John McElroy on the highs and hardships of management

BEING an intercounty manager must be great. Jim Gavin was awarded the freedom of Dublin, Mickey Harte received an honorary doctorate a few years back, there’s a statue of Mick O’Dwyer in his native Waterville…

Anyway, it’s fair to say that former Fermanagh boss John McElroy probably can’t relate. Running around the county trying to bend the ear of talented club players who were content with their lot, chauffeuring his players to matches, and oh, that time he resigned in the mouth of their run to the Ulster Championship final in 1982.

He didn’t walk out for nothiing either – numbers were so low in a challenge match against Monaghan that they had to borrow an opposition player to make up a complete team.

That was the final straw after what had already been a difficult season, but he was persuaded back on board and led Fermanagh to their first provincial final appearance since 1945. defeating a fine Tyrone team on the way.

They were beaten by Armagh in the final, but it was still some turnaround in fortunes and a testament to McElroy’s managerial nous.

He managed Fermanagh for nine years in all – between 1977 and 1985 – and in testing circumstances he achieved more than could reasonably have been expected.

They won their first McKenna Cup since 1933 in his first year in charge, they reached the quarter-finals of the National Football League twice, they pulled off a stunning upset in the 1983 Ulster Championship against league champions Down, and that’s without mentioning his achievements with his native Tempo (he was named honorary Club President last year; read on and you’ll soon find out why).

You might be wondering if he achieved much as a player, but his career was cut short by a car accident in the early seventies. The British Army cratered a road at the border and McElroy suffered a serious back injury on the way back home one night from Monaghan.

I played on the Tempo team which won their first ever championship in 1970, but in 1971 I had to stop playing because I drove into a cratered road coming back from a dance in Monaghan,” said McElroy.

It had only been blown up that particular day. It was a dark night and it wasn’t signposted. We were lucky none of us weren’t killed but I hurt my back badly and that was the end up of that, I had to give up playing completely.”

McElroy doesn’t harbour any bitterness about the incident. It fast-tracked him into the world of management, and he led Tempo to further championship titles in 1972 and 1973.

It was a big set-back but I suppose things fell into line for me, I looked after the club team for years and then ended up in county management.”

Things were at a pretty low ebb when McElroy came on board as Fermanagh boss in late 1976. The term ‘poisoned chalice’ springs to mind, and while they won the McKenna Cup in his first year in charge with victory over Brian McEniff’s Donegal, it failed to create any sort of buzz around the county.

A newspaper report from the time reveals that the players were bitterly disappointed at the sparse attendance from clubs at the McKenna Cup celebration dinner, with McElroy commenting thusly “all I can say is that it going to be a tough job to try and inject county spirit into the team.”

Despite the pessimism of that statement, McElroy was already doing sterling work in encouraging players to sign up to his regime. Ciaran Campbell, Peter Green and Kevin McElroy travelled from Newry to train, as an example of the new-found can-do attitude of his players, while Fermanagh legend Peter McGinnity was in his pomp.

Trillick’s John Donnelly managed the team the year prior, and when he was preparing for the first round of the championship only seven players turned up. I knew when I was taking it over I was going to have a job on my hands. I suppose if I ever did anything for Fermanagh football, it’s that I got the players on the pitch who didn’t want to play for Fermanagh.

I spent days persuading them because I knew there was good talent in the county. For two or three afterwards things were fairly good but you were always working off a small pick.”

The Ernesiders nearly clinched a McKenna Cup double the following year but they lost out to Tyrone. McElroy wasn’t there to witness it in person.

I was away on honeymoon at the time. The final was played in July but I couldn’t have got the flight home for the final, and Tyrone beat us by a point. It was just one of those things.”

They made their mark in the league as well, reaching the quarter-finals in 1980 and 1981, but the set-up was on the verge of unravelling as 1982 came into view.

Player turn-out was still a major issue, and McElroy recalls the unglamorous nature of his work at the time.

We didn’t have any money to start with. The manager didn’t get any remuneration for petrol or phonecalls or anything like that.

The manager was picked at county convention, and the county chairman and secretary had to be two of the selectors. The selectors and I brought the players to games, there was no such thing back then as having a bus to games,” he continued.

The only help I had outside of the selectors was a person who acted as a physio but who wasn’t actually a physio.”

