McBarron hoping Ernesiders can stay on top in rising tide
WHEN Armagh and Tyrone were winning their breakthrough All-Ireland titles early in the last decade, it brought the focus of attention back on the northern province for the first time since Ulster monopolised Sam Maguire from 1991 to '94.
And while those northern lights were shining brightest, the province's rising tide carried other boats, most notably Fermanagh and Monaghan, who meet in an Ulster semi-final in Kingspan Breffni Park tomorrow (throw-in 3.30).
"There came a time when you just wanted to improve, where you wanted to make all the effort worth your while," says former Fermanagh footballer Liam McBarron, who hung up his boots last year after debuting in 1996.
Seamus McEnaney is in his sixth season in charge of Monaghan and, while there has been no major silverware in that period, their transformation from also-rans to a side that has forced its way to the game's top table has been remarkable.
Kerry had to go to their deepest reserves of their talent to prevent the Farney men from reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in 2007, and Fermanagh went a step further and missed out on a spot in the final when Mayo denied them after a replay in 2004.
The most recent championship clash between the sides came in 2008.
Monaghan, still soaring on the oxygen from running the reigning All-Ireland champions so close the previous August, were tipped for a serious assault on Ulster. They went to ground, refused media engagements and were caught cold when McBarron goaled inside the opening five minutes.
"We got on top of them early," McBarron recalled. "We knew if they got a start on us it could have gone wrong for us, and we got to the Ulster final that year."
Conventional wisdom suggested that Monaghan missed their chance, but, not for the first time, they defied expectation to produce their most complete performance yet against Armagh.
With the nucleus of the same team, they dismantled the Orchard men with a display that showed they had more to them than the no-holds-barred approach that had previously been their calling card. And if Fermanagh needed a reminder of how far they have come, it came in their recent win over Cavan, which, amazingly, was their first in Breffni Park.
"Population is a serious problem for Fermanagh. Emigration hits hard up there," McBarron continues. "In my debut in 1996, we got beat out the gate by Tyrone, who had been beaten in the previous year's All-Ireland final.
"We were so innocent going out to play them and it showed. There just came a time where you just wanted your effort to count. That's why those years were great for Fermanagh. But if we are being honest with ourselves, we were lucky to get as far as we did in 2004.
"We had the likes of Mark Little and Eamonn Maguire, and they were classy players and were completely unknown. That was a huge help to us.
"Now Monaghan stand in the way of another Ulster final and while they'll be favourites, I suppose we can look at it and say, 'well, we've done it before, why can't we do it again?'
"It has lifted the county. With the problems the Quinn Group are going through -- Sean Quinn is a huge employer up there -- there is a lot of doom and gloom," adds the Kinawley native, who helped Dublin outfit Kilmacud Crokes to an All-Ireland club championship last year.
"But the win over Cavan brought so much optimism around the place and there's a bit of excitement around again."
Quinn, a well known GAA benefactor, famously provided a helicopter for McBarron to make his way from their qualifier win over Cork to his wedding in 2004.
The affable McBarron slipped away from the inter-county scene at the end of last season due to family commitments, while he has also launched his own company, EcoSense, which specialises in the management of waste oil and fats from retail food outlets.
Still, he'll find time to travel to Cavan for tomorrow's showdown.
"Being based and Dublin and with training in Fermanagh, well there was only going to be one loser when you have a young family.
"You'd miss it sometimes, but there were some great days. Hopefully they'll come again."