No regrets over Gregory McCartan red card: Brian McGuigan
IF Brian McGuigan could turn back time he would do the same thing again.
He has no regrets about his role in Gregory McCartan's sending-off during the 2003 Ulster final in Clones.
Just as McCartan was attempting to take a quick free in the middle of the field, McGuigan decided to buy his defence a couple of precious seconds by tripping the Down man.
Incensed, McCartan threw the ball into McGuigan's face from close range, not with any great ferocity but enough for Kerry referee Aidan Mangan to brandish a red card to the 1994 All-Ireland winner.
Reflecting on the incident 14 years on, McGuigan resists playing the diplomacy card.
“I actually don’t know what the rule is when you throw a ball at somebody,” said McGuigan, who was only pipped to the man-of-the-match award by Down’s Benny Coulter.
“It was definitely a harsh red card. [But] You go to the limit. You don’t think of the consequences.
“If was going back to that day again, I would do the same thing again. The fact that I went down, was that the reason why I was sent off?
“If I stood my ground, would the referee still have sent him off? I don’t know.
“I wasn’t the man who pulled the red card out of my pocket. The only man you could blame for that was the referee.”
As McGuigan recalls, McCartan’s red card just before the interval stung Down into action.
“Gregory McCartan getting sent off gave them a huge boost,” he says.
“They were four points up at one stage. It kick-started them. Now, with Down being a man down in the second half, it probably pulled us back into the game.”
McGuigan felt bad McCartan, a player he greatly admired, missed the replay a week later as Tyrone glided to a 0-23 to 1-5 victory.
“Look, I felt sorry for Gregory McCartan because he was a player I really admired when he won an All-Ireland in 1994 – the way he hit free-kicks, the way he could drop-kick, he was a brilliant midfielder.
“If I bumped into Gregory McCartan now I’m sure we’d have a laugh about it… Or maybe he wouldn’t!”
That Ulster final replay victory was Tyrone’s day of emancipation.
Mickey Harte had managed to bring a glut of the 1997 All-Ireland minor crew through to senior level to win Ulster and an All-Ireland at his first attempt.
It was a remarkable achievement.
“When that Ulster final came we felt: this was our moment, that we were contenders. To be fair, Down had the guts of that 1999 All-Ireland minor team.
“Looking back now, you could say we’ve gone on two different paths. Those two games [against Down] were defining moments in both sets of players’ careers because if Down had beaten us – which they easily could have done – who’s to say that they wouldn’t have kicked on the way did. And how would we have reacted?
“A couple of times we looked beaten in that first game, but we knew ourselves, no matter how far behind we were, we felt we were still always in the game.
“I know it took Peter Canavan’s penalty goal to get us back in the game – and even though Down got another goal and with so little time left in the game we always felt we would come back and make something of it.”
In both encounters McGuigan was exceptional. In trying to stymie McGuigan, the Down defence was like a tank trying to corner a wasp.
And yet, McGuigan didn’t think he was good enough to cut it at senior level.
Even though he won All-Ireland titles at minor and U21 level (two), the Ardboe playmaker got a rude awakening in his senior Championship debut in 2000 against Armagh.
The Orchard defence threw McGuigan around like a rag doll and eased to a four-point victory over the Red Hands.
"Looking back in 2000, my first Championship game against Armagh, they were really strong. I got a few knocks that day and looked out of my depth. I thought that I would never reach that level, but Mickey came in, you matured and you were ready for the battle.
“I felt if you could compete at minor and U21 level in All-Irelands, you should be making the next step up. It was never heard of before where Mickey had brought so many through from the one team – nine, 10 lads – at best you maybe get three or four out of a minor team.”
Despite that chastening experience against Armagh in 2000, McGuigan was soon convinced by his manager that he was good enough to be a success at senior level.
“One thing that irked Mickey about his own career was any time his era won Ulsters, it was felt anything after that was a bonus.
“Mickey didn’t like that. Mickey always felt Tyrone were good enough to compete with the Kerrys and Dublins – and that’s the one thing he drilled into us; Ulster titles were only stepping stones to bigger things.
“In ’97, we beat Kerry in the All-Ireland minor replay and that gave us the belief that we were as good as these teams. When we went down to play Kerry and Dublin, yes, we treated them with respect but we never feared them.
“And that was all down to Mickey because in his era the players went down there and probably didn’t believe they could do it. He never believed that himself.
“And, look, he’s done it with another team now – they believe they can go on and win All-Irelands.”
While history shows that Tyrone were the best in the country in 2003, there were more than a couple of bumps on the road.
As well as needing two games to overcome Down in the provincial final, Derry forced Tyrone to a second game at the quarter-final stages.
“That year we got off to a jittery enough start. Derry could have beaten us in Clones. This was the first year Mickey came in and a lot of people were questioning him for bringing in so many young lads.
“I would have questioned myself: was I physically strong enough to compete at this level? But we got over Derry pretty convincingly in the replay and then we beat Antrim in the semi-finals.”
McGuigan, like most other observers this year, didn’t see Down’s semi-final win over Monaghan coming.
“The one thing I was impressed about Down in their semi-final was, no matter how many times their kick passes were cut out they kept trying to do it, which was impressive, but the only thing about that is they have to learn when not to do it because when they come up against Tyrone and they keep kicking the ball in it’s going to come straight back down the field.
“They have to be cuter than they were against Monaghan and hold onto the ball and recycle it. It’s nice to see kick passing but there are times when you don’t use it.”