GAA Football

Part two with Owen Mulligan and Gregory McCartan: "The last time I saw Brian McGuigan I was telling him to get up to f**k"

In the second part of our interview with Owen Mulligan and Gregory McCartan, the pair join Neil Loughran to look back at the drawn 2003 Ulster final - including a controversial moment towards the end of the first half...

Down's Gregory McCartan seconds before he was sent off by referee Aidan Mangan for throwing the ball at the head of Tyrone's Brian McGuigan. Picture by Sportsfile

‘Gregory won the free and threw the ball at me. When that incident happened my main aim, in fact my only aim, was to get the ball thrown up and for Down to lose the free.

‘I was never expecting Aidan Mangan to send Gregory McCartan off, and I can sincerely say that I felt so sorry for Gregory McCartan because it was late in his career and for him to miss out on playing in that Ulster final was extremely tough on him.

‘But I know that I never set out to get Gregory McCartan sent off. The fact is that I didn’t send him off, the referee did’

Brian McGuigan, Gaelic Life

May 17, 2012

Neil Loughran: The 2003 final. You were both involved, and both counties were at a bit of a crossroads. Paddy O’Rourke was in his first year with Down, Mickey Harte the same with Tyrone.

Some of the older guys were coming towards the end of the road and a crop of new players emerging, but Tyrone were viewed as a coming force.

And yet Down amazingly took a nine-point lead early in the second half, only for Tyrone to produce one of the most remarkable comebacks of modern times to snatch a draw in a game for the ages.

When people think of that Tyrone team of the Noughties, the blood and thunder battles with Armagh and Kerry are rightly revered, but what did the players learn about themselves and each other that day in Clones?

Owen Mulligan: Mickey had come in with a lot of those minor and U21 players he’d worked with, and people were questioning our backbone when it came to senior level.

Growing up with Mickey Harte he always instilled self-belief in us, a never-say-die attitude, and he took a big risk taking us lads in. We were nine points down and we came back and drew the game, and I remember Mickey saying on TV after that you couldn’t question our backbone now.

As the months went on we got more and more self-belief, and he always went back to that Down game and the fight we’d shown that day. That ignited our season.

Everybody talks about defining moments, and if you’re going to win an All-Ireland, you have to play those sorts of tight games just to give you self-belief - Down gave us self-belief.

Owen Mulligan gets away from Brian Burns during the drawn 2003 Ulster final

NL: That year ended with a first All-Ireland success for Tyrone, and the team had to dig deep many times during that campaign. Why was that drawn game so important?

OM: I always grew up respecting Down football, the Greg Blaneys, Mickey Lindens, James McCartans... I grew up on going to watch Down in the early ‘90s, seeing them beat the Meaths and Dublins of this world.

My da and my uncle would have taken me to those games or else we would’ve gone over to the local hotel with all my cousins and watch them, we’d all have had our Down jerseys on.

It was crazy, we were a Gaelic-mad family so if any Ulster team got into the All-Ireland final we would’ve followed them

Read more: Part one of Owen Mulligan and Gregory McCartan in conversation

NL: Three minutes into added time at the end of the first half came a major turning point in a game full of them when Gregory saw red after throwing the ball at Brian McGuigan’s head...

OM: He should’ve got three months for that!

Gregory McCartan: I only tickled him for f**k sake

Brian McGuigan holds off Down's Ronan Murtagh during the 2003 Ulster final

NL: People felt the red was harsh, that McGuigan had maybe gone down easily, but Gregory what are your feelings on that incident 14 years on? Was it just a rush of blood to the head?

G McC: If you watch it back again, I went over to get the ball and somebody tripped me...

OM: It was Brian. I saw it the other day, it was Brian who clipped you first

G McC: I actually ended up kicking myself so I was absolutely ripping and when I turned around and fired the ball he was the first man I saw. It could’ve hit anybody. I still reckon the referee thought that I hit him.

But I always say, when I went off we were one point up and eight minutes later we were nine points up, so technically I was holding the team back

NL: So you did them a favour really. Have you spoken to Brian McGuigan since?

G McC: The last time I saw Brian McGuigan I was telling him to get up to f**k. I’ve never seen him since.

I’d a pint with his da one night at a GAA thing in Spain and it came up, but it was only a bit of craic. Brian McGuigan was right up there, one of the best three footballers of the Noughties I’d say, it was just one of those things that happened in the heat of the moment.

If we could turn back time I’m sure we’d both handle it a bit differently. But there’s nothing you can do about it now

NL: Tyrone made easy work of the replay the following week, winning by five points. Was there a sense in the dressing room after the drawn game that Down had missed the boat?

G McC: The manager’s always going to put a good spin on it, you know. We’ll get them the next day, we’ll take a lot from that game, we played a half with 14 men - all that stuff.

