The ascension of Tyrone's class of 2015 and reaching for the Holy Grail
TOMMY Toomey often wonders would it have made a difference to the careers of the Tipperary footballers had they beaten Tyrone on a rainy Saturday night at Parnell Park and been crowned All-Ireland U21 champions of 2015.
Would their trajectory have been more impressive than it turned out to be?
Could Toomey and his management team handled the unforeseen half-time delay of 40 minutes better after a Tipperary supporter took ill in the stands?
Should they have been further than two points ahead at the interval? They had chances to be.
Tipp were still ahead by the same margin after 43 minutes – until the outstanding Mark Kavanagh set up Cathal McShane for a game-changing goal in the 47th minute.
And how on earth did Colin O’Riordan finish on the losing team?
"I remember we were going fairly well in the first half," says Toomey, "and then there was the delay at half-time when a Tipp supporter suffered a heart-attack. The poor man passed away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital...
"The game was held up for about 40 minutes.
“I remember Parnell Park that night, it was desperate weather and the last thing you wanted was trying to keep boys occupied, not really knowing what was going on in the stands and no real information coming through.
“Did we lose our energy in those 40 minutes at half-time? I don’t know. I remember in the dressing rooms and giving the fellas new jerseys to keep them dry.
“You were switching the players off, and switching them on again. What was the right thing to do? It was unusual circumstances.
“Did we handle the delay correctly?” Toomey asks rhetorically. “I suppose at the end of the day the scoreboard says we didn’t and that’s the bottom line.
“In fairness to Tyrone they upped the stakes in the second half, we came at them towards the end of the match again but it wasn’t enough.”
He adds: “There was really nothing between the two teams. Cathal McShane was a big player in the middle of the field in that 2015 final and the goal he got was the decider."
Tyrone raced out of the blocks in the delayed second half, doing everything at breakneck speed while at the same time trying to contain the physical advantage Tipperary held.
Once Kavanagh evaded a couple of Tipperary challenges from Evan Comerford's kick-out and off-loaded for McShane to ripple the net, the Munster champions were reeling and never truly recovered.
From time to time, the former Tipperary U21 manager tortures himself over the fine margins of that unforgettable night in north Dublin.
“I’ve often thought about that,” says Toomey, now a selector with the Tipp seniors after a spell with the Laois footballers.
“Where would that have put us if we’d won that 2015 All-Ireland U21? I was looking at it the following year and we reached an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo and the core of that team was there.
“Would it have changed the Mayo game? It’s very hard to measure… The buzz you get off winning an All-Ireland for Tipperary footballers…
“Maybe confidence-wise going forward and having an All-Ireland medal in your back pocket might have made a difference. It did hurt a lot of the players losing that 2015 final.”
Toomey’s U21s entered the 2015 final in Parnell Park as favourites against Tyrone, who were managed by Feargal Logan, Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan.
The Red Hands defeated Fermanagh and Armagh before toppling Donegal in a pulsating Ulster final thanks largely to a Conor Meyler goal and a last-gasp free from Danny McNulty.
After winning their first U21 provincial title in nine years, Tyrone went into the All-Ireland series as underdogs against both Roscommon, that featured Enda Smith and Diarmuid Murtagh, and Tipperary.
In the immediate aftermath of their one-point win over Tipp, U21 captain Kieran McGeary said: “It’s fantastic to be part of this group of players.
“You constantly feel like a winner. Every time you go to training you feel like a champion. I just hope that this group of players go on and do it at senior level.”
Tyrone hadn’t won an U21 All-Ireland title in 14 years – and while Mickey Harte mined a significant number of the U21 class of 2015 for the senior ranks, there were plenty if not more senior graduations from the losing finalists.
From the ranks of Toomey’s U21 side, Evan Comerford, Kevin Fahey, Jimmy Feehan, Colin O’Shaughnessey, Bill Maher, Stephen O’Brien, Colin O’Riordan (now back in the AFL), Jason Lonergan, Kevin O’Halloran, Liam Casey and Josh Keane all progressed and left their mark on the Tipperary seniors.
There might have been a few more only for injury and emigration.
Seven of the Tipperary U21s that lost to Tyrone in 2015 featured in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Mayo just over a year later – and eight collected Munster SFC winner’s medals in 2020, the county's first in 85 years.
But, of course, the terrain in Tyrone has always been somewhat different. The gradient on the road between U21 and senior in the O’Neill County is much steeper.
Harte still had a clutch of the old brigade lining out and punching their weight seven years after their last Sam Maguire success, so opportunities to break into the starting team were few.
On the evidence of his sublime display against Tipperary in the 2015 final, Errigal Ciaran playmaker Mark Kavanagh seemed a nailed on certainty to break into the Tyrone seniors.
But it never happened.
“Mark Kavanagh is a very good footballer,” Harte says. “He just didn’t develop physically as the rest of them. He’s still got that underage stature, if you like.
“But I’ll expect you’ll hear more about him. He’s an Errigal man and he’ll be playing this year and I hope we get to the stage where people will see him again because he’s a very talented footballer.”
Peter Canavan, a key component of the U21 management team six year ago, says: “The likes of Mark Kavanagh and Danny McNulty didn’t break through – and those two were pivotal figures in the U21 team.
“I’ve no doubt if they were in another county they would be playing inter-county senior for the last six or seven years, but the fact is you are talking about a Tyrone team that had won All-Irelands a few years before with a lot of strong players; it wasn’t an easy team to break on to. That’s just the way it is.”
