Conor Gormley hoping to complete set as Tyrone minors chase All-Ireland glory

Former cornerstone of Tyrone defence missed out on minor win in 1998

As a player, Conor Gormley won pretty much the lot with Tyrone teams, from provincial and All-Ireland titles to All Stars. He even captained Ulster to interprovincial success, yet the one minor medal in the Gormley household belongs to his father, Seán, an underage winner with the Red Hands back in the 1970s.

“Dad played on the All-Ireland minor team that won it in 1973, he was wing back, they beat Kildare in the final so my dad has the All-Ireland minor medal and I have the under-21s and senior ones,” smiled Gormley.

You may have presumed that Gormley the younger was part of Mickey Harte’s star-studded minor winning team of 1998, given that he lined out three years later when many of the same players won the under-21 All-Ireland, backboning senior successes then as a commanding centre back in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

It turns out Harte just didn’t fancy Gormley in ’98 and it’s only now, 23 years later as a Tyrone minor coach, that the Carrickmore man may finally capture that missing medal.

Tyrone play Meath in the Electric Ireland All-Ireland minor decider this Saturday and Gormley’s personal quest will be one of the many intriguing angles on a day when the seniors will finally get their opportunity to play Kerry at Croke Park too.

Not that Gormley is making a big deal of it, the issue only comes up as you ask him to compare potentially coaching an All-Ireland winning team with playing on winning teams himself.

“It’s hard to know how it would feel, from my point of view I wasn’t involved with the Tyrone minor team that won the All-Ireland in 1998,” said Gormley. “I wasn’t on the panel and then I came into the under-21s in 2001 and won the All-Ireland. It would be nice to get that minor medal now, or to help a minor team win an All-Ireland, to complete the set.”

So what happened in ’98? How come one of the greatest defenders of his generation, whose block on Steven McDonnell in the 2003 senior final has gone down in All-Ireland senior final folklore, never made it as a minor?

“Just wasn’t picked,” he shrugged. “Mickey was in charge of that team and I just wasn’t picked, just wasn’t good enough I suppose. It maybe set something off in me to improve and to get stuck into the club and thankfully I was picked for the under-21s and it just progressed on from there. It probably was a wee turning point for myself. It would be nice to, I suppose, complete that set, maybe have the minor, under-21 and senior medals.”

Gormley, a GAA coach by day, plays down the extent of his involvement with the minors who are managed by Gerard Donnelly.

“Just a general coach and sort of helping out, I’m in the background helping out a wee bit,” he maintained.

Yet his fingerprints were all over Tyrone’s defensive display in Tullamore last Saturday as they conceded just 1-6 to Munster champions Cork. It was in line with the mere 9.25 points they have conceded on average per game in the campaign.

“With my job coaching around the primary schools, I’d actually coached a few of them so it’s great to see a few of the same lads coming through,” said Gormley. “It’s great to see them still playing first of all and still enjoying the game but then also how much they contribute to the team.

“They’re a great bunch of lads, their progression and development individually has been massive. I remember the very first night with them, we had a couple of trials up in Garvaghy and it was absolutely lashing down on us. You could never have seen an All-Ireland final at that stage, you were nearly wondering why you were involved.

“But the progression and development, individually and as a team, has been exceptional. Once the games kicked in they really rocketed and took off. It’s been great to see.”

That '98 minor-winning Tyrone team contained some of the county's greatest ever players, from the late Cormac McAnallen to Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan and Brian McGuigan.

Their last win at the grade was in 2010 and that side produced talents like Niall Sludden and Ronan O'Neill, who will be part of the senior panel this Saturday afternoon against Kerry.

Of the current minor crew, captain Cormac Devlin, Shea O'Hare, the powerful Ruairí McHugh and attackers Ronan Cassidy and Eoin McElholm have cut a dash so far.

Conor Owens has provided a strong kick from the bench in each of their four games too, returning 0-1, 0-4, 1-1 and 0-4 tallies. Like Jack Martin, who scored three points from the bench in Tullamore, he will be in the shake up for a starting spot against Meath.

“It’s great, all the subs that come on are fit to kick scores which gives us a great impact,” said Gormley, who agreed their conditioning is excellent.

“I was never in that kind of shape myself at their age, I wish I was. They’re unbelievable, doing loads of work behind the scenes. Even down through the years, the development squads and academy squads have done great work.

"The likes of Peter Donnelly were in working with them three, four years ago and all those minor lads now would have been there. So it's sort of paying off now, the hard work done at 14, 15, 16 years of age is really paying off now. It's great to see it."

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