On the list of player biographies handed out at the Tyrone press night last Wednesday week, there was something interesting about the numbers beside the names of Darren McCurry and Connor McAliskey. They were both down as standing 5'10" tall and weighing 80kg. In a squad of 31 players, they were the only two listed with that combination of dimensions.
Now, we cast no aspersions on the veracity of Tyrone’s information – that would be a southern media conspiracy too far, surely. But let’s just say that sometimes with these squad lists across all sports, a certain degree of approximation is taken as read. It could very well be that McCurry and McAliskey’s vital statistics do match up just that precisely. Or maybe, like the rest of us, even Tyrone followers occasionally have trouble telling them apart.
It’s easily enough done. Both are corner forwards who look like corner forwards – small and knacky and quick, decent off both feet. Both are free-takers with high kicking percentages, close in and from 45s. One is a bit more flashy than the other but you’d need to watch more than a handful of games to know for sure which one.
Probably the most interesting thing about McCurry and McAliskey is that it is they who make up the Tyrone inside line. Nobody predicted that they'd be the ones still standing after all the years of Mickey Harte experimentation since the break-up of his great team. Since the seniors won their last All-Ireland in 2008, Tyrone have been in three All-Ireland minor finals and one under-21 final. Neither McCurry nor McAliskey played a minute of any of them.
McCurry was around the panel for the 2010 minor All-Ireland but a few minutes off the bench in that year’s Ulster final was the limit of his contribution. As for McAliskey, he didn’t get a look in at minor for Tyrone. As far as anyone was concerned, there was a long queue of serious prospects and it would have been difficult to see the front of it from where he was standing.
“They are probably unique in the Tyrone set-up in that they didn’t really have any success underage,” says Brian McGuigan. “They weren’t a big part of teams that challenged for All-Irelands. You look at a big chunk of the boys in the squad now, a load of them have underage medals behind them coming into the senior squad.
"But the thing about McCurry and McAliskey is that they're ahead of boys now that would have been pinpointed as starting for Tyrone from a good way out. You look at the likes of Paddy McNeice and Kyle Coney, these lads that have gone off the scene now. They were always thought of as being ahead of the boys but McCurry and McAliskey have jumped in ahead of them."
McCurry (the flashy one) got his toe in the door first, half by accident. He played championship before he ever got a run in the league. Because Harte doesn’t go in for challenge matches, it was in an A v B game between league and championship in 2012 where he was ostensibly making up the numbers that he got anyone to sit up and take notice. McGuigan certainly did.
“I always remember Darren McCurry coming in. We hadn’t enough players for a full game so Mickey brought in a few lads who had been playing well around the county. Darren came in and played on
and scored either 1-5 or 1-6 in this A v B game.
"That's the first impression you would have of Darren McCurry – pure cocky, no fear at all. There's a bit of an Owen Mulligan about him. Talk to him and he just has this cockiness about him. He doesn't care if he misses a chance, he's full sure he'll score the next one. That's a good thing to have if you go into Croke Park because the level of opposition you find when you get there means you are going to miss the odd chance. McCurry wouldn't dwell on it, he'd be just ready to score the next one."
He came off the bench against Roscommon in a qualifier that summer and banged over four quick points in the space of 25 minutes. When Stephen O’Neill was a late cry-off from the next game, McCurry got his first start. Sadly for him and for Tyrone, that next game was the tonking down in Killarney. McGuigan replaced him in the second half before being instantly sent off in his last ever game.
By the following spring, McAliskey was on the scene. Though they’d played together on the Tyrone under-21 side that had made it to the previous year’s Ulster final, the senior full-forward line wasn’t big enough for the both of ’em through that 2013 league. McAliskey started six games, McCurry started two and came on in two.
With the likes of O'Neill, Martin Penrose and Mark Donnelly all still on the go, they were essentially the same player fighting for the same spot. McAliskey was a year older, maybe a year stronger. He'd been the Ulster GAA writers' player of the month that January for his performances in Tyrone's McKenna Cup win and he'd been the only player on the Ulster team that February who hadn't yet played a championship game for his county.
Come the summer, he got the nod to start against Donegal. But on a bad day all round for Tyrone, he was the first player to be called ashore. Both of them started the next day against Offaly and both filled their boots. Both got a chance against Roscommon, too, but neither finished the game as Tyrone just about got out with their hides intact.
So it went. Invariably, one of them would start, the other would get a few minutes late on. With every new season, Harte would try some new faces. Ronan O’Neill was the nailed on next new thing, Niall McKenna had his days. Coney put up eight points from play in a league game down in Cork early last year with McCurry and McAliskey either side of him. By mid-summer, he was on the bench and the two corner boys were Harte’s chosen attack.
“The thing about McCurry and McAliskey is that they never leave the football field,” says McGuigan. “You head up past the local football field near either of them on any day and you’ll be near sure see them out there with 20 or 30 balls just stroking them over the bar. That’s why them boys have probably stepped in above the likes of Kyle and Paddy McNeice. They’re putting in the extra work.
"A lot of these Tyrone players now have done that. They have the likes of Mattie Donnelly around them and they take their lead from him. Mattie Donnelly lives and breathes football and nothing else. Everything he eats, every gym session, everything goes to his football. That's why it's great to see the likes of him and them reaping the benefits of it."
As they have become more reliable, so Tyrone have been able to develop a specific style of play. They are the reason Seán Cavanagh can afford to spend more time back the pitch being the starting point for attacks rather than having a disproportionate responsibility for finishing them. They are the reason too that Niall Morgan isn't being called forward for frees the whole time, with all the distraction and production that entails.
McCurry has scored 1-21 this summer (0-10 from frees, 0-2 from 45s), McAliskey 0-21 (0-11 from frees). Against Monaghan in the quarter-final, they both put in nigh-on spotless displays of finishing. Between them, they kicked eight from eight dead-balls and McCurry’s first-half point off his weaker right foot in the first half with
pushing him out towards the right sideline was probably the score of the day.
“You need players with a good scoring ratio up there,” says McGuigan. “Especially when you’re playing against someone like Kerry where they’re really not going to miss a whole pile at the other end. The system that Tyrone play depends on their inside forwards taking their chances. I thought Monaghan set up quite well defensively the last day and I would have had my doubts over whether or not the two boys could cope with so many numbers back. Even six or seven weeks ago, I wasn’t convinced that these boys would be fit to do it in Croke Park when it matters. But the big pitch, the way they created space for each other, I thought it was brilliant.”
Tomorrow will be McCurry’s 20th championship appearance and McAliskey’s 16th. The life of a corner forward being what it is, they’ve only once started and finished a championship game together – the All-Ireland semi-final two years ago against Mayo. Both kicked a couple of points from play that day and McCurry added two frees. It hardly set the world alight but they were 20 and 21 at the time so it was enough to let Tyrone people hope for the future.
That future is here now, though, and the time for hoping has passed. McCurry and McAliskey have seen off the best within their county when nobody expected them to. Now comes the hard part.