Glory Days... Conor Gormley recalls Tyrone's historic All-Ireland triumph in 2003
The early 2000s saw a Tyrone team emerge that was hell-bent on righting the wrongs of 1986 and 1995 and, after the appointment of Mickey Harte as manager, they did exactly that in 2003 by winning the Red Hand county’s first Sam Maguire. Conor Gormley recalls the thrills and spills of that unforgettable season with Andy Watters…
Bring it in boys…
TYRONE defended their National League crown in 2003 and when manager Mickey Harte, in his first season at the helm, gathered his players for the Championship he set the bar high.
“He said that the challenge for us was to be All-Ireland champions,” said Conor Gormley.
“Armagh were champions the previous year and he said: ‘If they can do it, why can’t we do it?’”
Armagh had beaten Tyrone in Ulster on their march to their historic first Sam Maguire in 2002. The Red Hands regrouped in the Qualifiers but came unstuck in the fourth round against Sligo.
“We knew we had the makings of a good team, it just took a change in mindset at Mickey did that,” says Gormley.
“He put that into us – that we could do it, that we could emulate Armagh and win the All-Ireland and he installed that from the very first meeting. A lot of us knew what he was like – some of the boys had him at minor and I was involved in the U21s. We knew what to expect from him and we knew what he was going to bring as senior manager.”
Harte and the art
HARTE wanted men who could play football no matter what position they took on the field whether it was full-back, midfield or full-forward.
“He wanted footballers and that’s the way we played, we were all footballers who were all capable of doing a job whether it was the corner-backs going up to score, or the corner-forwards coming back to defend,” says Gormley.
“He wanted footballers and that’s the way we trained. In the small-sided games, no matter what position you were, everybody was involved in it. Paddy Tally was a big influence in those games – it got us thinking that we bit quicker, it made us a bit sharper. Tally coming in was a massive move.”
It’s hard to believe that Tyrone trained just once-a-week throughout the League – Tuesday nights were for club training, Thursdays were with the county.
“It was a more relaxed environment and it seemed to work at that time,” Gormley adds.
“We were all fresh, we got the club sorted out on the Tuesday and then we looked forward to the county on the Thursday – it was a nice mix. When we started the Ulster Championship, we went up to two nights-a-week.”
No handy evenings
TYRONE began their Ulster Championship against a talented Derry side that had pushed them hard in the Qualifiers the previous year and Harte’s squad threw themselves into training in preparation for the opener.
“It would have been hot and heavy!” says Gormley.
“Everybody knows the quality of players we had so in-house games were tough going and, as a defender, it wasn’t easy. Where do you start? You could be marking Peter Canavan, Owen Mulligan or Stevie O’Neill in the full-forward line and then there was Ger Cavlan, Brian McGuigan and Brian Dooher in the half-forward line and Sean Cavanagh coming through the middle. You didn’t getting a handy evening because the forwards were all top class. As defenders it made us improve every day and we went as hard as we could and that probably brought the forwards on too.
“It was fierce and competitive surely, but once we left the training field we all got on so well.”
Mickey Moynagh’s car
WHEN their boots were on, the Tyrone players trained like demons but off the field there were pranksters about and kitman Mickey Moynagh’s car would often mysteriously disappear.
“Maybe a man who wouldn’t have been training that evening would have found the keys and left her hiding somewhere,” says Gormley (without naming names).
“Wee things like that were going on. If you went to the physio, your boots would have gone missing out of your bag. You had to watch yourself with Ricey and Mulligan and Enda McGinley – they liked to keep you on your toes and then Peter Canavan was pulling the strings behind them. He made the snowballs and the other boys were firing them.”
A little luck along the way
AFTER an hour at Clones, Derry led by four points and Tyrone’s season’s hung by a thread. However, one of the features of that campaign was the Red Hands’ energy late in games and points from Canavan, Brian Dooher and Kevin Hughes left one in it before the peerless Canavan popped up with the equaliser at the death to get Tyrone out of jail in Harte’s first senior Championship game.
“We were tipped as hot favourites against Derry and maybe we read into that a bit too much,” says Gormley.
“We could easily have lost that game. You could never take Derry for granted around that time, they had quality players like Enda Muldoon and the Bradleys (Paddy and Eoin)
“A draw was a great result for us, it really got us focussed for the replay and we knuckled down in training.”
