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One step at a time: Barry Owens

Becoming captain of Fermanagh after open heart surgery and two painful knee operations “meant everything” to Teemore man Barry Owens, who is now “disappointed” that 11 players have decided to leave the team. He speaks to Meadhbh Monahan.

Despite the Fermanagh team’s poor run of late, at the time of interview, Barry Owens was determined to “get on a winning streak for the championship.”

This wasn’t helped by the departure of key players such as former captain James Sherry, Mark Little and Thomas McElroy because of various grievances with management.

Owens says: “Myself and the squad were very disappointed that those players left but everyone who’s left is working hard for the championship and just doing the best we can.”

The two-time All Star winner does recall fondly the successful days of 2004, when Fermanagh reached the All Ireland semi- finals, and 2008, when Owens scored the winning goal in the Ulster Championship semi-final, putting Fermanagh into its first Ulster final in 26 years. This was all the sweeter as it was his first touch of the ball for his county since his heart operation only five months previously.

However, “people have to be realistic,” Owens says of the team’s supporters. “Fermanagh is a small county and when you see the pool of players available to the likes of Tyrone, Donegal and Cork, it’s unreal.”

He adds: “It was always going to be hard to go well two years in a row, and then after 2008, it was the same but we haven’t been back since. Everyone’s expecting the same level of performance.”

The unassuming Teemore man, who became captain in January, is used to pushing himself and overcoming disappointment. He adds that the team will have to re-group. “I suppose we have another year [of being in Division Four] so we’ll just have to put our heads down for the next two years. There’s a lot of new guys being brought in to freshen it up and it’s up to them to start stepping up to the plate.”

He is “very proud” to be captain and “is just glad to get back playing football at the highest level.”

During a sinus operation at the age of 12, doctors discovered that Owens had a heart murmur.

“They done a few investigations and found I had a blocked artery. They blew that out when I was 14 and they have been keeping an eye on me since then,” he recalls.

Because he was playing at such a high level, doctors were concerned that high blood pressure may cause his arterial wall to burst; therefore they replaced the aortic valve. Twice during the January 2008 procedure, the medical team had to stop the valve leaking and when Owens woke up his chest was still open. It didn’t frighten him though.

“I didn’t really pass that much remarks. It was probably harder for my family. They were the ones worrying about it all because I was just lying there in the bed with a pile of wires and tubes coming out of me.”

His wife Caroline (who was then his fiancée) was the only person in whom he confided his frustration.

“About four or five days after the operation when the morphine was wearing off I told Caroline I was finished with football more or less. But that was the lowest point and I got over it,” he says.

When it is put to him that some people would stop playing after such a major operation, fearing for their health, Owens says: “I just took one step at a time.”

The doctor who performed the operation told Owens that he had successfully operated on American footballers who then returned to the field, so he always held out the hope that he would play again.

Back on the field

“The first step was just walking around the hospital. They wouldn’t let me leave until I could walk up a flight of stairs. It was a tough couple of days,” Owens admits.

Just five months later, he began playing for his club and in June he punched the ball into the back of the net, winning the Ulster semi-final against Derry at Healy Park.

It was “something you dream of, scoring the winning goal,” Owens concedes, but after such a gruelling recovery period “just getting back on the field was a big thing.”

In July, during the re-play of the Ulster final against Armagh in Clones, Owens was welcomed with rapturous applause in the thirty-eighth minute and “got a bit of a shock” when he went down after nine minutes with a knee injury.

He doesn’t know whether him being carried off in a stretcher brought the team’s morale down. “We still had a right few chances. It just wasn’t meant to be I suppose. We had chance after chance and just didn’t score,” he says of that game.

After two days of waiting for the swelling on his knee to go down, an MRI scan showed that Owens had ruptured his cruciate ligament.

Despite another disappointment, Owens was straight into rehabilitation with Enda McGinley, a physio, a former player with Tyrone’s Errigal Ciaran club and a former sufferer of the same injury.

“He told me to build up the muscle around the knee before the operation because after the operation the muscles waste away. I done that, had the operation in September and then was back doing small exercises like leg lifts,” Owens explains.

His own stag party set his recovery back slightly he admits, but he was soon back doing resistance exercises. After four months he felt stronger but when he began running on the pitch again, his knee started hurting. This time it was cartilage that had to be removed.

At that point, Owens seriously considered leaving football altogether. “I was just [annoyed] because I had hoped to be back at the end of April but it was now June.” However, he was involved in Teemore minors and he couldn’t resist. “Once you get back into it you re-set your goals,” he explains.

He cites his role models as former Derry players Henry Downey and Anthony Tohill and his greatest memory from his football career is winning the Minor Championship in 2000 and Senior Championship in 2005 with Teemore because “winning with your club is a big thing; the lads you’ve played football with all your life.”

He recognises his wife’s commitment saying: “Caroline would be worrying more that anyone. She has her head in her hands sometimes; worrying anytime she sees me going down with an injury.” However, he is content that his doctors are “keeping a good eye on me” with check-ups every six months. “If it wasn’t right for me to be playing they would have told me by now.”

When asked what he would say to people considering giving up, Owens recommends that they “take a step back and assess what your life would be like away from it and what life would be like in it and – if you’re still going to go on with it – take your time and do the best you can.”

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