Nothing became Conor Gormley’s championship career like the first day of it. An airless May Sunday of Clones mizzle and mugg, themselves and Armagh with thumbs pressed on each other’s windpipes right to the last kick.
The next day every paper inked sonnets to another Tyrone debutant, 19-year-old Seán Cavanagh forcing a replay with a late goal. Down the other end though, all but one of Armagh's starting forwards scored at least a point. All but Diarmaid Marsden, Gormley's prey for the day.
If every life is a rope that frays off in a dozen different directions eventually, Gormley's is the rare one that has stayed bound and true. Four of the players on the pitch that day are inter-county managers this summer, plenty more are just working stiffs like the rest of us now. But Conor Gormley remains, broad and obdurate as an old oak in a field. Tyrone have played 67 championship matches in all that time – Gormley has faced the flag for 65 of them.
Two matches in 12 seasons, that's all he's missed. He got concussed in a qualifier replay against Louth in 2006 and had to watch forlorn from the sideline as Laois mugged them in the next round. And a tweak of a medial ligament kept him out of the season opener in 2010 against Antrim. Just to put a frame on that for decoration, Gormley has played in all but one of Tyrone's Ulster Championship matches since Niall Morgan was nine years old.
Time moves on
Surely then, time must be nagging at him. Only Cavanagh and Stephen O'Neill remain from that day, as each winter has seen real life reach in and pluck another of his old comrades from the pile. When Mickey Harte hooshed a whole gaggle of new faces through the door this year, he had to nudge Cavanagh to ask who some of them were.
The blank look and shrug he got in return told them how different things were now. Not so different though that he felt like pulling stumps himself. Didn’t even occur to him, seemingly.
“Naw, probably not, naw,” he says in his mid-Ulster drawl. “You’d be disappointed seeing the boys leaving alright. We had our own wee corner in Clogher where we used to train before we moved to Garvaghy. Myself and Seán, Ryan McMenamin and Enda McGinley all had the one corner. With McGinley and Ricey away, it’s sort of left a bit of a hole. There was good picking in them lads.
“But it was never at all in my mind to retire. Never crossed my mind. You just keep coming back until the body tells you not to I suppose. Every year when Tyrone finish up, I get stuck into the club and that keeps me going for the winter. Then I get a bit of rest and before heading back in January to Tyrone if I get the call from Mickey. So it never crossed my mind to walk away.”
And why would it? Roll all those years together and he’s still only 32. McMenamin did a year on the bench before retiring but Gormley hasn’t been on the other end of The Talk from Harte at any stage.
The past two years against Donegal, he’s been the one sent to shut down Colm McFadden. Last year he kept McFadden to a point from play; the previous year he was in the mix for Man of the Match until McFadden stitched his one goal chance four minutes from the end. He’s no passenger.
All around him, Tyrone have been broken down and put back together again. Of the team that lines out against Donegal tomorrow, five remain from the one that started the 2008 All-Ireland final.
Himself, Cavanagh, Martin Penrose and the McMahon brothers are there, along with O’Neill and Colm Cavanagh who both came off the bench that day. Dermot Carlin and Cathal McCarron were suited up but didn’t see action – now they’re alongside him as the made men of the Tyrone defence. Year by year, pieces have been added – the Donnellys, Peter Harte, a new goalkeeper who fancies himself as the heir to Peter Canavan. It’s taken a while but they’re getting there.
“I think you can definitely say that the transition is done and dusted,” says Gormley. “All the younger boys have played in big games and played against the top teams in Division One so that’s a great bonus for them. It’s brought them on leaps and bounds. To see someone like Niall Morgan come in and hit free-kicks over the bar from 50 yards just shows you the confidence them boys have. That’s great to see.
"Those barren years were hard. It was difficult to sit back and watch the rest of the championship go on without us because we had had that success nearly from the very start. By the end of the summer, you're sitting watching, thinking we should be there or we should have done more to get there. But that's the way football goes."
Different world now
Occasionally, he'll try to pass on a word or two to the players whose names he only learned in January. Same way as Chris Lawn and the boys did with him away back. But it's a different world now. "It's a young man's game," he says. "It's definitely not a tradesman's game.
“You try to give them the best advice you can. But sure sometimes, they’ll just laugh at you. They’re definitely a confident bunch. They’re far more confident than I was when I came in first. I had the head down sitting in the corner for two or three years before I got any way comfortable talking to anybody. But the likes of Niall Morgan and Conor McAlliskey, they’re totally different. When you see them first, you just have to laugh at them. I’d still be laughing at them, thinking that these boys are nuts.”
Tomorrow’s no day for laughing, clearly. This whole week has been game face time. Not since those early days against Armagh has a May game felt so important. He watched Martin Dunne score points as he pleased against Armagh last Sunday with a wry smile. “No way will there be that kind of room on Sunday,” he says.
“You have to prepare for what Donegal bring. You have to prepare mentally. You’re not going to be dandering around with time on the ball – there’s going to be men on you all the time. You’re going to have to be sharp-thinking and you can’t give the ball away. They will punish you and harm you very quickly if you lose possession.
“I don’t think it will be dirty. I don’t think any team goes out to be dirty or to be cynical. Things can happen in a game. Players will play whatever way they’re told to play or whatever way they’ve planned. I don’t think it will be dirty.
“It will be hard and physical but it might surprise some people. I know people think there’s going to be no football played at all and that it’s going to be crowded and cynical but you could be surprised. There could be some football played.
“I suppose people are expecting there to be a lot of fouling and probably a bit of chatting. And that does go on, even in club games. You’re always going to have that, you’ll always have people trying to stop you and slow you down whatever way they can. But I don’t think it’s going to be too bad.”