A to why he embarked on what seemed like a thankless task, he said: “I was at a stage in my life where becoming Fermanagh manager seemed like a natural step up for me and I wanted to see what could be done.

We won our first McKenna Cup in four decades and reached an Ulster final for the first time since 1935 so there was something to it.”

There was only so much McElroy could take, however, and in the winter of 1981 rumours circulated around the county that he had tendered his resignation.

He stepped back from the precipice on the condition that more emphasis would be given to their championship efforts after repeated failures in the provincial arena.

Then in May 1982, just weeks before the start of the Ulster Championship, he took the step of resigning after fielding a makeshift team in a challenge match against Monaghan. Having to borrow an opposition player seemed to be one indignity too many, but he was convinced to stay on by county secretary Tom Fee, another Tempo man.

They overcame Derry in the first round of the Ulster Championship, and even more noteworthy was their semi-final victory over a Tyrone team with Eugene McKenna and Frank McGuigan in their ranks.

McElroy commented: “In the first-round we beat Derry. Mickey Moran was their manager, he’s a long-time friend of mine.

Then we played Tyrone in the semi-final. I don’t think many people were expecting us to beat Tyrone but that’s what happened. They’d brought home Frank McGuigan from the states, Ciaran Campbell held him to a point.”

Reaching the Ulster final was obviously a massive deal at the time for Fermanagh, and they mostly did themselves justice on the day. Peter McGinnity’s goal midway through the second-half brought them level with Armagh, and a point put them in front, but they wilted in the closing stages and lost out by 0-10 to 1-4.

Maybe the Tyrone match was our Ulster final, that was a big day for us,” said McElroy.

We’d a fairly sound squad at the time and it was probably down to a lack of belief that we didn’t win the Ulster final.

It was the first time in moons that Fermanagh reached the final, and the lads didn’t know what to expect one way or the other but we were close enough.

Big Joe came on and changed the game, but there wasn’t much in it. You’ve no choice but to move on but it’s still something I think about.”

Fermanagh claimed another scalp the following year when they topped league champions Down in the first-round. McElroy had done his homework on the Mournemen, but they lost the next day out against Cavan.

Down won the national league and I’d travelled to Croke Park three different times to see them play – they drew their first semi-final.

The final day I saw them I said to myself that we could beat them.

They’d some excellent players at the time like Brendan Mason and Liam Auston so it was a big win for us. Then we played Cavan in Clones, Pat McCann was centre-half for us and got injured in the first-half and that sort of wrecked us.”

McElroy stood down for good in 1985 after nine eventful years in charge. He spent much of the nineties coaching in primary schools across Fermanagh. It was very much a labour of love for him, and undoubtedly he inspired many to go on and represent the county in their adult years.

It was great to see players come through and I’d always watch out for them. I’d hardly know three members of the current minor team but I used to know every lad in the county because I coached in all the schools. It wasn’t the only thing I was doing at the time – I was in with Tony Scullion for the Aussie Rules U-17 team and I got two trips to Australia out of it which was great.

Niall Bogue, Shaun Doherty, James Sherry were all on a Buncrana Cup team that I had back in the day. I can’t remember the rest of them but there was a time I could.”

McElroy also had spells managing various club teams, including Tyrone outfits Aghaloo, Dromore and Fintona. One of his most noteworthy achievements was bringing Fintona, presently a Junior club, to the precipice of the Tyrone Senior title back in 1979 where they were beaten by a point by Carrickmore.

He finished his management career back where it all started – Tempo. He brought the club to their fourth Senior Championship title in 2012 when they overcame Lisnaskea, four decades after he managed them to titles in 1972 and 1973. It was a particularly special occasion for him as his sons Ciaran and Niall were playing on the team.

That was 39 years after we won the previous time but don’t think I was managing for those 39 years!

I came back at that time and I’d two sons playing which made it quite an emotional time. They didn’t build on it, they should’ve won more championships.”

McElroy is a retired man, but he came back as Tempo manager for one last bash last season. He fared rightly as well, steering the team to promotion to Division One.

He says that he has “more sense” than to go back for another stint, but you never know…

We got out of Division Two, I thought we could’ve made the county final but Roslea beat us in a replay.

I’ve got more sense to go back at this stage. I suppose I spent more time at managing than I should’ve and was involved in too much but I don’t have any major regrets either.”

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