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A family affair for battling Mulrone as he aims for overdue shot at Kerry

By Declan Bogue

You might ask what Fermanagh have been doing differently this year to still be playing football in late July, with a serious chance of meeting Kerry in August on the greatest stage of all.

And you find the answer in the physical condition of a man like Barry Mulrone.

He's 27 now, but was a mere child of 16 when his county last won three games in the Championship and came within a kick of a ball of playing Kerry in an All-Ireland final.

Tempting to think of Mulrone and contemporaries as the legacy of that run, but he probably would have made it anyway. Two years later he looked like a senior player, horsing Antrim opponents every direction as they met in the Ulster minor Championship.

In 2004, he had a special insight to the squad; his father Sylvester was a selector to manager Charlie Mulgrew and he would frequently attend training sessions.

"It was just a great time," he recalls in that upbeat way of his.

"I was at every single game that year. Club Eirne had a wee montage of video recently and I was actually only looking at it again this week because it was up on Facebook.

"The memories it brought back of those games, the games against Donegal, Meath, Cork. The memories are unbelievable, even of the Mayo games, and that is what it is all about. It kind of puts it into perspective that hopefully we are now providing fresh memories for a new generation.

"That is what we are trying to do. I know people will say that what your career amounts to is looking back at what you won, but there is another side to it as well and it is about the memories that you will have and that you leave for others."

Such as the Roscommon game almost a fortnight ago. On a sunny Sunday in Enniskillen, Fermanagh fans got caught up in the emotion of the type of comeback that they had often fell victim to. Five points down with six minutes remaining, they overwhelmed Roscommon with a string of spectacular points that sent hearts racing and tear ducts swelling.

There was no lack of vignettes; Tomás Corrigan splitting the posts from a narrow sideline kick, Eoin Donnelly rising high time and again to claim the Roscommon kickout, and Sean Quigley's superb leap, fetch and point kicked on the turn to edge them in front for the first time of the game.

And then the celebrations on the pitch. Manager Pete McGrath conducted his usual post-match briefings, but brought the team up to the top corner of the pitch, the one furthest from the dressing rooms.

When they split up, McGrath was aware that the players would take an age to get back to the dressing rooms, being stopped by friends, relations and clubmates. Posing for selfies with people they had never met before. Mainlining them with an adrenalin and confidence boost. McGrath is a shrewd man.

In the midst of it all, Mulrone met his father. After Sylvester had been selector in '04, he was back for the season of 2011, in the same role for John O'Neill. A player revolt that year destroyed many reputations and cut people to the quick.

Barry was one of the men who stayed, playing on an ankle that was never right. The two Devenish St Mary's men have been hurt by football, but it has lifted them to exhilarating heights also.

"He was fairly excited when I saw him on the pitch," he smiles.

"He didn’t know if he should shake my hand, give me a hug or give me a kiss. He didn’t know what to do with himself. My Mum is a bit of a bandwagon supporter, she won’t like me saying, but the whole family is loving it."

And well they might. For the four seasons before this, Fermanagh won only one Championship game, coincidentally against this weekend's opponents, Westmeath.

Asked to identify the reason, he replies, "It is hard to know. Over the last four, five, six years as a county we have underachieved, I don’t think there is any question about that.

"We have always had the teams to do more but we have either froze or we have not done the business but I do think now with the new players coming through and with the management we have and everyone pulling in the same direction, we can do something similar and hopefully even better than '04."

Mulrone himself has been a shining example of self-improvement. For a few years there he was injury-prone. He would make a recovery from the left ankle injury he received in 2010, only for his cruciate to snap in 2011.

At times he looked heavy going onto the pitch, but his luck has changed and it is quite astonishing to think that this year was the first time he was able to take a full part in the pre-season regime. He has trimmed down and hardened up while his stamina has gone through the roof in a free-running role between the half-back and half-forward lines.

Good enough that he has played every minute of every game this year, from the Dr McKenna Cup through the League and now in the Championship.

"You know what condition you are in because of the fitness tests that you have throughout the year and with the role that I have you have to be quite fit to do the job," he reveals.

"I am loving my football at the minute and everyone sees that."

It's an odd thing, that journalists should be summoned to a Championship press night in Fermanagh in July, a fact not lost on Mulrone.

"Usually at this time of the year we are reading interviews being conducted with other players and this is just great for the county. There is such a buzz around the place but the way the whole year has gone we had full faith that it was going to come to this."

Pete McGrath's impact cannot be understated. Perhaps the players and management didn't quite know what to make of each other last year. But in his humility to seek out ways to improve and bring in other management voices, McGrath has endeared himself to these players.

He asks them with a straight face why they can't think of themselves as players in Donegal and Tyrone do. It drives him mad sometimes. But they are beginning to believe.

They could have gone any direction after the Ulster semi-final defeat to Monaghan, but Mulrone reveals, "Pete just bought us in after the game and sat us down. He told us exactly what his goal was, which was for us to be playing football in August. We are nearly there and hopefully we can get over Westmeath."

Get over Westmeath, and Fermanagh would be back in an All-Ireland quarter-final, just as they were in 2003 and 2004. And against Kerry, the 2004 All-Ireland final that wasn't to be.

The two Mulrones will be there, with roles reversed; one playing his part on the field, the other shouting from the stands. The circle of life.

Belfast Telegraph


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