Fermanagh-Armagh 2004: The story behind one of the great GAA shocks

By Shaun Casey

PAIN and pleasure. Delight and dejection. They usually go hand in hand when it comes to sporting combat, and they were the main emotions floating around Croke Park on an early August afternoon back in 2004.

Fermanagh had just pulled off the shock of the century, beating 2002 All-Ireland winners, 2003 All-Ireland finalists and reigning Ulster champions Armagh to book their place in the last four in the race for Sam Maguire.

Tom Brewster was the hero for Charlie Mulgrew’s side as his final score from the bench created history, sending Fermanagh through to the All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time ever.

As Fermanagh fans poured onto the hallowed turf, with little concern for the second game that was due to take place, Armagh players limped off towards the changing rooms heartbroken.

Another shot at Sam whipped away.

“I remember the emotion when Tom put that ball over the bar, he was a club mate of my own as well. The feeling was unbelievable,” recalls ex-Fermanagh defender Ryan McCluskey.

“It was pure disbelief,” said former Armagh midfielder Philip Loughran, who played midfield alongside Paul McGrane that afternoon.

“You could feel it in those last couple of minutes.

“We were just struggling to get possession of the ball and struggling to make things happen and you could feel it slipping away.

“No matter what we tried it just wasn’t working and then obviously when the whistle went the Fermanagh boys were ecstatic. We just had to come off the pitch and leave it to them and give them their day in the sun.”

While McCluskey embraced the moment at the final whistle, things weren’t going so well at the beginning of the game. Armagh, who lost Enda McNulty to a red card at the end of the first half, raced into an early 0-5 to 0-1 lead after ten minutes, with McCluskey’s direct opponent Stephen McDonnell claiming four of those scores.

“I actually looked back at it during lockdown, I couldn’t believe I stayed on the pitch for 70 minutes,” laughed McCluskey.

“Stevie McDonnell absolutely cleaned me out and, in those days, there was no protection from sweepers and there were no mass defences.

“It was literally one-on-one, and I remember he missed a number of chances as well. Then, in the latter stages of the game, I thought I did well and weathered the storm at that stage, but he was an exceptional player and we had a number of battles throughout the years.”

Barry Owens, full-back alongside McCluskey that day, added: “They had a brilliant start and then they hit the crossbar, so we were under a right bit of pressure but once we settled ourselves down, we were able to come into our own.

“We always backed ourselves. You had McCluskey there who was playing great stuff for Fermanagh and Enniskillen for the previous four or five years and you had Niall Bogue who was just coming up from MacRory Cup football (in the full-back line).

“We weren’t afraid of anyone; we were that sort of age and that helps. I think once we started getting a bit tighter, the crowd got behind us. Again, when that one hit the bar, it was a massive let off because a goal at that stage would have killed the game.”

Loughran, an All-Ireland winner with Armagh in 2002, admits that some complacency had seeped into Joe Kernan’s camp and that eyes had already shifted towards the All-Ireland semi-final and Tyrone.

The Red Hands were due to play Mayo straight after the Armagh and Fermanagh clash and as fate would have it, Tyrone surrendered their All-Ireland title, losing out to Mayo in another unexpected result.

“There probably was a wee bit of complacency in the camp,” explains the Clady clubman. “I think you could probably feel it in training on the Thursday night. Looking back, you could feel that there was something strange in the air.

“Down through the years we’d have been focused but just this time we maybe took or eye off the ball slightly. The day of the game was strange for us too and it was one of those days were nothing really went our way after a good start.

“We just didn’t kick on, the fluency we had in previous years and up until that point probably didn’t show on the day.

“We couldn’t get our hands on the ball and when we did, we weren’t making the right decision. We were probably under a lot of pressure too.

“Fermanagh played very well, they put us under serious pressure. They were young and fit and hungry, and they showed that on the day. They probably put us under more pressure than we were expecting to be honest and that paid dividends for them in the end.”

There was a confidence in the Fermanagh changing room that they could overturn the odds. “We were confident going into the game,” added McCluskey.

“We had obviously beaten Cork at Croke Park prior to that game so the big thing was getting the hoodoo of winning in Croke Park out of the way.

“That was a massive result for us. We finished strong in that game as well and we did think we were a better side than Cork, but we knew going into the Armagh game that they had an ambition of going on to win the All-Ireland.

“We were hoping we’d catch them cold on the day. We wanted to keep it tight and take it into the latter stages and we’d have a chance against them.

“We didn’t feel under any pressure. I remember before the game and looking over to the Armagh lads and it looked like a group of lads that felt the pressure and they felt the occasion a bit more than us.

“I do remember Shane Goan, we were playing soccer during our pre-match walk around and Shane nutmegged a couple of boys and drove one into the top corner, so I think we were completely relaxed and looking forward to the game.

“They just had a lot more riding on it than us and we went into the game thinking it was a free crack at them. From a playing perspective, I would have believed we had enough to get out of the game that day.”

Owens, who went on to win his first of two All-Stars that season, echoes McCluskey’s recollection.

“We had a young enough team and were playing without fear that year.

“We were a wee bit naïve at times too but when we played the likes of Armagh, Cork and anyone like that, we didn’t really fear them.

“Winning meant we had a first ever All-Ireland semi-final for the county, so it was massive. We played such good football too, so the crowd really got behind us and you could see that with the following that we had.

“In saying that, people probably weren’t expecting us to beat Armagh after them winning it two years before, so the fans were excited at full time.”

While it was certainly an unexpected result, Loughran notes the talent that was in that Fermanagh team at the time. A team that was so close to reaching the All-Ireland final but ended up losing to Mayo after a replay.

“It was a good Fermanagh team and there were a couple of All-Stars came out of that team,” added Loughran.

“Marty (McGrath) got an All-Star that year and so did Barry Owens, Mark Little was a good player and a few of the Maguires.

“They were a decent side, and they weren’t your average team going up to Croke Park, they had done well in the Qualifiers that year and they were a coming team with a ball of confidence.

“When they had their tails up, they were a confident side and we could see that on the day.

“They knew they were ready to take a scalp and ultimately that’s how it played out.”

While Fermanagh celebrated perhaps the biggest result in the county’s history, Armagh wallowed as another All-Ireland went a begging. Twenty years on, it’s still a sore point that they didn’t win a second All-Ireland, but Loughran points to other years that they let it slip away.

“To be honest, I think in ’03 we probably played our best football, we were flying that year and just got pipped in the final by Tyrone. In ’04 we were still playing fantastic football, and in ’05 we were as well.

“Over that five-year spell, we were playing some really good football consistently and it took a really good team to beat us over those five years and there were good teams about at that time.

“You had that Tyrone team obviously; Kerry were never too far away, and Fermanagh had a good team in ’04 as well and were hungry for a scalp.

“We were playing good stuff, and we were confident going into that game, but we just couldn’t put it together on the day.”

“It was a case of trying to get off the pitch without getting killed at that stage,” joked McCluskey on the scenes at full time.

“I think some of the Armagh fans were maybe baying for blood and the Fermanagh fans were strangling you with happiness.

“It was brilliant for the county and we don’t get too many days out in Croke Park so to get to Croke Park and to win there was obviously massive.”

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW