“It’s a ridiculous situation to be in. You wouldn’t ask a horse to go out and run two races.”
Tyrone joint-manager Eugene McKenna, April 16, 2002
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GORMLEY. Gourley. McAnallen. O’Neill. McGuigan. Hughes. Meenagh.
Within 12 months of Tyrone’s 2001 All-Ireland under-21 success, seven of Mickey Harte’s winners had their graduations to senior football expedited by Eugene McKenna and Art McRory.
They would all feature in the National League semi-final on April 14, 2002, but only six of them made the pitch in Croke Park 17 months later when the county got its joyous hands on Sam Maguire.
Ciaran Meenagh was the odd one out. Having come off the bench against Mayo in that league game in Brewster Park, he, like the rest of them, raced up the road. Tyrone county board had set club games for 7pm that evening.
Loughmacrory would beat Donaghmore but during it, Meenagh went up for a high ball and came down in a heap. His knee buckled beneath him. The cruciate had gone.
“You’d be asking the wrong man that. But he was good enough, yes,” says McRory now when asked if Meenagh would have won senior All-Irelands with Tyrone.
“He was improving all the time. When I had him, he was a young player and his attitude could have taken him anywhere.”
Through an All-Ireland minor in '98 then three years with the under-21s, winning two All-Irelands there, and his early days in club senior football, Meenagh had marked himself out as someone who’d go on to have a long and fruitful career. A strong, commanding, powerful wing-back.
But then the injury struck and put a huge dent in his playing days. Harte brought him back in 2005, but cut him from the panel at the end of the League.
It was another devastating blow, especially in lieu of how that summer would turn out. The injury effectively took 2003 and 2005 away from him.
“He probably would have played somewhere,” recalls Ryan McMenamin, who was his room-mate when Meenagh joined the Tyrone panel.
“At club level, Ciaran always stood out playing wing-half back for Loughmacrory. Within the squad, it would have been felt he was unlucky.
“If it was now, you’d maybe have got back in quickly enough but that was 17 years ago, when a cruciate, you basically ruled yourself out for the next year. Now you’ve people back within maybe 6 to 9 months.
“Ciaran, at a squad level, he was well appreciated. Coming up against him at club level, he was a tough competitor. He probably would have made it and got a lot of game time the following year.”
Their conversations on the trips to Galway, Offaly and Cork that spring of ’02 left McMenamin in no doubt that Meenagh was bound for the coaching route.
“There are players that would chat football and there’s other players that would never chat football. It was different when you were chatting with Ciaran.
“When you’re staying in a room, as the games go on you’re always chatting about different players and different teams.
“One thing about Ciaran, he was very knowledgeable. He seemed to know a lot about other players and teams.”
As comes with the territory in Loughmacrory, he was also a crack handballer, winning two All-Ireland U16 doubles, an U21 and junior titles, and reaching a club senior final
Indeed he represented Ireland at the World Championships in Canada in 1997, qualifying by beating Paul Brady 11-10 in a tiebreak at the national finals to qualify.
The injury meant his football career never brought the rewards it probably would have.
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MEENAGH’S influence as a coach was felt in Derry long before he accepted Damian McErlain’s offer to join Derry’s backroom team last autumn.
It’s coming up on 16 years since he was appointed as PE teacher in St Colm’s High School in Draperstown, in September 2003. He almost instantly assumed coaching duty for the school’s entire raft of football and hurling teams.
He took them all until Derry and Ballinascreen footballer Benny Heron joined four years ago.
By then, Meenagh had gone into Ballinascreen’s management team with Mickey and Marty Boyle. They ended their first season in 2013 reaching a first county final in 19 years.
Most of the ‘Screen players had known their old teacher for years by then, although a former St Mary’s Magherafelt student, Heron hadn’t passed through his hands.
But since taking up his own teaching role, nobody has got to know him better.
“I was nearly going to take a break with Derry this year because I knew I wasn’t going to go back until after the wedding [he recently got married] anyway, and getting involved with him again was probably a big influence on deciding to go back in,” says Heron.
When Meenagh left ‘Screen after three years, he stepped into one of the biggest jobs in Ulster club football. Dromore have been hammering at the door in Tyrone.
There, he was reunited with Ryan McMenamin. The black and white reading of Meenagh’s tenure paints it in a harsh light.
In three years, they failed to win the coveted O’Neill Cup. In all three years, their championship exits came by a single point. Coalisland hit a 64th minute winner last year as they went on to win it, while Killyclogher took them by the minimum the year before.
McMenamin, who had a few pints with Meenagh at a wedding on Easter Monday, views his time there in an altogether different way.
“He did a lot of good coaching in the club. He would have taken our under-21s to an Ulster title and we won a league final, and we were unlucky in a couple of championships. He’s very well thought of in Dromore.
