Peter Canavan: Tyrone's comeback to draw level with Down in '03 was our All-Ireland springboard

Down's Gregory McCartan pictured seconds before he was sent off by referee Aidan Managan in the Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior football final in 2003
Down's Gregory McCartan pictured seconds before he was sent off by referee Aidan Managan in the Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior football final in 2003 Down's Gregory McCartan pictured seconds before he was sent off by referee Aidan Managan in the Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior football final in 2003

In our new Most Memorable Match series, Tyrone great Peter Canavan tells Brendan Crossan why Tyrone’s drawn Ulster final game with Down in 2003 was their springboard to All-Ireland success…

Sunday July 13 2003: Ulster Senior Football Championship final: Tyrone 1-7 Down 4-8

“THE first game against Down in the 2003 Ulster final stands out for me because it was probably the most important 70 minutes we played in those years. Had we lost that day – and not drawn the game – there mightn’t have been the success that followed for Tyrone. We might not have won the All-Irelands that we did.

“A week before the game [on Independence Day] my father [Sean] died suddenly and it was tough getting my head around football again. There was no pressure on me one way or the other to play in the final but I knew deep down he would’ve wanted me to get out and not to be feeling sorry for ourselves. I suppose I did feel pressure, internally.

“There were plenty of talking points in the game: Tyrone’s comeback - we came from nine points down - there were penalties, dubious refereeing decisions, a wonder goal from Benny Coulter, Gregory McCartan’s sending-off, there was excitement on the sideline with Paddy O’Rourke and Mickey Harte having their own battles… But for us to get out with a draw was a good result. It was just a brilliant game to be part of.

“We’d a lot of young players at that time but they were very confident; players who were coming off the back of minor and U21 All-Ireland title wins. We hadn’t won the National League until 2002 and we won it again the following year. So we would’ve been going in as favourites against Down, and with a fair degree of confidence.

“We beat Derry with a bit to spare in a replay in Casement Park before going back there where we defeated Antrim in the semi-finals and played very well. Paddy O’Rourke had taken a Down team that hadn’t won a Championship match in a number of years. While we were expecting to win the game, for some reason, there was something in the back of your head saying: ‘This is Down.’ They played very well that day, most of it with 14 men.

“The sending-off of Gregory McCartan on the cusp of half-time was a very harsh decision. If it was to happen now he would never be sent off. Down hit us with a few sucker punch goals that day...

“James McCartan and Mickey Linden were substitutes in the final, maybe past their best but they were still good players and two of the greatest players Down had ever had. Gregory McCartan was doing very well in midfield and they’d a lot of up and coming players, the likes of Martin Cole who was very fast, tenacious and a very good footballer. Liam Doyle, Mickey McVeigh. But Benny Coulter was their stand-out player. Benny was in his pomp. He was able to beat teams on his own. The goal he scored against us in the first half that day was sheer class.

“And then Down grabbed another couple of goals early in the second half through Liam Doyle and Dan Gordon. We found ourselves nine points down in an Ulster final.

“People were probably thinking that Tyrone were going to choke again. The fact of the matter was Derry, Down and Donegal had gone down to Croke Park and did the business, and we didn’t. We’d won the National League title two years running [2002 and '03], but when it came to the bit we couldn’t beat Armagh in the Championship and we couldn’t beat Sligo when we were in a very good position the year before.

“So when we were trailing by that kind of a margin against Down, I do recall thinking: ‘Can we get over the line? Are we not good enough?’ There’s no point in me saying: ‘I’d always belief in these boys.’ You don’t know until you do it.

"I suppose there was some controversy surrounding the penalty award to Tyrone in the second half which helped us get back in the game. I remember I was on the receiving of the Down supporters that I’d 'bought' the penalty.

“But I recall the 1994 Ulster final Tyrone played Down and James McCartan went through and 'bought' a penalty very similar to mine… Tyrone supporters were aggrieved that day that James had bought it.

“There were many times in that ’94 final where James should’ve got frees and didn’t, when he was pulled or checked off the ball. Every forward in that position gets away with one and nine-times-out-of-10 they’re entitled to it. Some days you get away with it and defenders get away with pulls that referees don’t see. In the closing stages of the game we probably benefited from a few refereeing decisions.

