By Niall Gartland
MARTIN McGrath is a bona fide legend of Fermanagh football – just don’t tell him that.
It’s easy to paint a portrait of Martin McGrath as an almost heroic figure – someone who has overcome personal adversity on repeated occasions, someone whose longevity is almost beyond compare, someone who’s basically the best of us.
But he obviously doesn’t see it that way; broach Ederney’s long-awaited Senior Championship success in Fermanagh last year and he’ll greet it with the proverbial shrug of the shoulders – to paraphrase, yes it was great, but it’s a new year now (alright Martin, but you did win the Man of the Match award at the age of 39).
It’s the same with his rotten run of luck during the a period in the noughties. He underwent two heart operations in 2006, he fractured his skull when he was involved in a collision with a JCB in 2007, and he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2008. His perspective? That’s life and you have to get on with it. Stoic isn’t even the word.
But it’s still possible to recognise one of Fermanagh’s greatest ever footballers without completely hamming it up.
For example, he’s in esteemed company as one of only three Fermanagh men who have won an All-Star award. Peter McGinnity and Barry Owens, a man cut from the same cloth as McGrath, are the other two.
It’s fair to say he’d trade it for an Ulster medal, but there was much more to his Fermanagh career than that wasted opportunity against Armagh in 2008.
He made his debut under Pat King in the National League in the winter of 1999, but schools’ football was his priority at the time and he won a cherished MacRory medal with St Michael’s, Enniskillen earlier that year.
“Jesus, don’t tell me that!”is his half-joking response when it’s suggested that it must seem like a lifetime ago, but he believes that schools’ football played a big part in his transition to an intercounty standard player.
“Nothing’s natural, you have to work on things, and I’m not blessed with the most talent. I had the good fortune of playing with St Michael’s when we won the MacRory in 1999 as the good players around me helped me improve as a footballer.
“I was lucky enough to come into that team with young fellas who had good ability. Lisnaskea won the U-16 Schools’ All-Ireland a few years earlier so we had a good group of players coming into the Fermanagh panel within the space of a couple of years.”
His early years in a Fermanagh shirt were fairly forgettable, but there were a handful of notable exceptions.
A round two Qualifier victory over Westmeath in 2002 is hardly the stuff of legend, but it gave players cause to believe that they are had the makings of a good team.
“2001 was the first year of the Qualifiers. We ended up playing Donegal three times that year – we drew the first day out, won the replay, and we ended up losing to them in the Qualifiers.
“Then in 2002 we went to Westmeath and beat them. It mightn’t be looked at as much of a ‘moment’, but they’d drawn against Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final the previous year, so it was a big step for us. If there were no Qualifiers we wouldn’t have had opportunities like that.”
Dominic Corrigan’s side won three games on the spin in the Qualifiers in 2003 before getting ripped to shreds by eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone in a lopsided All-Ireland quarter-final. But in a more relative senses, McGrath argues it was still a positive season.
“We got to the National League semi-final and the All-Ireland quarter-final and on both occasions we played against Tyrone in Croke Park.
“In my eyes they were always going to win the All-Ireland that year, there was no stopping them and that showed against us. It was huge for us to even qualify for those games, they were stepping stones in the right direction.
“There’s still no doubt that we underperformed in that quarter-final, and any day you get beaten is a bad day.
“It was disappointing but we knew the quality of Tyrone and it was a successful season when you considered the progress we were making.”
Fermanagh enjoyed their best ever season in 2004, a hugely memorable voyage to the last four of the All-Ireland, losing out in a close-fought replay battle against Mayo.
While McGrath was renowned as a selfless player throughout his career, someone who worked ceaselessly in the Fermanagh engine room, he stepped into the spotlight to hit an equalising point against Donegal earlier in the campaign, bringing the game into extra-time.
“In 2004 we’d a lot of young players coming through. It was a more inexperienced team than in 2003, but we played with a bit more freedom as there was no baggage there.
“I suppose it’s nice to have that memory of hitting that point against Donegal, it is a game that stands out for me. I’d great respect for Donegal, and we didn’t actually play that well that day, but it was probably one of my better games.