“He invested a lot into the youth, he gave a lot of the young fellas a chance. That was probably what we needed.
“We’re playing now with eight or nine under-20s in the senior team now, which bodes well for the future. A lot of that’s down to Ciaran. He brought a lot of them through.
“He wasn’t a failure. He won a league, he won an under-21 championship, he got to semi-finals. In almost any other club, that’s a successful three seasons in Tyrone.
”His time here’s been a success because he’s set the team up for the next five, six years with the young players he’s brought through.
“He put a huge amount of effort into it, he put his heart and soul into it. You couldn’t have asked for any more. He was unlucky. A bounce of a ball left or right and he could have been coming away better.
“I know nobody in Dromore could blame him.”
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EACH morning he drives the 23 miles over mountain road, down past Davagh Forest and into work at St Colm’s.
It’s a labour of love. He spends his weekdays guiding the youth in the heart of south Derry, and then in the evening it’s over the Glenshane to Owenbeg to coach the county’s senior team.
When Damian McErlain enlisted his help at the end of his first season, it was initially with a brief to sort out the defensive end of the Oak Leafers’ play.
In suffering relegation from Division Three in 2014, they conceded 11-93 in the league. In just two championship games, admittedly against two sides that would go on to reach the Super 8s, Derry leaked 4-38.
It had been a problem that long backdated McErlain’s tenure, but solving the defensive issue became the first prerequisite for fixing their broken ship.
The players took to Meenagh almost instantly. It took a while for him to get back from them the levels he was looking, but his work has shown on them.
It might have been Division Four, but if you remove the outlier of their dead-rubber shootout with Wexford, Derry’s average concession this spring was just under 1-9.
“In years previous, the last couple of years I’ve been here, Derry haven’t really found a balance to their play. It was just all-go attack,” admitted Oak Leaf forward Shane McGuigan at a recent press night.
“Ciaran Meenagh has brought a more defensive-minded structure to our play. Maybe not in the League final but previous to that, you could see his work being put into place.
“We were keeping teams out, not conceding a wild lot. That’s one thing he has brought in to us.”
That’s what he was brought in to do, but as time has gone on, his influence on the team’s work has grown. He has taken on more and more of the coaching responsibility for all facets of their play.
To a man, the Derry players have been nothing but impressed. Speak to any of them privately and they’ll say the same thing as they would publically.
“He’s a serious football man. He thinks about it all the time. He’d probably know players in Derry better than I would, and that’s him only involved in ‘Screen a few years,” says Heron.
For him, it's a combination of his meticulousness on the training ground and his composure in the changing room.
“He’s a brilliant speaker. Whenever he’s speaking, everybody’s listening. When he needs to be, he can be loud, but he’s not one of these that tries to motivate you by guldering and roaring at you.
“It’s more the meaning behind what he’s saying that’d motivate you. He’s a wile passionate man.
“He knows what players expect of him, and what he expects of players. The way he goes on with players and his rapport with them is just class.
“His trainings are very, very good. They’re always football orientated, and there’s a lot of thought put behind them. You’re not just doing stuff for the sake of it, it’s always well thought-out.
“That makes boys willing to work for him. Boys can see how hard he works, and there’s obviously a lot of work and planning put into what he does.”
When he was over Dromore, Meenagh regularly came up against clubmate John McElholm, who was coaching Killyclogher before he moved on to join Donegal’s backroom team in 2018.
McElholm teaches and coaches in St Mary’s Magherafelt, ten minutes on up the road from St Colm’s, and every Saturday morning, the pair of them can be found at home in Loughmacrory, helping drive a blossoming underage in the club.
“We’ve been friends for a long time. Ciaran’s always very measured and approachable.
“He’d be a deep thinker about the game, he’d constantly be wanting to chat about things, to share ideas and get your opinion on different things. He’s very humble like that.
“We’d chat away about different aspects of the game and I know he’d do the same with other people. He’s always keen to listen, keen to learn and keen for you to share your own experiences.
“Him and I would have had discussions about last year and how I found Donegal compared to a good club team. Ciaran’s always on a learning curve. That’s just the type of fella he is. Any element he can, he’s constantly looking for self improvement.”
His work in Loughmacrory perhaps is the ultimate mark of his character. Perhaps McMenamin sums it up best.
“To me, if you’re describing Ciaran, it would be as a real good GAA man. That’s maybe in the broad context, but he’s heavily involved with the youth in Loughmacrory, he’s heavily involved in schools coaching.
“GAA in general is his life. Some people might think it’s a bland thing to say, but I think to GAA people it means more being called a good GAA person than maybe being called an excellent coach.
“When we were refereeing blitzes at U8 and U10, he was there taking the Loughmacrory teams as well. You have to look at their youth, it’s come on leaps and bounds and he’s in the middle of that.
“When you see that, it shows you what kind of coach he is.”