“I was obviously nervous before hitting the penalty. I remember thinking: ‘This has got to go in' as Down were already nine up. If Mickey McVeigh was to save it, it was as good as a goal for them. I was captain of the team and people were probably looking to me to do something. Mickey McVeigh was a brilliant goalkeeper, I played against him many times and we played on Railway Cup teams together.

“When he was standing in goal for the penalty he didn’t stand in the middle like most goalkeepers would. He stood a yard to his left. My preferred side was the side that Mickey was showing me. So he was giving me enough space, as if to say: ‘There you are. If you want to score, it’s wide open.’

“We played chicken and I went for the side he was standing at and thankfully he moved just before I kicked it.

“I went for the right side and I went for power. If we needed a penalty scored I would normally go to my left. Anyway, Mickey made up my mind for me.

“When the penalty went in that brought it back to six. And we soon got it back to level.

“But just as it looked like we could go on and win the game, Down hit us with a fourth goal [in the 63rd minute], Dan Gordon again. They put a high ball in the square and got the goal which put them three up again.

“You were thinking: ‘Do these boys have it within them to come back again?’ And they certainly did. There were some great performances from Tyrone that day. In the second half Owen Mulligan played really well and Ciaran Gourley came on and was very influential, scoring a great point.

“Throughout the game Philip Jordan and Brian McGuigan were our stand-out performers…Martin Cole was marking me that day. Cole would have had the better of the exchanges for a good part of the game but in the last 10 or 15 minutes I managed to influence the game.

“It ended in a draw but it felt like a win for us. To concede four goals and to be nine down at one stage and to be three down with about five minutes to go, it certainly didn’t look good.

“Mickey [Harte] was full of positivity afterwards because of the comeback, he was concentrating on the positives, how well we'd played, the amount of scoring opportunities we created. We hit 1-17 – 18 scores – where Down hit 12 scores.

“That was the game that resulted in the switch of Cormac McAnallen to full-back. From then on, Cormac played full-back for the rest of the year which also allowed Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Hughes to blossom in the midfield. If you’re talking about a game that was defining in Tyrone’s history, that first Ulster final with Down had a massive impact on the team moving forward.

“If Down had beaten us they would have been going into the All-Ireland series full of confidence.

“But they didn’t recover from the setback of throwing a nine-point lead away. We played better in the replay and they didn’t get back to those standards. Sometimes you wonder how things might have panned out for Down.

“As it turned out we went on to win our first All-Ireland title that summer. We played some good football in ’03. I don’t think anybody had a bad game against Down and we were very good in the Ulster replay against Derry.

“Tyrone were superb in the first 40 minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. People talk about the tackling in that game but Tyrone played some very good football. It was a very good offensive performance and then we sat back a bit.

“The All-Ireland final against Armagh was probably a nervous performance. It was competitive and physical, but we didn’t play anywhere near our best to win. Looking back, there is no doubting in my mind just how important gaining a draw against Down in the Ulster final was and the trajectory of the team afterwards.”


The match…

* Down hit 3-3 without reply either side of half-time, with Benny Coulter grabbing the Mournemen’s first three-pointer of the day just before the break

* Down’s Gregory McCartan is controversially red-carded for throwing the ball at Brian McGuigan on the stroke of half-time

* In the early stages of the second half Liam Doyle ripples Tyrone’s net with Coulter assisting

* Dan Gordon fists the ball to the Tyrone net after John Lavery’s high punt onto the edge of the square

* Peter Canavan is fouled and converts the penalty as Tyrone hit 1-6 in a blistering 13 minutes

* Dan Gordon flicks to the net again after getting on the end of Liam Doyle’s long range free to put Down three ahead on 63 minutes

* Owen Mulligan, Ciaran Gourley and a Peter Canavan free level things up as the game finishes all square


How they lined out…

Down: M McVeigh; J Clarke, B Burns (0-1), M Cole; J Lavery, A O’Prey, A Molloy; S Ward (capt.), G McCartan (0-1, free); L Doyle (1-4, three frees), M Walsh, B Coulter (1-1); R Sexton, D Gordon (2-1), R Murtagh. Substitutes: J McCartan for Murtagh (49); S King for Sexton (55); M Linden for Ward (64); PP McCartan for Walsh (64). Yellow cards: Aidan O’Prey (13), Ronan Sexton (29), Sean Ward (30), Ronan Murtagh (47), and Martin Cole (56). Red card: Gregory McCartan (35).