“I got the equalising point, then it went to extra-time and they had a man sent off and we won the game. When you’re young you don’t pass any remarks but it’s still nice to have memories like that.”
During last year’s lockdown, a plethora of old GAA matches were uploaded to Youtube in their entirety, including the famous All-Ireland quarter-final clash between Armagh and Fermanagh back in 2004. McGrath indulged himself – I mean, why not – but he wasn’t that enamoured with his own personal performance.
“I was actually disappointed in how I played. Over the years I thought I’d played reasonably well, but when I watched it back I thought ‘I could’ve played better than that.’
“I suppose when you watch things on TV you don’t get the full picture of everything that goes on, of all the work that’s being done away from the play.
“It does stand out as a big moment in Fermanagh history. Armagh had been tipped to win the All-Ireland but we’d nothing to lose. They got a four-point head start and it didn’t really harm us as it gave us a certain freedom to go for broke. We expected to go behind anyway, and we were going to play to the end no matter what way it was going.”
McGrath admits their All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat to Mayo is still a sore point, especially as they squandered plenty of good chances across the two matches, but particularly in the drawn encounter which ended 0-9 apiece.
“The first one was definitely one that got away. Even in the second game, we didn’t perform to our best but it was only in the last couple of minutes that they got the scores to clinch it. mI think a couple of decisions didn’t go our way in the replay either but that’s the way it goes sometimes. It was disappointing, it was a case of so close yet so far. A semi-final is the hardest game to lose, and the pain is still there.
“Whenever it’s brought up, it still hurts. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great opportunity, but when you get to a final you never know what could happen so it’s definitely a regret.”
McGrath won an All-Star award that winter, named in midfield alongside Tyrone titan Sean Cavanagh. A nice one to get, but not what he was really yearning for.
“You’re only as good as the players around you. When you go for a ball and it breaks down, and somebody picks up the breaks, it makes you look good.
“Individual awards don’t count for much. It’s nice to have it, don’t get me wrong, and I’d have taken more of them if I could’ve got them, but it was really more to do with the team than the individuals.”
Charlie Mulgrew had led the team to the brink of an All-Ireland final, but it was always going to be hard to replicate the following year. The Donegal native eventually left the job in 2007, saying at the time “I’ve been dreading the prospect of this (leaving the job) because I bonded so well with this group of lads.”
His three final years aren’t remembered as being particularly successful, but McGrath says they weren’t far away from doing something special in 2006.
“2005 was always going to be a tough year, there was always going to be a comedown from the year before. But we could’ve got back to an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final in 2006. Donegal beat us in the last 12 of the championship, and Armagh beat us in an Ulster Championship semi-final replay. We weren’t too far and we should’ve kicked on in 2007 but it didn’t go our way.”
It was a difficult time for McGrath from a personal perspective. Suffering from palpitations and a racing heartbeat for a couple of years, the decision was made to undergo laser heart surgery in 2006. After bouts of dizziness and pain to the back of his neck, another operation was needed a couple of months later.
Then in 2007, he suffered a season-ending facial fracture when he was struck on the head with a digger scoop, and having recovered from that, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the middle of their championship campaign in 2008. He didn’t withdraw from the squad and played a full role in their Ulster Championship final saga against Armagh.
On his diagnosis, McGrath said: “What could you do, you have to keep going, that’s life and that’s the way it goes. There’s nothing you can do, life goes on and if you don’t go with it, it’ll leave you behind so I just played on.
“I felt able to share things with family and friends and talk about it and that was the main thing. I was also one of the fortunate ones who caught it early and thankfully, so far so good.”
McGrath also said that football was a hugely important distraction during his cancer scare. When Fermanagh were knocked out of the championship by Kildare, he was successfully operated on – but only after fulfilling a club championship fixture with Ederney.
“Ah yeah, football gave me a whole different focus, in the sense that when you’re training and playing matches you’re not thinking about anything else.
“You’re only thinking about winning a football game. You can only take what’s in front of you, that’s the way life is anyway.”
