Hurling and camogie

Fifteen years later CJ McGourty back at Croke with Tyrone hurlers

CJ McGourty (number 14) in action during last Saturday's Nicky Rackard semi-final win over Donegal Picture: Seamus Loughran

FIFTEEN years ago, CJ McGourty wept uncontrollably in the middle of Croke Park. His beloved St Gall’s team had just lost the All-Ireland Senior Football Club Championship final to Galway champions Salthill-knocknacarra by a point.

By a strange quirk of fate, McGourty will make a return to the famous stadium on Saturday afternoon hoping to help guide the Tyrone hurlers to Nicky Rackard glory for only the second time in their history.

Fifteen years between his first and probably last appearance at Croke Park is some way to book-end a hugely successful career. Some careers don’t last half as long.

After two hip operations in the early throes of his budding career, not many would have imagined people still talking about the mercurial CJ McGourty at the ripe old age of 33.

So how did he end up playing for the Tyrone hurlers? He’s been living in Ardboe for the last few years and is the club’s U15 manager. During lockdown he launched his own podcast series with some well-known GAA figures.

One was with Ballycastle man and Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane. The pair hit it off. No sooner was he unveiled as Tyrone’s new hurling manager, the prospect of recruiting McGourty became a reality.

The former dual player talked it over with his partner Clare. The couple had not long celebrated becoming parents for the first time - to Emer – who is now five months old.

CJ liked what McShane had to say, he weighed everything up and decided to put his shoulder to the Red Hand wheel. Last Saturday, Tyrone avenged last year’s Nicky Rackard semi-final defeat to Donegal and advanced to this weekend’s decider with Mayo.

When he was 18 he wished the Croke Park pitch was bigger. Fifteen years on, he wishes it was the size of his back garden.

“At 33, it’s tough going,” CJ says with a smile.

“Even when you look at the likes of Joe Canning you’re hoping players like him don’t retire because of the quality they have, but the game is just getting that bit younger, that bit faster every single year.

“Last year there were very few 31-year-olds playing, this year there are very few 30-year-olds playing, next year there might be very few 29-year-olds. It’s just going down and down.

“I’m just in a privileged position to actually still be playing with the Tyrone hurlers. If it’s for 50 or 70 minutes, it doesn’t matter, I’m just trying to enjoy it in the twilight of my career.”

For imagination alone, few rivalled CJ McGourty on a field. Winning always mattered and playing at the highest possible level – but playing with style was equally important.

“I was always a big lover of Kerry football as a lot of St Gall’s people are,” he says.

“The Kerry way is kick passing, to win with style, play with style. I would always hope that people liked the way I played the game.

“I always tried to play off-the-cuff and do something that no-one expected. People like to play with flair and win. Don’t get me wrong, you need dogged players and we had plenty of them at St Gall’s and Antrim… It didn’t always work out the way you wanted it to and some days the defender got the better of you, but you just have to come back the next day. That’s the beauty of playing sport – how you react which makes you a better player and a better person.”

He left De La Salle college with a pocketful of medals and although he was scarred by St Gall’s All-Ireland final defeat at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day 2006, he would eventually reach the holy grail with his ‘band of brothers’ in 2010.

For those who feel that CJ McGourty didn’t fulfil his incredible potential, you have to reflect on just how much he achieved in both hurling and football.

He was voted Ulster Young Player of the Year in ’06. He won a dozen county championship medals with the St Gall’s footballers, two Ulsters and an All-Ireland. For a time, the Milltown men were virtually unbeatable at Sevens, winning three All-Ireland crowns at Kilmacud.

He won a pair of Antrim and Ulster intermediate hurling titles with the west Belfast club.

A brilliant minor hurler and footballer with Antrim in the mid-2000’s, his senior career didn’t catch fire the way he’d imagined.

“I had a lot of injuries along the way – two hip operations – and I never really got a full run at it with Antrim. St Gall’s were going well at the time.

“It niggles me to a degree because I always wanted to play at the highest level and I didn’t reach the heights that I wanted to with Antrim. There were various factors for that: injuries, the success of the club… It was difficult at times when you were playing down in Waterford and getting on a plane to London at six o’clock in the morning to play a game. But it’s always a privilege to play for your county. I made some very good friends and played with some fantastic footballers.

“Probably the best time I had with Antrim was with the minor footballers and hurlers [in 2005 and ’06]. The minor footballers got to an Ulster final and the minor hurlers were beaten by a point by Galway with Joe Canning in it. They were very fond times.”

He ruthlessly measures the success of his career by one game – the day they claimed the All-Ireland at Croke Park in 2010, beating Clare champions KIlmurray-Ibrickane.

“The All-Ireland Club was the ultimate goal and we managed to get there,” he says.

“Had we not got there I would have regarded my career as a regrettable one. It’s amazing how one day can actually turn your whole career.”

He’s mesmerised by some of his Tyrone team-mates - Damien Casey, Cian Ferguson, Barney McGurk and Conor McNally – and hopes for them, more than himself, that they have silverware above their heads on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m getting the chance to go back and play in Croke Park again. To me, that’s a privilege to be going there with such a committed bunch of players that care about Tyrone hurling and are passionate about trying to develop themselves. I suppose what Mickey’s looking for me to do is bring that bit of experience...

“But I look at my own career with great satisfaction and pride. Anyone that plays in Croke Park 15 years apart, I think that’s pretty good going. Obviously a lot happened in between.”

CJ McGourty with his father Sean, and brothers Kevin and Kieran after their All-Ireland Club final win in 2010 Picture: Seamus Loughran

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Hurling and camogie