Gavin Devlin's playing days with Tyrone: A change of view

“He’s just a unique man. I always knew Mickey the manager; I always knew him, felt I always knew him. But it’s only in the last few years I’ve got to know Mickey the man."

IN the late ’90s/early ‘Noughties’ a rich Ardboe vein ran through the heart of Mickey Harte’s Tyrone team.

Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin was number six, Brian McGuigan number 11. These were the utopian years.

Devlin and McGuigan made sweet music on a football field. The higher the stakes, the higher the notes they hit.

When Devlin had the ball in his hands his natural instinct was to always look for McGuigan.

He knew if he could find McGuigan the ball would be safe there.

In any case, McGuigan was never hard to find. That was the innate beauty of McGuigan.

“Brian was so, so brave on a football field,” Devlin says.

“I’m not talking about the challenges; I’m talking about when you needed someone to stand up, he was always there. And he did it from a very young age.

“I felt totally, totally safe when I went out onto a football field with Brian.

“Whenever he was on your team you felt safe, you felt confident and you felt assured. He was everything you wanted in a player.”

McGuigan says: “I played minor and U21s with ‘Horse’ right through our age group with Ardboe and we won championships the whole way up.

“‘Horse’ was number six, I was always number 11 and we just had that understanding.

“Gavin had total faith in me.

“He’d give me the ball whether I was two yards beside him or 22 yards away from him – he always looked for me.

“Maybe later it had become a bit too obvious, that other teams knew that was the link between defence and the forward line.

“But for those couple of years, it was great to play alongside him.

“To win that first All-Ireland and Gavin beside me was great.”

Devlin sits back in the quiet booth in the Tilley Lamp and thinks about the great players he played with.

There isn’t a hint of Ardboe bias, he protests, when ranking McGuigan above all others.

“I was always a big Tyrone fan. In the mid-90s I idolised Peter Canavan. To get a chance to play along with him in 2003 was special.

“Boys ask me all the time who was the best player I played with: without a shadow of doubt it was very, very easy and that’s Brian McGuigan.

“I know people probably think it is Ardboe bias, but it isn’t. He was the greatest player I ever played with because he was so unique.

“If you were winning by five, six or seven points you wouldn’t know he was on the field. He only came alive when you needed him most.”

McGuigan, of course, was hit hard by injuries – the kind of which cruelly truncated a fabulous career.

He suffered a bad leg break in 2006 and upon his return in a reserve club game he was dealt a career-threatening eye injury.

Devlin adds: “They talk about his father Frank and not seeing his best days – we didn’t see Brian McGuigan’s best days.

“In 2003 he was only a young lad. They talk about Mugsy’s goal in 2005 [against Dublin], but look at Brian McGuigan’s goal against Galway in ’04 in the Qualifiers – it was sublime.

“In 2005, he went to Australia and came back for the Championship.

“How he never got an Allstar that year I’ll never know, and in 2006 he suffered a horrific broken leg, and that was game over because he was out with that and once he came back the Ardboe manager thought it was a good idea to play him in a reserve game against Aghyaran.

“At that time, you’d need a steel suit to play in Aghyaran.

“He played for 20 minutes [before getting injured]. Anyone who was at that game never seen anything like it. He was the game-changer in every game I played in or watched.

“I have no doubt only that he broke his leg – because that was the beginning of the end – we would have won another Championship [with Ardboe].

“People talked about that he was back after the leg break, but he was never back… He made ordinary players around him come alive. He could make them good players. And he always gave the right pass. Always.”

March 2, 2004 is a date etched in the hearts and minds of everyone associated with Tyrone GAA.

Life would never be the same again after the sudden death of Cormac McAnallen.

Just a couple of days before the terrible news, Devlin married his long-time girlfriend Eilish. All the Tyrone lads attended their special day. 

Cormac was mature beyond his tender years. Everyone in the Tyrone squad looked up to Cormac and, deep down, they probably wanted to be a bit like him.

Devlin and his wife called their second child after him. Cormac’s tragic death left an indelible sadness on Devlin.

“I got married on the 27th of February in 2004,” Devlin recalls.
“At the wedding that day things happened and you think ‘was that fate?’ It was the conversations we had at the wedding and the things he said to me. 

“It was mind-boggling looking back every day since.

“Whenever you talked to Cormac it wasn’t like talking to any of the lads like ‘Hub’ Hughes, Ger Cavlan or McGuigan – every conversation you had with Cormac would mean something…”

“Time is a funny thing. It plays tricks on you. It’s something you never fully understand or get to grips with.

“In some ways it seems like yesterday and other ways it feels a lifetime ago.

“When you think about Cormac it’s something you don’t get over. There isn’t a day goes by that I haven’t thought about him.

“You just wonder why – why was he taken away from us?

“There is no doubt he would have gone on and lifted another All-Ireland.

“Even though we went on to win another All-Ireland in ’05, it just didn’t feel right. Not for me anyway. That’s when I knew I was falling out of love with the game in terms of playing it because I felt that Cormac should have been with us the day we won in ’05.”

After Cormac’s death, the Tyrone players were all screened.

Devlin’s scan results showed he had an enlarged valve. At times during the 2005 season he complained of tiredness and lethargy, symptoms that were consistent with this defect.

On the field, Tyrone were flying again. They beat Down in their Ulster opener and needed two games to dismiss an obdurate Cavan team.

Armagh, though, proved a tough nut to crack, the Red Hands losing an Ulster final replay after two epic encounters in Croke Park.

But they would later avenge that loss in the All-Ireland semi-finals. In between times, Tyrone eased past Monaghan to take their place in the quarter-finals against Dublin.

