Before Fermanagh took to the field for the Lory Meagher Cup final against Tyrone, their co-manager Seamus McCusker gathered his players around him in the Croke Park dressing room.
Out of one pocket he extracted a clump of grass that he had surreptitiously lifted from the pitch outside during their visit the previous night. Out of the other was a handful of grass from the Cavanacarragh pitch of the Lisbellaw club. There wasn’t one bit of difference between the grass he said, so get out and hurl like they owned the place.
And so they did. Fermanagh’s tally of 3-20 was the same as Armagh’s in the Nicky Rackard victory over Louth. It was one point short of London’s in winning the Christy Ring.
The problem was that Tyrone were also on top form and pipped them by one point.
Before Saturday, Fermanagh hurling was the butt-end of what was really a cheap dig from a famous commentator. Hurling people would suffer as another pub bore would recite the famous line about Seán Óg hÁilpín’s mother hailing from Fiji and his father from Fermanagh; neither a hurling stronghold, and cringe.
They were better than that.
Good enough, in fact, to play in Croke Park. Which is precisely what they did on Saturday.
A county with only three hurling clubs, taking their entire hurling panel from just two; Lisbellaw St Patrick’s and Lisnaskea Emmetts.
Fermanagh hurling is, without a doubt, the smallest unit of the GAA’s inter-county competitions, yet they had their day in the sun.
Incredible, and a tribute to each and everyone involved in hurling in Fermanagh, because there are no shirkers. There’s not enough people to number shirkers.
What did it mean to Tyrone? Absolutely everything.
In 2009 they won it for the first time and by way of celebration, their full-forward Rory O’Neill etched it on his leg with a sizeable tattoo, which is a part-time interest of the Naomh Colum Cille man.
Standing in the Hogan Stand with the microphone on Saturday, their captain Damian Maguire (below) talked of last year’s final, when they lost to a last-minute Donegal goal.
He said he thought of that game every day of the past year, and there was no reason that Fermanagh couldn’t come back and avenge their defeat in a similar way.
The wonderful thing about it, as Fermanagh will discover when the pain of hurt subsides, is that they can do it all over again and get back to Croke Park. During the winter months, the management lost players who didn’t share their belief they could hurl on the greatest stage of all.
They trained on a pitch with the floodlights broken along one sideline. Requests to play as a curtain-raiser to the county football team were scoffed at.
Now the hurlers can demand respect and expect parity of treatment.
Across the three finals, 14 goals and 114 points were scored in the Ring, Rackard and Meagher finals, providing serious entertainment yet these fixtures are merely footnotes on the calendar of most GAA folk. The Sunday Game gave the same coverage to the finals as they did Seanie Johnston playing his first game for his new club in Kildare. More fool them.
Former GAA President Sean Kelly brought these finals to Croke Park. He might have thought his finest achievement
was in banishing Rule 42 — after all, he named his autobiography ‘Rule 42 and all that’ — but in time the memory of that will fade.
No, what will be his enduring legacy will be opening the gates of opportunity that every player, whether it be through their club with the Intermediate and Junior club finals, or a low-profile hurler like Leitrim’s Iraqi immigrant Semaco Moradi, can play at Jones’ Road.
Kelly explained his thinking in his autobiography: “The introduction of the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups was an inspirational move — so radical, it’s a miracle we got them through Congress... I wanted the Cup finals played in Croke Park as curtain-raisers... It was the weaker counties, either minors or seniors, that never got a chance to play there and surely should be allowed to play their final in Croke Park.”
Kelly was a radical in office and a little of what he wanted for the weaker counties has been diluted in that they are not a part of the senior All-Ireland final experience.
But as a lesson in aiming from the stars and landing on top of a tree, it was pretty accurate.
We should be thankful of what he achieved and look forward to how the new President, Liam O’Neill, can further enhance the experience of hurling at lower levels.
As Liam Griffin said to Kelly when he took office: “Don’t forget the small ball.”
O’Neill won’t either.