Nine years since an epic but Down and Tyrone bear similarities
Down’s years as a weak force can be explained by the power of Tyrone and Armagh
Down’s Brendan Coulter is mobbed by fans at the final whistle. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie
Few noticed Mickey Harte’s exit that evening nine years ago. He stopped to answer questions for a TV interview, looking reasoned if subdued as the camera spotlight held him in its glare, and then ghosted through the side gate of Páirc Eisler, where his family were waiting.
The whoops and celebrations of Down football people could be heard in the ground and through Newry. It looked for all the world as if his Tyrone project was over.
Word and assessment travelled fast across the province. Down had come from their customary place – nowhere – to sack Tyrone in what would later be classified as a bona fide Ulster championship classic. A taut drawn match in Omagh deepened into a Saturday night replay in Newry, which held the crowd spellbound deep into extra time.
“The most memorable game I played with Down,” says Ronan Murtagh, who wore the black and red for some 11 summers. “It was full to capacity in Páirc Eisler that night, and the noise is something that will probably live with me forever.”
It’s important to remember how locked out all other Ulster counties felt in those years. Through the Noughties the Northern theatre had narrowed into Armagh and Tyrone’s dominion; two austere, ambitious, mid-Ulster football counties who swatted the rest aside so they could arm wrestle in Clones as a prelude to whatever would happen in Croke Park.
They were streets ahead of the pack. Of the 11 championships played between 2000 and 2010, Armagh won six and Tyrone won five. It was their show.
Down’s main contribution had been to pop up in the Ulster final of 2003 and, with customary impudence, fire 4-8 against Tyrone to earn a replay. That event had been an excruciating lesson in the new order: a 1-17 to 1-5 defeat.
That had also been the last championship game the counties had replayed until the meeting in 2008. By then Tyrone had become two-time All-Ireland champions and were reigning Ulster champions. So nobody saw this night coming but there it was: Down 1-19 Tyrone 0-21 after extra-time. A late Down goal, exuberantly hammer-fisted to the net by Benny Coulter, was enough to win it. Tyrone were gone from Ulster by June 15th.
“I can still remember the changing room afterwards. The players were...ah, it was the lowest ever,” says Tommy McGuigan.
“I got injured in the last league game and wasn’t fit to start. We were lucky enough to escape in Omagh with a draw. And we probably felt that we would get over the line handy enough in Newry.
You are not going to be crucified for it. Of course, it is a bit of pressure but that is what you play football for
“But Down were more than up for it, and they should have beaten us in normal time. And we were lucky enough to get a few handy free kicks in the last few minutes.”
McGuigan is making light of a key moment here. He had come in after 58 minutes in the replay and dragged his team back into contention. His performance was one of the few nuggets of hope offered to Harte in that interview afterwards; landing 0-6, four of those frees, including a late score to take the occasion into extra time in a hugely charged atmosphere.
“Aye, well, the pressure...you do realise what it means. But you kind of tell yourself that you are willing to take it so if you miss it, so what? You are not going to be crucified for it. Of course, it is a bit of pressure but that is what you play football for.”
McGuigan must have felt he was coming of age as a Tyrone senior at the wrong time. His older brother Brian had starred as a consummate centre-half forward on Harte’s All-Ireland winning sides of 2003 and 2005, but didn’t feature in Newry, suffering a shoulder injury just as he was recovering from an appalling eye injury that threatened his vision as well as his career.
Tyrone had been shorn of a series of heavyweight names, and the 2008 version was considered pale in comparison, something that informed Harte’s defiant comments afterwards.
“Many of the things they said we couldn’t do – they said we couldn’t score. I think we got 21 scores, so that’s one myth debunked anyhow. They said we had no hunger. If this team had no hunger they’d have been ripped out of that game.”
McGuigan heard afterwards that Tyrone drifted out to 33/1 to lift that year’s All-Ireland. In the days after the loss he wasn’t deaf to the resignation among Tyrone supporters either. Psychologically Tyrone football people still hadn’t dealt with the retirement of Peter Canavan post-2005, and probably believed that it signalled the end of a golden period.
“And Stevie [O’Neill] had retired too,” says McGuigan.
After Down beat us, there was a feeling of: well look, it’s done. There is nothing coming through
“So there’s two gone. Brian had hurt the eye and broke the leg before that. Then you had Muggsie [Owen Mulligan] who was in and out of the team that year. So it was the likes of myself, Collie McCullough, Martin Penrose, Colm Cavanagh, Ryan Mellon; and none of those names were well known at that time.
“We hadn’t set the league on fire. We had no great championship experience. So after Down beat us, there was a feeling of: well look, it’s done. There is nothing coming through, and it will take a few years before we are back again. So we were at a low ebb.”