Tyrone: J Devine; D Carlin, C Lawn, R McMenamin; C Gormley (0-1), D McCrossan, P Jordan (0-1); C McAnallen, S Cavanagh (0-2); B Dooher (0-1), B McGuigan (0-1), K Hughes (0-1); E McGinley, P Canavan (capt.) (1-6), O Mulligan (0-3). Substitutes: C Gourley (0-1) for McCrossan (42); B Robinson for Lawn (66). Yellow card: Peter Canavan (56).

Referee: Aidan Mangan (Kerry)

Attendance: 31,621.


Peter Canavn’s player rating…

Was a bit out of sorts. Uncharacteristically rushed one shot and made a mess of a free-kick that he hit with the outside of his boot. By normal standards he was still excellent. Dispatched his penalty well and hit the pressure free to earn a replay. 7.5


The Irish News view…

‘A modern-day classic and – in terms of scores – this was only the 18-12 Overture, an unfinished symphony. A thrilling, passionate, blood-pumping, heart-thumping mix produced wild swings of emotion and dramatic tension right to a discordant crescendo…

Three Down goals – from Benny Coulter, Liam Doyle, and Dan Gordon – separated the sides by the 48th minute after the Mournemen rattled off 3-3 without reply in an astonishing period of play either side of half-time, despite the highly dubious dismissal of their midfielder Gregory McCartan just before the break. Then the Red Hands showed their heart to claw their way back level, started by Canavan’s spot-kick, although Brian McGuigan was the lead violinist who orchestrated Tyrone’s unanswered 1-6 in 13 minutes...’


Irish News star man…

Benny Coulter put the foundations in place for Down’s attacking display and added so much more with decisive impacts throughout the game, earning him the nod just ahead of Tyrone’s Brian McGuigan who had a superb second half after a less impressive first period.

Coulter began brightly up against Conor Gormley, winning and using ball well, and powered through for a great goal in first-half injury time. Moved to midfield after the break, surged forward to unselfishly set up Liam Doyle for the second goal.

Took some majestic catches in centrefield and provided a focal point for Down’s infrequent second half breakaways. McGuigan deserves a more than honourable mention for a hard-working, hard-running determined display in the second half, set up so much and scored a point, but misses out because of a couple of wides. Coulter’s contribution was less consistent – but slightly more important, especially on the scoreboard. 8.5


What the managers said…

Paddy O’Rourke (Down)

“When our last goal went in I thought that was it. I was convinced that was it. It should have been it. We should have been able to hold them out, but they have a lot of talent in their team. They kept coming at us and coming at us...”

On Gregory McCartan’s sending-off “Gregory is a great player and one of the lads who did well in the last two matches, but I didn’t think it was a sending off. I thought it was a very, very harsh decision.”

Mickey Harte (Tyrone)

“I think that was worth more than a victory today. People have questioned the character of Tyrone. I’m not saying we have suddenly come of age, but by God we are getting to grow old.

“There was a lot of leadership. Philip Jordan came into it very much when we needed him. Cormac McAnallen was always there as a steadying influence. Sean Cavanagh came into it more as the game progressed. Owen Mulligan was there. Everybody played their part. You couldn’t fault them.”


The 2003 Ulster Senior Football Championship:

Preliminary round: Monaghan 0-13 Armagh (All-Ireland champions) 0-9

Quarter-finals: Antrim 2-9 Cavan 1-10; Derry 1-9 Tyrone 0-12, replay: Tyrone 0-17 Derry 1-5; Fermanagh 0-10 Donegal 0-6; Down 1-12 Monaghan 0-13

Semi-finals: Antrim 1-9 Tyrone 1-17; Down 2-10 Fermanagh 0-11

Final: Tyrone 1-17 Down 4-8, replay: Tyrone 0-23 Down 1-5

*Tyrone went on to win their first All-Ireland title beating Fermanagh (1-21 to 0-5), Kerry (0-13 to 0-6) and Armagh (0-12 to 0-9) in the All-Ireland series

*Down crashed out of the All-Ireland Qualifiers (Round Four) to Donegal 3-15 to 2-10