Ryan Jones: Cherished memories in the green and white

AFTER 148 appearances with Fermanagh and a playing career stretching back to the Malachy O’Rourke era, Ryan Jones has decided it’s time to take a step back. He’s now set to embark on a coaching role with Andy Moran’s Leitrim, but the 33-year old reveals that it wasn’t his primary reason behind his decision to withdraw from the Fermanagh panel ahead of the 2024 season.

NIALL GARTLAND: You’re coming on board with Leitrim, is that the main reason why you’ve taken this decision to step aside from Fermanagh?

RYAN JONES: I own my own business, a pharmacy in Drumshanbo. Sometimes I don’t get out of work until 6.30pm and by the time I get back to Enniskillen to Lissan, it’s after 7.30pm some evenings.

Also, I’m in retail so the pharmacy opens on Saturdays and there’s a lot of National League games on Saturdays. For instance with Fermanagh, every league game next year will be on a Saturday bar one. With the time it takes to commit to a county set-up, I feel like I couldn’t give that commitment this year. I’m also going away for a bit of travel in January time, and I’ve been playing inter-county football since 2010 as well. I felt the time was right to step away, for the moment.

So there’s all that, and the Leitrim opportunity happened to come up. I know a lot of the people involved from working in Leitrim. Andy Moran approached me and asked if someone else could come in and help with the coaching. I explained my situation of going travelling and he was happy to work around it. It’s a good opportunity and their Centre of Excellence is only 15 minutes from my work place. He needed a hand with the u-20s and they’ll be training alongside the seniors the majority of the time and it’s a great opportunity to work alongside the likes of Andy Moran, Mickey Graham and the other lads who are involved.

NG: Michael Murphy said last week that he wouldn’t come back to Donegal as inter-county football is all duck or no dinner and he couldn’t do that anymore. Does that resonate with you?

RJ: That’s it, it’s total commitment at county level. We’ll be operating in Division Two next year and you can’t afford to be missing training, when the pre-season kicks in you’ve got to be there and able to put in the nights. Last year I worked around it and Kieran (Donnelly) worked with me as well. It was going to be too much this year I felt and I was putting myself under pressure so I felt the best thing was to step away. If you want to be able to even compete at senior inter-county you have to be putting everything in.

NG: You made your debut in 2010, that was towards the tail-end of Malachy O’Rourke’s tenure?

RJ: Yeah that was Malachy’s final year. I was finished up with school and going to college as a first year, he called me into the squad in September or October time. I played all the National League games and made my debut in the championship against Armagh. I was lucky enough in that Malachy believed in me and he put me right in from the start. I played every National League game that year albeit it wasn’t a successful year and we ended up getting relegated to Division Four. Fermanagh are now operating in Division Two and you feel you’ve left it in a better place and that’s what players aspire to.

NG: When you were growing up did you always aspire to be a key player for Fermanagh and your club Derrygonnelly?

RJ: When you start playing football from a young age and your brothers are there as well and you started going to games with your Dad, the dream is to try to win championships with your club. I played schools football and we were very successful at St Michael’s and all of a sudden you’re on the county squad. Time moves fast, you’re committing every year to the county team and that is your life really.

NG: You’ve eight Senior Championship medals with Derrygonnelly but it wasn’t always that way in the club, winning their first title as recently as 1995.

RJ: That’s it, Derrygonnelly were hit and miss. I won a championship medal in 1999 when I was 18, but it was six years before we won it again. We probably changed the culture in the club and we’ve been very successful. We’ve won seven of the last nine, and like everything, there’s going to be a change of personnel and you lose a few guys, it’s very hard to keep it going. The Fermanagh Club Championship is very competitive, we didn’t get to the final last year, the first time in nine years, but we reacted well and really put the foot down.

NG: Looking back on the Pete McGrath years with Fermanagh, Pete’s a wee bit old school but he seemed to get the best out of the team?

RJ: Pete was there for a few years and he had us operating really well. We’d a good brand of football and we were very competitive, we got to the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2015 where Dublin beat us in Croke Park. We were competitive in that game as well, we lost by eight points but we put 2-15 on Dublin. Pete was a great man with his words, he was a great believer in players and he did instil unbelievable confidence. There was a great buzz around the county in those years and I’m very grateful for what Pete did for us for players.

NG: Fermanagh had a great run to the Ulster final in 2018, I recall you pumping the ball into Eoin Donnelly for the winning goal against Monaghan in the semi-final.

RJ: Yeah that was another memorable year. Some people were saying it was a shot but we needed a goal and I pumped the ball in, Eoin had moved into full-forward, he got the fist to it in front of (Rory) Beggan. That was memorable, we got promoted out of Division Three that year as well. We beat Armagh in the first round of the championship in Enniskillen, we beat Monaghan down in Omagh, they’d beaten Tyrone in their own backyard. For us to turn over Monaghan was massive. In 2019 we were operating in Division Two and if we’d got a result against Armagh in Crossmaglen we’d have been up to Division One, there were lots of great years where we were playing quality football.

NG: Do you feel disappointment that you didn’t get your hands on any medals with the county or is it more about the memories?

RJ: When you’re putting so much effort in, winning titles is definitely the goal. You always want to win an Ulster title, Fermanagh’s never won one. It is disappointing not to achieve that but I’ve played in Ulster finals with my club and county and there’s lots of players who have never had that opportunity. I have lots of special memories, going into battle and we did have some brilliant wins. There’s lots of counties in Ulster that are super competitive so it’s a very hard task.

NG: What’s your take on the Tailteann Cup, it seems to have gone down well with most players?

RJ: I think it’s a super competition. A lot of the teams involved in it will feel they have every chance of winning silverware. It’s worked very well up to now. There was maybe a bit of negative press about it initially but people are starting to realise that it’s a good competition, teams are playing at their own level. Fermanagh went full tilt to try and win it last year, obviously it didn’t work out that way, but anyone who’s in the Tailteann Cup, their aim is to win it.

NG: Sean Quigley and your brother Conall have also taken the decision to step aside, could Fermanagh struggle next year as a consequence?

RJ: It’s a Division Two campaign and it’s going to be super competitive but there’s lots of young lads in Fermanagh with loads of potential. I feel it’s up to them to step up and deliver on their potential. If you look at the team, a lot of lads are in their prime – once you hit that mid-twenty bracket you are in their prime and Kieran will trust them to take their opportunity and it’s up to them to step forward and make that count.

NG: I know there’s a lot of travel and hard work involved but did you enjoy the whole rigours of inter-county football and trying to get the best out of yourself?

RJ: I did, thankfully I was lucky enough to start nearly all the time. When you’re playing nearly every weekend, of course you enjoy it. You enjoy wearing that green jersey, you’re going out with teammates who have put in the hard yard as well. There’s something special about getting the opportunity to play for your county. I had 148 appearances and I’m proud of that achievement, I was proud I got to play with my two brothers as well. I am grateful for that, county football isn’t for everyone and it’s a massive commitment. That’s what separates the club and county player. You either want it badly enough or you don’t, and to be involved on a county team for 14 years shows how much it meant to me.

NG: Is it a case of never say never or is this a case of closing the book on your playing career with Fermanagh?

RJ: I had the conversation with Kieran about the year ahead and that’s where we left it. He said, ‘look, we don’t want to close the door’ and you never know what way things might change but for the year ahead it’s a case of stepping away from it.

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