That was Paddy O’Rourke’s first year, Tyrone were going well, and I think once you get a chance like that, if you don’t bury them the first day then you’ve only yourself to blame.

You’d have to put that Tyrone team from 2003 to 2008 up there with the Kerry and Dublin teams, they were a top side and that was them just starting.

If you’re nine points up and you don’t close it out, there’s not much point crying about it

Owen Mulligan gets away from Brian Burns during the drawn 2003 Ulster final

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"When I predicted how the Ulster Championship would go this year, I reduced my view to Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone. I didn’t really think of Down, if I’m being truthful. They just about survived Division Two and had gone two years without a win and seemed stuck in a rut. They seemed lost. And afterwards, it was as though the experience of having fallen so far was the very thing that created the fire within Down on Saturday evening"

Jim McGuinness, The Irish Times

June 27, 2017

NL: Gregory, you’ve been part of teams that flew under the radar before gathering momentum through the summer, but did you think in your wildest dreams before this year’s Championship that Down would find themselves in an Ulster final?

G McC: Definitely not. They were almost in Division Three, they weren’t scoring well, they weren’t defending well, Eamonn was under severe pressure. You really couldn’t see them getting anywhere.

Luck would have it they got Armagh and we all saw how poor Armagh were that day. But even then, Armagh had four or five golden opportunities to take goals and but for some good saves from Mickey Cunningham and bad decision-making, Down could’ve been in a much worse position going into half-time.

So going into the Monaghan game, everything pointed to them winning that game. But Down came out with something that hasn’t been seen in a number of years. Anyone who says they could have foreseen that is full of sh*t or must’ve been drinking - nobody could have seen that coming.

Video: Down's biggest fans?

NL: Tyrone won’t have been expecting to face Down either Owen. Is there any danger that, after beating Donegal, they had already started to focus in on a game against Monaghan?

OM: No I don’t think so.

The reason Mickey Harte is such a good manager is because he prepares for every game the same, everybody is treated equally. He’ll go through everything with a fine tooth comb – who’s the danger men, who to watch, what foot he kicks with.

That’s why he’s so shrewd. He’ll have sleepless nights watching videos, working out who’s taking free-kicks from where, who’s picking up who. He’ll cover everything.

No matter what, they’ll be prepared to go out and win an Ulster title.

Read more: Part one of Owen Mulligan and Gregory McCartan in conversation

NL: Having been so impressive against Donegal, is there any concern that Tyrone have shown their hand too early ahead of what they hope will be a long summer?

OM: The Ulster Championship is so hard to win, you have to show your hand. I was very impressed with the Tyrone bench the last day – there was a range of medals there, a range of teams the boys have played on have been successful, so they know how to win games, how to grind games out.

There’s boys to come back from injury there too and the buzz is back in Tyrone. They’re not talking about Ulster titles, they’re talking about going further in the All-Ireland series

NL: Is it at times like this it’s difficult being away from the Tyrone set-up, and away from home?

OM: Aw, big time. When I didn’t make the squad any more, I was Tyrone’s biggest supporter. I never played McKenna Cup – it was too early for me, I still had the turkey and ham belly - but I still went and supported them when they played.

I loved seeing the young players coming up, seeing how they performed. It’s hard being away when they’re going well, but I’ll definitely be back for the Ulster final.

NL: Connaire Harrison was hugely impressive for Down against Monaghan in the semi-final, his impact likened to that of your former team-mate Peter Withnell. Can you see why the comparison has been made, Gregory?

G McC: I know Conor very well, he goes out with my first cousin Jacqueline. I know his father very well too – his father was actually the boy on the top of the Nally Stand with the Down flag at the 1991 final.

They’re different types of players. Pete was more of a battering ram... he wouldn’t have been knocking over points with his left foot, right foot from the sideline.

Conor’s a very skilful player as well as having that bit of power and strength about him. He’s been around a while, you know, a bit like myself back in the day.

He’s maybe from a lesser known club and you just don’t get the same opportunities as somebody from one of the higher end clubs.

But Conor’s a good friend of mine and a good friend of the family’s and I’m really hoping it’s a big day for him

NL: Down start at odds of 4/1 – the same as they did going into the Monaghan game. Can they defy the odds again? Or is beating Tyrone just a bridge too far?

OM: I fancy Tyrone strongly. I fancied them against Donegal strongly. I didn’t fancy Down against Monaghan minus five, I thought Monaghan would destroy them, but I was well impressed.

It has the makings of a good game but I just fancy Tyrone

G McC: The head would say it’s going to be a Tyrone victory, but I’m a Down man through and through, I’d love to see them get another performance like they did the last day and see where it takes them.

We’ve a young team, an inexperienced team, but if they can get off to a flying start and just keep pushing and pushing, you never know

Read more: Part one of Owen Mulligan and Gregory McCartan in conversation

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