He happened to read a post-match interview given by Kevin McKernan a few days after the defeat. The Down man said that deep down he felt the team was better than Tyrone. “That stuck with me. I went to training on Tuesday night after and I was saying to the boys: did you read what that man said?”
McKernan, though, was trying to tap into the most elusive morse code in contemporary football. By 2008 Down’s football tradition was beyond temperamental. It was neurotic. The reason for the huge outpouring of emotion that evening in Newry was because nobody had expected it.
Ross Carr, Down’s manager and a leading member of the county’s last gilded All-Ireland winning generation of 1991 and 1994, said afterwards that another defeat to Tyrone would probably have finished several of his senior players. “I think that if we had not won a lot of careers would have been at an end.”
Even now Ronan Murtagh can’t fully explain why Down were able to live with and finally outwit Tyrone for that week in June.
“I find there is a lot of similarities between 2008 and now. If I’m being honest it wasn’t a performance we saw coming. We had a poor league campaign and went to Omagh as strong underdogs. We had been written off completely by our own supporters.
“We felt we had something to prove to them so there are definite similarities between this crop and ourselves. We played above ourselves in Omagh and brought it back for the replay. It was a brilliant feeling.
“What I can vaguely remember is a club mate of mine came on and picked up Brian Dooher and set a goal up for Benny Coulter. Then we got another goal from Ambrose Rodgers, and we just grew in confidence. The Down swagger, as they say, was back.
“We got a free from Paul McCumiskey to draw or go ahead...the details are vague but what I do remember was the buzz. And, yeah, it was the best I felt playing for Down.”
The many years when Down were a peripheral force can be partly explained by the relentless strength of Tyrone and Armagh. There was no real escape. Having freed themselves of the Red Hand, Down inevitably met Armagh in the semi-final and there the romance ended on a 1-12 to 0-11 defeat.
It is all about momentum. But I would prefer less swagger and more consistency
Liam Doyle, their centre-half back, badly tore his cruciate in the early part of the match (it would cost him two years of his football life) and with his departure went a significant chunk of Down’s self-belief.
Read back on the team-sheet now and it is brimming with talent: Dan McCartan, Dan Gordon, Ambrose Rodgers, Coulter, Murtagh, McCumiskey, Danny Hughes, Aidan Carr. Two years later largely the same team went on a freewheeling run to the All-Ireland final under James McCartan, as if to confirm that they had the right stuff- when they wanted to show it. The “Down swagger” has become part of football mystique but for Murtagh it is a dangerous compliment.
Whole swagger thing
“I think the media play on this whole swagger thing. Yeah, there is something that Down players seem to get, and I know from my own team that players can be going through a season fairly poorly and then like a light switch they turn and get their shoulders back and things go their way.
“It is all about momentum. But I would prefer less swagger and more consistency. If we were getting results year in and year out and were in the top five in Ireland, that would be better than maybe once every 10 years playing with a swagger.”
That is one of the reasons why that 2008 flare stands out in the Down imagination. As it turned out, Down were the only county fit to be near Tyrone in that year’s All-Ireland championship.
Almost unnoticed Harte recalibrated his team through a series of solid, unflashy wins in the qualifiers and then they caught fire against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. And by then it was too late for the rest to stop them. By September they were champions again: Tommy McGuigan scored a crucial goal against Kerry in the final.
“That’s when Mickey is at his best: when everyone is writing us off,” says McGuigan. “He just kept saying that he believed in us and he gave us the confidence to go and express ourselves. And then he moved Seán [Cavanagh] inside which was a big help to all of us. He was the target man and we played off him.”
Sunday looks likely to be Cavanagh’s last Ulster final. Harte has yet to equal the pure chutzpah of that 2008 season, when everyone assumed Tyrone were finally gone when the lights were switched off in Newry that night. Not quite. Their comeback was Harte’s finest hour.
Both Down and Tyrone have been gone through extremes of emotion in the years since. Now there are persuasive signs that Harte is on the threshold of developing another squad capable of delivering the All-Ireland.
Eamonn Burns, meantime, has come through a hailstorm of negativity to lead Down from nowhere to an Ulster final.
“A result on Sunday would give us a huge lift,” says Murtagh, who, like McGuigan, will be in the crowd in Clones.
In an odd way, the electrical currents of that extraordinary evening in Páirc Eisler will still be present when the teams march in the parade in Clones. Under Harte, Tyrone people have come to feel that this is where they belong. Under history, Down football believes the same.
“The likes of Connaire Harrison and Niall Donnelly were unheard of. And now they have stepped up and the confidence is there,” says Murtagh.
“They are coming up against an experienced credible Tyrone side who will take a lot of beating. It is staying with Tyrone until the last 10 minutes: that is the task. If they can do that you never know what might happen.
“Because it is similar to that game we played. Nobody gave us a chance.”