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Enda McGinley: Down v Tyrone rivalry defined by fine margins

Benny Coulter celebrates a Down goal during one of many recent exciting clashes between Down and Tyrone, the Ulster SFC first round match in 2008 which ended in a draw. Down won the replay but Tyrone won the All-Ireland

TYRONE v Down. It’s hardly one of the classic Ulster rivalries, yet, if we can conveniently forget the last Championship meetings in 2014 – when the preliminary round draw was about as exciting as it got as both teams exited the Championship by the second round of the qualifiers – then the history and impact of these two counties’ jousts over the past 20 years is remarkable.

Let’s rewind the clock back to May 1998. Tyrone minors played Down in Omagh in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship.

Many of the Tyrone team had been involved in the break-out run to the All-Ireland final in 1997, a season forever remembered for the tragic loss of Paul McGirr. Mickey Harte was for retiring after 1997 but was persuaded to stay on for one more shot at the title. Tyrone’s hopes of a breakthrough were bolstered by the success of the county vocational schools team and Holy Trinity, Cookstown – who had both captured All-Ireland titles earlier in the year.

Down also travelled with a quality side, backboned by members of the St Colman’s, Newry Hogan Cup-winning side.

Stevie O’Neill scored two goals, one a great penalty, while Kevin ‘Hub’ Hughes and the late Cormac McAnallen bossed midfield. Still, Down had come back from three down during the second half to go two up.

Down were still leading by a point in injury-time when I was put through on goal. I still remember glancing up and seeing a goal was on but knowing a point for a replay was what we needed.

In the end, caught in two minds, my left-footed shot left a lot to be desired as it clipped the crossbar and fell over. Fine lines and all that.

Tyrone would go on to win the replay in Newry in front of over 5,000 spectators by five points. That would be our narrowest margin of victory as we marched to the All-Ireland title.

That was Tyrone’s first minor All-Ireland since 1973. The team was lauded and Mickey Harte got promoted to the U21 ranks. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was a fine minor side that included Pascal McConnell, Michael McGee, Gavin Devlin, Cormac McAnallen, Kevin Hughes, Ryan Mellon, Philip Jordan, Stephen O’Neill, Owen ‘Mugsy’ Mulligan, and Brian McGuigan.

In a ‘sliding doors’ scenario I always wonder what would have happened if Down had won that day.

Would Mickey Harte have stayed on? Would those players have gone on to achieve what they did. Along with the run in 1997, winning the All-Ireland gave that group an expectation and belief that winning All-Irelands was what they were about. Losing to Down in that minor game could have changed everything.

The following year, Tyrone met Down again in the minor championship at the semi-final stage.

Down, with Liam Doyle, Michael Walsh, John Clarke, Ronan Murtagh, Ronan Sexton and Benny Coulter – who unsurprisingly got a goal – won easily at Casement Park and went on to win the All-Ireland.

Tyrone followed up their ’98 minor win with U21 All-Irelands in 200 and ’01. When Down tried to accomplish the same feat with their ’99 graduates in the 2002 Ulster U21 championship, they happened to play Tyrone in Newry, in what was to be Mickey Harte’s last year before taking on the senior role in ’03. Down were strong favourites but Tyrone, led by ‘Mugsy’, pulled off a shock and went on to claim their third Ulster U21 title in-a-row.

In doing so I think Tyrone damaged that Down group. Many had been already drafted straight into the senior set-up but a full U21 championship would have undoubtedly helped them.

When the two sides met in the famous Ulster senior final in ’03 it was two teams laced with All-Ireland minor winners. The classic first match was a kamikaze affair with Tyrone gifting Down goals like they were going out of fashion. The dreaded Down ‘swagger’ was in full tilt. Somehow a draw was salvaged.

The replay was a much more professional and ruthless performance from Tyrone and there was no doubt where the superiority lay between the two emerging sides in the end. Imagine, though, if Peter Canavan had failed to convert the penalty with Tyrone nine points down and 15 minutes to go. History, again, could have been very different. That draw, and the subsequent performance in the replay, became key building blocks in Tyrone’s first All-Ireland.

The 2008 first round game again had big ramifications. Down, were underdogs but had the building blocks of their 2010 All-Ireland final team from the back to back Ulster U21 titles of ’05 and ’06.

Not for the first time a replay would be required but this time Down held out after extra-time. It was another superb encounter but afterwards, forgetting the quality of the Down performance, everyone penned Tyrone’s obituary.

They forgot that Down, being Down, will give any team in the country a game if they have a half-decent team and get on the front foot.

Tyrone weren’t dead yet and won the All-Ireland that year. Meanwhile, Down progressed from there, leading to their remarkable run to the All-Ireland final in 2010. Their adventure that year via the back door began with a narrow first round loss to Tyrone in Ulster.

Since then Tyrone have stayed at a generally high level but failed to push through to the very top, while Down have drifted into mediocrity.

There is excitement around both teams coming into next Sunday. It may not be a classic rivalry, but it is a tie with impact. This year’s Ulster final, as with ties of old, can provide the launchpad for either team to greater things.

I struggle to see anything but a Tyrone win but, given ’98, ’03 and ’08, you can forgive me for never discounting the Mournemen and that damned swagger.

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