No more mister nice guys
TYRONE were a different team when they sprinted out at Casement Park for the replay. The Oak Leafers were a distant second best and it finished 0-17 to 1-5.
In the semi-final, Tyrone met a determined Antrim side that got off to a great start thanks to a penalty from Kevin Madden but in the end the Red Hands progressed to the Anglo-Celt decider thanks to a 1-17 to 1-9 victory.
Down… but not out
ONCE again Tyrone were favourites in the provincial decider at Clones but Down were determined to cause an upset. Gormley was picking up Benny Coulter who managed to lose him and smash in a first half goal and two more followed, from Liam Doyle and Dan Gordon, as the Mournemen opened up a 3-8 to 0-8 lead. Again Tyrone’s season was in the balance but, once again, they managed to claw their way back.
Canavan slotted in a nerveless penalty and, with the Tyrone defence on top, Down were unable to add to their tally. It was level at 3-8 to 1-14 when Gordon fisted in his second goal seven minutes’ from time. Mulligan, Ciaran Gourley and Canavan (once again) stepped up with the points that earned Tyrone a draw.
“We knew the quality Down had from underage – Coulter, Michael Walsh, Ronan Sexton, Liam Doyle and these boys,” says Gormley.
“We knew what they were capable of doing and, again, we were very fortunate to get away with a draw. That was a massive turning point for our team, we showed massive character to come back from nine points down and then, to go three down again with another sucker-punch, we showed unbelievable character. A few boys really stepped up and after the game we really believed that we had the determination and character to kick on - it was just a matter of getting our heads down and working hard.”
Peter the great
PETER Canavan, a veteran of the 1995 All-Ireland final defeat, was a talisman, a leader and the spearhead of the Tyrone attack that season. The peerless Errigal Ciaran forward scored a remarkable 1-38 in Tyrone’s five Ulster Championship games.
“Peter was a massive character for us,” says Gormley.
“Everybody looked up to him. I’d been watching him from I was a young boy and he was unbelievable. To play along with him was exceptional and to see him with the bit between his teeth and driving on... The hunger that he had… We all just rowed in behind him.”
Down… and out
AFTER the thrills and spills of the first meeting, the replay a week later was a one-sided affair and Tyrone cantered to a 0-23 to 1-5 win to secure the Ulster title.
“I was just into the Tyrone team and I had won two National League titles and the Ulster Championship!” says Gormley.
“I didn’t really expect it to be like that. They were great times and the buzz after the Ulster final was brilliant in the camp. Mickey put the challenge down: ‘Right, we’ve the Ulster title but put it to the back of your minds, we have bigger things to look forward to’.
“We really started to open up after the drawn Ulster final. 23 points was great shooting in the replay and we really started to believe in what was happening and what was being said to us. Everybody started to enjoy the football, it was what we all dreamt about doing and it was happening in front of our eyes.”
A shot at the Kingdom Erne-ed
WITH the Anglo-Celt Cup in the trophy cabinet, there was no feeling of ‘bonus territory’ as Tyrone switched their focus on the All-Ireland series and Fermanagh (one of four Ulster counties in the last eight) were their opponents at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
The Red Hands produced another devastating display at Croke Park and they signalled their Sam Maguire intent with a 1-21 to 0-5 tour de force.
“We knew that whoever we played, we were ready for them and Fermanagh got the brunt of it that day,” says Gormley one of Tyrone’s 10 scorers.
“We really clicked, we were flying and we scored some amazing points.”
Warfare in front of the Hogan Stand
KERRY awaited in the All-Ireland semi-final and Tyrone got in their faces with ferocious intensity from start to finish. Men in red and white hunted the ball in packs and shell-shocked Kerry players were bullied all over the field.
“The determination and hunger that day was there for everybody to see,” says Gormley.
“That clip of the tackles going in along the Hogan Stand still stands the test of time as to what the boys did to the Kerry players. It shook Croke Park that day and it definitely shook Kerry.”
Under enormous pressure, Kerry didn’t score in the first 24 minutes and, although Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper eventually got the scoreboard moving for them, there were eight scorers in Tyrone’s seven-point win.
“We were written off going in to play Kerry,” says Gormley.