While nowhere near as important in the grand scale of things, it’s another source of regret that Fermanagh, who have never won an Ulster Championship, narrowly missing out in 2008. They missed the boat on the first day out against Armagh, hitting a bagful of wides, and there was no coming back after a Steven McDonnell goal in the replay.
“We felt the ref blew it up a couple of minutes early in the drawn match as one of the Armagh players was down on the ground for a few minutes. I felt if the game had gone on for another couple of minutes we could’ve won it. There’s nothing we can do about it now.
“After losing the Ulster final replay we only had seven days to get ready for a Qualifier against Kildare and we put in a poor performance. In one way, we’d have been better off losing the first day out against Armagh rather than the game going to a replay, as we’d have had a fortnight, but we really and truly wanted to win Ulster at the time.”
McGrath continued to play for Fermanagh until the end of 2013. He actually was going to retire in 2012, but the tragic death of friend and teammate Brian Og Maguire in a workplace accident prompted a change of heart and he came back for one more year. His loss is still felt deeply.
“That was a difficult time. The day before he was killed I was coming into his house, and he was going out to training and we we kinda barged each other through the door for a bit of craic. I was in two minds about whether to go back out to go to training and that made up my mind for me. It was difficult for his family, and a lot of families who have that cross to bear unfortunately. It was a huge blow to Lisnaskea as well. His anniversary is coming up on September 13, every year it’s remembered and it’s the family who are affected most.”
When McGrath called it quits with Fermanagh, it was after 14 distinguished years of service. He felt like the time was right to move on and give the younger players a chance, even though at 32 he feasibly could’ve played on for another few years.
“I found that time went in very quickly after 2008 and it was difficult to get back to that level. I wasn’t getting any younger and the legs were getting sorer. I actually was happy with my performances in 2013, but there was a transition in the team and it was getting harder for players to settle into the team. I wanted to let young players take over the time so I felt it was time to go.”
While he obviously harbours regrets about those aforementioned near-misses in matches of huge significance, he puts his intercounty career into a wider context for us.
“I wouldn’t change my career to an extent… obviously there were those missed opportunities, but I’m coming from a small county.
“Getting the respect from outside of the county has been a huge problem for us. Look at Tyrone, they’re thought of entirely differently. People don’t understand that unless you’re from Fermanagh.
“’Ricey’ (Ryan McMenamin) came in to manage us, and you could see his comments in the paper about how he felt Fermanagh are treated in comparison to other counties.
“People don’t understand that smaller counties don’t get the same respect, and that feeds into the benefits different counties get. Don’t get me wrong, you have to earn that respect, but it’s hard-earned.
“Fermanagh reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final is a big deal whereas for Kerry or Tyrone it’s nothing. The big problem for us is doing that kind of thing consistently.”
While Fermanagh do have a small playing population, McGrath is reluctant to use that as an excuse for their relatively low status in the game.
“I wouldn’t just say that, I suppose to Fermanagh’s credit there’s good character in the players and always has been.
“It’s easy to throw in the towel when you’re getting beaten by nine or 10 points, but a lot of boys don’t. It’s a different story if you’re at the top table consistently, it’s a lot harder to leave, so our lads deserve credit.
“The problem is getting a stream of players to come through consistently and that needs to be worked on. We do have players coming through sporadically but I wouldn’t say it’s a population. People have to want things to happen.”
McGrath is still playing for his beloved club Ederney even though he’s on the cusp of turning 40. His father and six uncles played on the famous Ederney team which won their historic first Fermanagh Senior Championship in 1968, but it looked like McGrath would finish his career without a medal of his own. That all changed last Autumn as they dethroned six in-a-row chasing Derrygonnelly, ending their drought of 52 years. McGrath was Man of the Match, and he’s decided to give it another lash this season.
McGrath said: “I should be retired at this stage! But I’ll play this year and see what happens.
“I felt we’d a panel who could win the championship, so it was hard to walk away from that. The club is doing all these projects and needed something to show for it. The youth can see the development work, but they needed to see some success and thankfully we got that.”
Indeed they did, and it says something about the man that he didn’t just retire with a ‘see ya later’ after winning that long-sought for medal – as if anything more needed said about Martin McGrath.