the ball off. If you look at the good forwards like David Clifford, if they miss a chance they go again because that’s what they’re there to do.

“Maybe the occasion got to us and Armagh had the bit between their teeth after what happened in 2004, and some of their players were near retirement as well. You knew by how they celebrated afterwards that they really went for it.

“Looking back on my county career it’s probably my biggest regret. Armagh were good. It was in our hands and we could’ve won it if we’d been more accurate but what can you do?”

Fermanagh were out in the Qualifiers a week later against Kildare at Croke Park. The Erne county lost a putrid contest, and Maguire remembers salt being poured in the wound by a ‘supporter’ later than evening.

“I remember an incident, and Malachy probably remembers this too – we got off the bus in Lisnaskea after the Ulster final and there was that many people there congratulating us for getting to the final that we could hardly get off the bus.

“Then we were beaten by Kildare a week later in the worst game of football and I was ever involved in, it was dire – there was no score for the first 20 minutes.

“We got back to Lisnaskea and the bus left us off, and there was nobody there to greet us. We walked round the back to get our cars and a car drove by and somebody shouted out ‘losers’. I remember Malachy ‘Jesus, it’s some difference a week makes.’”

Possibly the nadir of his footballing career, however, occurred a few years later when he suffered an ACL injury in November 2011 while playing for his club. Having to rest up while at the same time maintaining mortgage payments was a chastening experience, and changed his entire attitude towards the game.

“I remember catching the ball and coming down, and I heard the crack right away. It took me a while to get over that, I was basically out for the entirety of 2012.

“When it happened I’d recently got married and had built a house as well, and things were tight enough. I missed a good few weeks of work, I was working for my father at the time and he was helping to keep me right.

“I’d a mortgage coming out and I realised this is actually happening to me and it was a bit of a reality check – I was working as an electrician and I was laying up after getting my operation. I’d broken a bone in my knee as well so I had to wait a few weeks to get the operation as well.

“It was a bit of a disaster and nearly turned me off football altogether. I blame football even though it was just bad luck.”

He continued: “I started cycling a lot, and slowly and surely got back into things. By the spring or summer I was backing doing straight line running, swimming and a few weights, but it took me a while to get my head right.

“There was that fear that I’d do the same movement again and that it’d snap. Thankfully that fear went out of my head after a few games. It still swells up sometimes but that’s just from wear and tear.”

Prior work commitments meant that Maguire wasn’t really around for John O’Neill’s short-lived tenure as boss in 2011. A number of players withdrew from the panel in April 2011, suggesting that they would only line out for the county side under a different manager, and Maguire is glad he wasn’t part of the whole mess.

“I’d a lot of respect for everyone who was there. There were sides taken and I’m glad work took me out of that whole equation. I would’ve played for any man who wanted to manage Fermanagh, and given him a chance.

“I’m very good friends with Barry Owens and he backed John, and I probably would’ve been the same. I’d have thought ‘let’s give him a chance’ and if you don’t like him, air your opinion in-house and get it sorted. It obviously got out of hand and ended up in the media.”

Maguire got a new job working off-shore which also curtailed his involvement during the Peter Canavan-led years of 2012 and 2013. Canavan was by all accounts a highly rated manager, but he later said that there were issues with the county board and things didn’t pan out particularly well.

Maguire said: “I got an opportunity to go away with work and I didn’t turn it down. I didn’t feel I had the bite any more, but it was hard to step away from Fermanagh as Peter was someone I admired as a player, and he was a brilliant manager too.

“A few of our key players weren’t fully committed at the time and maybe let him down a bit. Whenever I was involved with him, Kieran Donnelly was there and his training was unbelievable, and Peter was there egging everyone on. I admired him totally but it was always going to be hard for him to stay and he had opportunities too with Sky and you can’t blame him for pursuing that.”

Maguire stuck around for the first year of McGrath’s tenure (2014) before departing again for work reasons. Then, one for the road as he reluctantly decided to throw his lot in with Gallagher’s set up in 2018.

Yes, they reached an Ulster final and had some great days out, but Maguire says the defensive style of football wasn’t for him. Sure at least it kept him in good nick for club football.

“Rory asked me back in and I was very reluctant to do so, I felt I was too old to do so. I was 34. To be honest I’m glad my county career happened when it did. It would’ve been horrible to start off as part of that defensive game-plan and I think I would have quit football a lot earlier.

“I don’t see any enjoyment in it – Rory might say it’s not about enjoyment, it’s about putting the team first, but you’re an amateur player and do it for the love of the game.

“I definitely respect what Rory and ‘Ricey’ brought to the things, their training and game-plans were meticulous. Rory knew exactly what he wanted and knew what Fermanagh’s strengths were and maybe that’s why we were so defensive.

“But it wasn’t for me and it wasn’t for a fair amount of others either. I felt maybe we were going out against teams and putting our guard up straight away rather than asking questions of the opposition defence. I played my whole career in attack and it definitely wouldn’t be ideal starting off now.

“The commitment needed is unbelievable. Some of my teammates were incredible shape, and that’s just Fermanagh, so God only knows what Dublin, Kerry and Mayo are doing.

“We used to train four nights a week, meet on Saturday morning to go through videos and play a game on Sunday, and you were trying to fit in work as well.

“We had a dietician too, and I tried to buy into it as best I could, but the whole thing absolutely sickened me, and I got nothing in return. At least when I was finished up I was in good shape for the club.”

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