“People said they were the big team and they would beat the northerners and waltz through to the final no bother. But Mickey had us primed, we were in good form, we had beaten Fermanagh and put up a big score and we weren’t scared of playing in Croke Park, or Kerry.
“We were out to do a job and we were determined to put in a performance and a workrate that couldn’t be matched and we did. They were the kingpins of Gaelic Football but we went down and showed them what we were all about and we set down a marker for future years.
“We showed we weren’t there to take part, we were there to win. We proved that we could out-work them and we out-scored them too – we knew the quality of players we had and we knew that if we got a good supply of ball into them they’d get the scores.
“It was hard work first and then our quality came to the fore and we were fit to pick Kerry off.”
Lighting the fire
AS a 14-year-old in 1995, Gormley had been in the Canal End with his father Sean when Tyrone lost out to Dublin and he recalled how he had been inspired to follow in the footsteps of his Carrickmore clubmates who’d played that day.
“I remember the Carrickmore men in the Tyrone team coming to our school before the game,” he said. They were up on the stage, I was standing at the back of the hall thinking: ‘I’d love to be up there some day’. It spurred me on and, to steal Peter Canavan’s line; it lit the fire within me to be a Tyrone player and work hard at my game and thankfully it worked out for me that I was involved in the next time Tyrone got to the final.”
Drums along the Blackwater
THE River Blackwater was the dividing line and fans on either side of it were at fever pitch as the minutes ticked down until All-Ireland final between Tyrone and Armagh.
Flags flew in from windows and in towns and villages and sheep, cars, bus shelters, houses and people were painted red and white or orange and white as hordes from Ulster prepared to descend on Croke Park. The Tyrone management did their best to shield their players from the almost tangible hype.
“Between getting gear and suits and tickets and all the rest there were a lot of distractions but Mickey was able to keep us grounded and focussed on the job at hand,” says Gormley.
“You can get carried away with interviews and press nights but Mickey was mighty at handling all that and keeping us focussed on the match.
“I enjoyed the build-up but I didn’t get carried away with it, I didn’t let it get into my head that much. I kept myself to myself and stuck to the routine.”
The old enemy
AND so the stage was set for the first ever all-Ulster (will there ever be another?) All-Ireland final. Armagh, the defending champions, had come through the Qualifiers and accounted for Laois, then Donegal, in the All-Ireland series.
“It was a fierce rivalry,” says Gormley.
“There was a League game that year in Omagh that was hot and heavy. We wanted to set a marker that day and we beat them by a couple of points which was a massive boost for us. But we looked up to them, we wanted to take their crown.
“They had a lot of quality in Stevie McDonnell and Oisin McConville, Diarmuid Marsden, the McEntees, a strong midfield with Paul McGrane and then Kieran McGeeney, Francie Bellew and the McNultys at the back so they were a formidable outfit and they’d been on the road a long time.
“We felt we were fresh and we’d have the legs for them. We knew we had to move them around more than they had been before, move McGeeney out of the centre to let Sean (Cavanagh) run through. Brian McGuigan played a big role in that.”
The Rock and the block
THE All-Ireland final was a claustrophobic, arm-wrestling derby battle. Armagh’s experience of the year before counted for little as sparks flew all over the pitch.
Tyrone had chiselled out a three-point lead when the game reached its crescendo. Armagh raised themselves for a final surge and when Barry O’Hagan’s long ball broke to Tony McEntee, he played McDonnell through in front of goal.
It seemed that he had only the goalkeeper to beat and the crowd prepared for the net to bulge as McDonnell pulled the trigger but Gormley came out of nowhere and dived full-length to block his shot.
The iconic tackle was crucial in winning the game for Tyrone.
“I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” says Gormley.
“Our plan was going well, we had stuck with Armagh over the last 15 minutes (we had talked a lot about that) and we were in front. Mickey always said: ‘If you’re not involved in the play, try and get back and help out your defence’ so when the ball went over my head my instinct was to get back and help out.
“I saw him lining up the shot and I got the hands down. Lucky enough, it hit my right hand. A couple of inches lower and I would have missed it but it was my day and the rest is history now. It was great to be involved in such a big moment and remembered for Tyrone winning their first All-Ireland.”
Wow, I was part of that
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