From that Tyrone U21 team, Padraig Hampsey, Frank Burns, Kieran McGeary, Conor Meyler, Cathal McShane, Rory Brennan, Lee Brennan, Michael Cassidy and Mark Bradley have all come through at different times to leave their mark on the Red Hand seniors.
McShane, Rory Brennan and Bradley were fast-tracked first and all made their Ulster Championship debuts against Donegal in Ballybofey less than two months after winning the U21 All-Ireland title.
The likes of Hampsey, McGeary, Burns, Meyler and Lee Brennan were already sitting on the county’s conveyor belt.
Ten days ago in Croke Park, Hampsey, Burns, McGeary, Meyler, McShane and Bradley all played their part in seeing Tyrone topple Kerry in an epic All-Ireland semi-final.
McGeary and Meyler’s performances against the Kingdom will go down as two of the best in the history of Tyrone football.
The diligence of Meyler’s man-marking job on playmaker Paudie Clifford was nothing short of exceptional – but the Omagh man also offered himself as a counter-attacking threat once the Red Hand defence turned over possession.
And had McGeary converted a couple of efforts, his performance would have been touching a perfect 10 – he was that good.
Still battling back to full fitness this season, 2019 Allstar, Cathal McShane was thrust into the action to devastating effect against Kerry and hit 1-3.
“Cathal always had good feet and he always wanted to score,” Canavan says of the Owen Roes clubman.
“That might sound simple or straightforward but you’ve a lot of forwards that are creators who are brilliant footballers, but their first instinct is not to score.
“Wherever Cathal was playing his first instinct was to take on his man and shoot. There’s no doubt he’s got stronger and his mobility around the middle of the field has helped him when he went into the full-forward line.
“You just look at his introduction against Kerry. The fact that he hasn’t been fully fit, it’s great to see him returning and getting game-time and showing people what he’s capable of.”
Canavan adds: “A number of those lads were at Holy Trinity, Cookstown and had won an All-Ireland U18 [Cassidy, McGeary and Burns] with us, so there was a thirst and a confidence that they could perform on the big day.
“Success came natural to them. The likes of Meyler, McGeary and Rory Brennan were really determined and focused and you couldn’t see anything getting in their way of breaking into the Tyrone senior team.
“The only thing with any successful minor or U21 team, be it club or county, there are only so many of them that will push on to the senior team and especially if your senior team is going well.
“You can’t bring 10 young lads in and throw them all on at the one time.
“But once the established players move on, then you have a really good panel to work with.”
Perhaps a deciding factor on behalf of the Tyrone County Board in parting company with three-time All-Ireland winning manager Mickey Harte last November and appointing Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher was the fact that they’d worked wonders with the class of 2015 who were already back-boning the senior team.
Canavan, of course, is the missing leg of that managerial triumvirate that delivered the goods at U21 level, insisting that he didn’t want to be involved in the Tyrone senior set-up as long as his son Darragh was there.
There’s little, though, that Canavan doesn’t know about Dooher and Logan.
“Brian was a great motivator and he would expect everybody to train and play the way he went about it,” says Canavan
“And Feargal was good at getting boys settled down! They are both winners but very much different personalities and that’s how they complement each other.
“There’s an obvious trust there and a good understanding between the two of them. There’s a lot of talk about how they compare and contrast. Brian might start the fires and Feargal puts them out!
“I think Dooher revels in the good-cop-bad-cop – he never minded being the bad cop. But the one underlying ingredient there is, both as players and as individuals, they were never in it for themselves.
“They were the ultimate team players. It’s not about them, you’ll not see either of them taking the limelight, and there are also really good personalities in the backroom team that’s had a positive impact.”
Helping mould the class of 2015 was an uplifting experience for Canavan. He loved the way in which the side did everything at breakneck speed, the self-belief among the group and the ferocious ambition to succeed.
“Tipperary had some brilliant players – Collie O’Riordan and Kevin O’Halloran,” says Canavan. “I think there were two men who took ill in the crowd that night both with heart attacks – one maybe before the game and one at half-time. There might have been a delay for about 40 minutes.
“I know Michael Logan – Feargal’s brother – actually was involved in working with the men who took ill. So, it was difficult from that point of view – it was like playing two different matches. You were getting the players psyched up at half-time and then you were bringing them back down again. It was a real battling performance and very little between the two teams but we just shaded it.
“You get a kick out of any squad that responds to you and are motivated and by large that squad was very much self-motivated.
“In 2015, I think that was our first U21 title in something like 14 years. So it’s not as if we were blessed in the years before of winning titles.
“It was immensely satisfying and it was no surprise that so many of them went on to make the senior grade because there was a willingness there.”
Tommy Toomey has watched with interest the trajectory of Tyrone’s class of 2015 and the Tipp players he coached.
“There was a number of that team on the Tyrone senior team last week against Kerry and you can see their conditioning is ahead of ours,” says Toomey.
“I think Mickey Harte was a fantastic manager for Tyrone but maybe Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan is what’s needed in Tyrone now, just a new voice, and players look at that trust on the sideline and playing a certain way.
“I thought Tyrone were excellent against Kerry. Kerry asked them a few questions and Tyrone came up with the answers and had a real structure to their game, but also had an attack.”
Both the Tipperary and Tyrone teams of 2015 enjoyed success in their own right – but come Saturday at tea-time, it’s McGeary, Meyler and co who are potentially 70 minutes away from the holy grail and “feeling like champions” again.