GAA Football

Iconic GAA moments: The Block

28 September 2003; Tyrone's Conor Gormley blocks a late shot from Armagh's Steven McDonnell. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Armagh v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

IF you’re looking for iconic moments, the Tyrone team of the noughties weren’t shy of producing them.

From Peter Canavan’s reintroduction, his speech as captain, his goal off Mulligan two years later, Brian Dooher’s score in ’08, the list seems endless.

But really and truly, there is one moment that will be remembered above all others.

Two minutes from time, Tyrone are protecting a three-point lead against Armagh. They can almost reach out and touch a first ever All-Ireland title.

In a flash, Steven McDonnell is in on goal threatening to slap their hands away.

“I was caught in no man’s land,” says Gormley, recalling how he watched the ball in from Barry O’Hagan sail over his head. As Cormac McAnallen jumped with McDonnell, they went through Sean Cavanagh and the ball broke for Tony McEntee.

“I was out around the 45’ and I wasn’t tackling anyone, I wasn’t covering anyone and I wasn’t helping the full-back line. The ball was launched in by Barry O’Hagan. It was just ‘get back in there’.

“Mickey [Harte] would have talked to us from U21 days that if you’re not in the play, get back and do something and be helpful. Maybe that’s running through my head, to get back and help out.

“Cormac, God rest him, contested for the ball, Horse [Gavin Devlin] was there as well. It broke to McEntee and on to Stevie….”

“I wouldn’t have done anything different in the lead-up,” recalls McDonnell.

“Breaking the high ball down, peeling off, that’s exactly what I would have done. That was exactly right. Tony Mac got a good ball back to me, very quick hands.”

Croke Park opens up as the lives of 82,000 people flash before their eyes. Even in ’86 and ’95, Tyrone hadn’t felt this close. Armagh had waited a century for one to come along and here they were, on the cusp of back-to-back All-Irelands.

What denies them is partly in-the-moment instinct. One of the great strengths of Conor Gormley’s game was the ability to spot the danger.

“I saw him lining for the shot and I just dived down, closed the eyes and it hit the underside of my right arm. Two inches lower, I’d probably have missed it.”

His role has become a hallmark of all Mickey Harte’s teams. The man that prevents goals before they’re a twinkle in the opposition’s eye.

And yet it wasn’t as finely honed on the training field as might be imagined. When they played training games, Harte usually picked two teams and let them figure it out themselves.

“Training every night was massive as a defensive unit. Where do you go to look for an easy night? You walk in to Brian McGuigan, Ryan Mellon, Ger Cavlan, Dooher running you up and down the line.

“You go inside and where do you start with those three boys [Canavan, Mulligan, O’Neill]? You were guaranteed as a defender to go home with a dizzy head from those in-house games.

“It was a mixture [in terms of Gormley’s role in those games], Mickey nearly left that up to you yourself. He just picked two teams and fired away.

“A lot of it was ingrained from the U21s, that if you weren’t involved in the play, you were tucking back in, getting in a good position. It was more going out and expressing ourselves and testing each other. A lot of those games were frantic, high-scoring and the tempo was good. That brought you on miles and miles.”

McDonnell would be named Footballer of the Year weeks later had five goals to his name already that summer, to go with the 25 points. There wasn’t a more dangerous man that could have stood between Tyrone and their first All-Ireland title.

This wasn’t a panicky, hesitant defender in on goal. This was the best forward in Ireland, one so sure in front of a goalkeeper that the green flag umpire’s hand could have started its descent the minute he got the ball.

Gormley’s block would always have been memorable, but it was the identity of the man he pick-pocketed that made it one of the all-time iconic GAA moments.

“You know he’s lining up for the goal. He’s the Player of the Year that year, the number of goals he’d scored was phenomenal, and it was something we’d chatted about,” says Gormley.

“We knew if he got inside, he’d take the goal.”

McDonnell has always said that he simply didn’t see Gormley coming. That in that instinctive run off the back of the Tyrone full-back line on the breaking ball, he’d bought himself enough of a yard to only have to think about John Devine.

The Red Hand goalkeeper ends up seated with his hands down by his left side, his bodyweight shifted that way. The ball was heading the other direction.

“I was going for the near side,” confirms McDonnell.

“I peeled off and Tony gave it back to me, and I was ready for pulling the trigger straight off with the speed of the move.

“If I’d seen the Tyrone jersey coming into my eyeline, I feel I definitely would have checked in and tried to cut inside him and take the shot.

“At worst, I would have had a penalty awarded. He came from nowhere and made a super block, that’s the fact of it.

“I think I was kicking the ball as fast as I could have. I couldn’t believe when it happened, I was thinking ‘where the hell did he come out of?’ He made a blindside run and put his body on the line.

“If he was playing on my team, I’d do nothing but applaud him for doing so. That’s what you’d expect from a defender in those defining moments. He made one of the most famous blocks in history and I was on the wrong end, but that’s sport.”

The long right arm of history will always belong to Conor ‘The Block’ Gormley.

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