GAA Football

Minor moments led to senior successes for Tyrone's Ciaran Gourley

Ciaran Gourley back in 2008, as a teacher at St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, part of the Tyrone senior squad for the final against Kerry, along with five students in the Red Hands minor squad for their All-Ireland final with Mayo: Niall McKenna, Ciaran Gervin, Gavin Teague, Brian Kelly, and Dermot Thornton.

Electric Ireland Ulster Minor Football Championship

IF you need any evidence of the major impact his minor football days had on Tyrone's Ciaran Gourley then his level of detailed recall provides it in spades.

A quarter of a century on the Rock legend talks about those games as if they had only happened last week.

His pupils at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon, his own alma mater, could certainly learn some lessons about recalling information from Mr Gourley.

Sure, they were memorable times, with the Red Hands winning Ulster in 1997, then beating Kerry to reach the All-Ireland Final, before losing out narrowly to holders Laois.

Understandably, Gourley and his colleagues from back then will never forget the tragic death that year of team-mate Paul McGirr, after suffering an accidental injury on the pitch.

That mixture of emotions - pride, immense sadness, joy of winning, disappointment at losing - still seem fresh in Gourley's mind.

Once again part of the Tyrone minor management set-up under Gerard Donnelly, having helped the young Red Hands reach last year's All-Ireland decider, Gourley knows that the players under his tutelage will enjoy 'minor moments' which may stay with them forever.

This Saturday evening (6pm), they go to Corrigan Park to take on Antrim in an Electric Ireland Ulster Minor Football Championship quarter-final, bringing back memories of beating the Saffrons in the provincial decider 25 years ago.

Looking back, the perception is that Tyrone were almost certain to enjoy success under Mickey Harte, such was the talent 'among the bushes', but Gourley insists that wasn't the case:

"Mickey might have different memories," he says with a laugh, "his preparation was affected by us [St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon] reaching the Hogan Final, which wasn't played until the 27th of April.

"We were missing quite a lot of training sessions; there was an Ulster [Minor] League but a lot of us were not involved."

The Academy won that Hogan Cup in style, beating St Gerard's, Castlebar by 10 points, with Gourley and captain Paul McGurk marshalling a defence to concede just 0-3 to the Mayo lads.

Yet with Cookstown's McGurk and Brackaville forward Martin Early overage for Tyrone, Gourley says:

"We didn't have any great expectation of how we [Tyrone] would perform. Yes, we [Dungannon] had done well, but we were mixing in with players from other parts of Tyrone, so there was never any guarantee that we were going to have any success that year.

"First match against Down, we'd probably only trained collectively for a week or so, two weeks at most, because we were in the preliminary round that year.

"We didn't play particularly well against Down and it took a wonder goal from Stephen Donnelly to get us over the line, in wet conditions, it wasn't great."

Then came the tragic death of young McGirr from the Dromore club. "Next day out, I remember that particular occasion for the wrong reasons, unfortunately, against Armagh.

"Because there was no back door, you weren't getting games coming quickly. We were the last quarter-final, 15th of June if my memory's right.

"The tragedy that happened with Paul McGirr had a major bearing on the memories of the whole group. It probably gelled us together more quickly than you'd have expected, and gave us a focus.

"We didn't openly say that 'We're going out to do this for Paul', but deep down each individual player wanted to his memory justice."

Next were Monaghan in the semi-final "We put in a good performance, although we were probably conceding a wee bit too much at the back - that's an issue Mickey addressed the following year with the minor team and got success.

"It was high-scoring, end to end. First game Mickey picked me at wing half-back, then I was moved to full-back.

"Against Antrim too in the final we were a bit slow getting started, they hit us with a couple of goals early on. We took our time to recover but ended up winning.

"There are great memories of winning, but tinged with the sadness of what happened with Paul McGirr."

Onto the All-Ireland series, Tyrone faced Munster champions Kerry, who "were seen as the pinnacle in terms of teams to play against. First time for many down in Croke Park, although we'd managed to play there with the school.

"In a big semi-final, big crowd at it, there were a lot of nerves for us; Kerry wwre favourites to beat us. Noel Kennelly was a star for them, maybe Tadhg Kennelly too.

"We ended up salvaging a draw, Mark Harte kicked an equalising point. In the replay in Parnell Park, the game went to extra time and we won an epic by a couple of points, 23 to 21, I think." He's right about that scoreline, of course.

"That was a big mental barrier for us, to get over a team like Kerry.

"But then we came in against a Laois team who had won the All-Ireland the previous year, and were still back-boned by a lot of those players.

"We probably put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win the game, and there were nerves, but you expect that from young players.

"We shipped a couple of poor goals, but were still in the game for long periods, ended up losing by three [3-11 to 1-14]. Maybe that was one got away from us - but Mickey learned the lessons from the goals we conceded and they went on and won it in '98."

Gourley says playing in front of large crowds never adversely affected him, although he quips "maybe people watching on might have felt differently…

"But I embraced it, I wanted to be playing at that level, put myself out there and see if I could compete and be good enough to feature.

"One of the teachers in school, Martin O'Farrell [who passed away in 2008]… would have tried to tell you to block out as much as possible, have tunnel vision, just get tuned in for a game of football.

"I wasn't somebody who was looking up into the crowd, trying to see what I could see. The biggest thing you noticed was the noise - you found it difficult to communicate with your team-mates. When you made a mistake, or something went wrong, it seemed to be heightened, so it was hard to get those lines of communication.

"I tried not to let it faze me too much, but naturally it had some impact on you, because you weren't used to it. Thankfully I was lucky enough to get back a few times after that, and maybe I was able to deal with it a bit better."

He certainly was - but those Minor moments were the building blocks for Ciaran Gourley's Senior successes.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access