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St Michael's eager to make history with All-Ireland title

 

All in: St Michael’s celebrate their MacRory Cup success
All in: St Michael’s celebrate their MacRory Cup success
Former star Marty McGrath
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Today will mark the third time St Michael's spring down the tunnel on All-Ireland final day, hoping to bring home a Hogan Cup.

In a success-starved county such as Fermanagh, every win counts. Only two representative teams have ever won an 'A' All-Ireland - Fermanagh Technical College and Lisnaskea school St Comghall's on one glorious weekend in the mid-90s.

And that's it. In both hurling and football, no side have actually won an All-Ireland against the best on the island. But for a St Michael's team in the odd position of being 'all-Fermanagh' (alumni that have played and won with the St Michael's team include Tyrone's Lee and Rory Brennan, Matthew and Richard Donnelly, the latter in the backroom team of this side), they have as good a chance as any against Naas CBS today.

Any conversation about Fermanagh football inevitably branches into St Michael's. As the only grammar school in the county, the relationship is mutually beneficial. Symbiotic.

There are few comparables around the island, mainly all the old boarding schools as St Michael's itself was; St Kieran's in Kilkenny and St Flannan's in Ennis have powered Kilkenny and Clare hurling teams since forever, while in football terms St Jarlath's of Tuam is the breeding ground for Galway.

Fermanagh have three All-Star footballers. The imprint of St Michael's runs through them like a stick of rock.

The first, Peter McGinnity, even went back there to teach during his adult working life, buying a house that involved a hop over the fence and into the school grounds. He managed the 1992 MacRory Cup-winning side.

The others, Marty McGrath and Barry Owens, were not there from year one but soon made their way up to the top of the Drumclay link from St Joseph's and St Aiden's.

For McGrath, the unity was immense.

"In my time playing in St Michael's, I always remember how close the group were," said the St Joseph's, Ederney man.

"The same players, you are playing with them or running into them somewhere along the line, through under-age or county minors or development squads. It's nearly the same players all the time.

"Then you go into school and you are spending every day with each other and that creates a great bond, particularly when you are in a football team and the bond you create when you are winning, I think it is the best experience.

"MacRory Cup football, schools' football at that level is the best experience of football you can get, the closest you can get to professionalism in that regard. There is a lot of time put into the football in St Michael's."

McGrath was remembered at St Joseph's - the Enniskillen secondary that sat at the bottom of the hill where St Michael's is perched - as a polite pupil but hardly a bookworm. A few conversations at county minor training sessions with Colum Monaghan convinced him to put more time into his studies and make the hop up the hill to do his A Levels and play football.

Well, play football and do his A Levels.

"If you ask some of the teachers, I was probably a wee bit unsettled in the school, but the football was the one thing that helped me settle," recalled McGrath.

"I was going from St Joe's to a school with over 700 pupils in it and you would have been a bit shy going in no matter what age you were.

"It was a big change in that regard but once the football started, the relationships started to grow then. It helped me settle, it encouraged me. You would be training in the evenings and there in the school on Saturdays as well, maybe the odd weekend away with a training camp."

The fuss of it all surprised Owens, who came from an altogether sleepier part of the county where self-expression was always trumped by a dry line in wit.

"There was something about it that reminded me almost of College football in America and how they get behind them. It was sort of like that with mini pep rallies and so on," said the man who claimed All-Stars in 2004 and 2006.

"You had the band playing music at the games, 'The Great Escape' and all that through the brass instruments. It doesn't seem to happen as much now."

After taking the Teemore under-sixes this morning, Owens will make his way to Croke Park.

While there, he might bump into McGrath around the ground, the two winning a MacRory Cup in 1999 and losing one in 2000, and playing in an Ulster final for their county in 2008.

Owens recovered from a heart operation and ruptured cruciate. McGrath played while having cancer.

"Sport gives a lift to people and football does that in Fermanagh. You will have people going down on Saturday bringing their children, it is an opportunity for children to get there," added McGrath.

"Many a team out of St Michael's have won the MacRory but none have won the Hogan. This team, I do think they are one of the, if not the best team that have come out of St Michael's."

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