For the first time while playing under Harte, Devlin’s place in Tyrone’s starting line-up fell under fierce scrutiny.

Devlin remembers the game too. It was Monaghan in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

The squat figure of Rory Woods was proving a handful for ‘Horse’ in the early stages, and later Farney substitute Stephen Gollogly.

But Devlin recovered well, began protecting the ‘D’ again and the Red Hands ran out easy winners to book a mouth-watering clash with the Dubs.

“From a very early stage I felt very comfortable with Mickey,” Devlin says.

“I knew I would be given time to get the better of my man. I knew I’d win the battle. I never remember getting taken off in any game until 2004… I got taken off in a National League game. It was the first time ever.

“[But] I knew I’d always get time on the field with Mickey.”

Woods and Gollogly were lively, energetic players – but Dublin’s in-form playmaker Alan Brogan was a more cerebral opponent for Devlin to contain.

He was the kind of footballer that could hurt you no matter what position he took up on the field.

Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up.

“Alan Brogan was absolutely on fire,” Devlin recalls. 

In the first game, ‘Horse’ was substituted and Joe McMahon came in. Seven days later, Devlin didn’t make the starting team for the replay.

“It turned out to be the right decision,” Devlin reflects.

“Conor Gormley came back to be number six and would do a massive job there. It turned out it was his position all along.

“Enda McGinley came back into midfield and was a revelation.

“I had no bother because we had to win an All-Ireland and if it took for me to be dropped, I would do it.

“I knew there was a better balance and shape to the team.

“I kept plugging away. I was disappointed – of course I was disappointed. My family were disappointed. But I knew my role had to be different. I couldn’t be an energy-sapper, I had to be a giver.”

Harte acknowledges that dropping one of his most trusted men was a “difficult decision”

“But Gavin made it easy,” explains Harte, “because of the way he reacted to it. He accepted it 100 per cent with not a bad word in his head, not a bad vibe came out of him.

“It wasn’t easy for me to do. He could have mopped about but he didn’t.”

McGuigan remembers: “Maybe the way Dublin played the game didn’t suit ‘Horse’ as much and maybe people were catching on to the way we played.  

“The thing that stood out after that was he didn’t sit there and be quiet. He acted in the same way, the way he’d always be in the changing room…

“Me, ‘Horse’ and Owen Mulligan would have always met in the Glenavon Leisure Centre, in the sauna or swimming pool.

“It was a good time for the three of us just to chat and just go over the weekend’s game. But ‘Horse’ never got us down.

“Owen was going through a bad patch that summer and he kept encouraging Owen. Horse’ never thought about himself. He was honest enough to admit that it was right he wasn’t playing.”

Life away from football had changed a great deal too. Devlin had become a father of two boys at that time and work was pretty hectic.

“I was working in Monaghan at the time, building houses, and I was up and down the road to training. I’d two boys in the house at that time and it was really, really tough.

“Looking back now, to be brutally honest, our boys are very lucky to have the mother that they have. She was the pillar. She was the rock. Maybe I wasn’t as good a father as I ought to have been then, but I think I’m making up for it now.”

Devlin’s last season wearing the Tyrone jersey was 2006.

“I knew my time was up playing the game at that level,” he says.

As much as anything, the changing face of the modern game had retired Devlin.

“The game was getting faster,” says Harte, “it was a more mobile game and less about positional sense and you needed perpetual motion.

“He knew that. It was too young for someone to retire but it really wasn’t dictated by him or any of us – it was dictated by the way the game was going.”

Devlin hung on for one more year with his club before quitting football altogether, aged 26.

“Not one day have I regretted the decision to stop playing,” Devlin says.

He’s always had a burning passion for coaching the game. Along with his Tyrone commitments, he’s deeply embedded in his own club these days. 

“He’s on our development committee,” McGuigan says, “and is a real driving force and the vision that he has for Ardboe youth in four or five years time is a credit to him.

“He never misses a meeting and he’s over two or three teams in the club.”

Tyrone have already claimed promotion back to the top flight this season with a couple of games to spare and are once again regarded as realistic Ulster and All-Ireland contenders.

Now in his fourth season along the sidelines with Harte, Devlin couldn’t be in a better place.

“It’s something I try not to think too much about – standing with Mickey on the sideline – because there’s a job to be done,” he says.

“I know I’ll look back some day and think that was one of my proudest moments standing on the sideline with Mickey.

“He’s just a unique man. I always knew Mickey the manager; I always knew him, felt I always knew him.

“But it’s only in the last few years I’ve got to know Mickey the man. He’s a completely different chap.

“We’d be watching soccer games together – he’d be a big Manchester United fan and I’m a big Liverpool fan – we play golf together and we go and watch other teams playing.”

Father of three sons, Devlin rarely looks in his rear view – his playing days, the silverware and post-match celebrations.

But he loved every minute of those days.

“In those years ‘Horse’ and me lived in each other’s pockets,” McGuigan says.

“We went to training together and when we were celebrating he was the life and soul of the party.

“He was a great man to be around. The following Tuesday after the celebrating, he’d have this big smile on his face and would go through all the stories of what happened over the weekend.”

Laughing, McGuigan adds: “He loved all those soppy songs. He would burst into a Boyzone song and he’d tell you how much he loved you after a few drinks! Ach sure, you’re young once.”

Devlin hasn’t had a beer since the day after last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry.

“There were quite a lot of rogues on the Tyrone teams I played on,” Devlin reflects with a smile.

“We were in each other’s company since a young age – Mulligan, Brian, me, Cavlan, ‘Hub’ Hughes – we just had that chemistry.

“I’m happy with where I’m at now. I enjoyed it while it lasted. But would I go back and change it? Not a chance.”

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