Tyrone still inspired by the angels on their shoulders

 

ALL-IRELAND SFC FINAL Kerry v Tyrone:Keith Duggan charts the development and growth of a remarkable group of players who, despite being no strangers to tragedy since their days as minor footballers, have once again proved their resilience by reaching another All-Ireland football final

THE 1997 minor semi-final replay between Tyrone and Kerry quickly became obscured as it was played on an afternoon of international melodrama. While the teenagers sparked to create a simple and moving afternoon of sport in Parnell Park, the world tuned in to the floral-wreathed hysteria on Pall Mall and the last procession of Lady Diana.

Unsurprisingly, the story of the football match the teenagers produced was largely washed away in the flood of tears and recitation of that weekend. But those who were in Parnell Park on that Saturday afternoon, September 6th immediately recognised that they had witnessed something special.

Tyrone's very presence was somewhat unlikely and the youngsters in the squad had troubles more profound than many of the thousands who participated in that strange London concert of grief. Earlier that summer, the squad had been stunned when their team-mate Paul McGirr collapsed after a collision in the Ulster semi-final against Armagh and, unbelievably, died several hours later in hospital.

In the weeks afterwards, the team somehow found the resolve to win the Ulster championship and, after facing elimination against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, they hauled themselves back from a five points deficit to earn a replay. Fr Gerald McAleer and Mickey Harte were, as teachers, probably more adept than most at guiding the boys through the shock of what happened to Paul McGirr.

But between the drawn match and the replay came the news that Paul Hughes, an older brother of midfielder Kevin, had been killed in a car crash on the Ballygawley-Dungannon road (the family would later lose a sister on the same stretch). Paul's funeral took place on the Tuesday before the replay. The coaches spoke with the teenager, not sure of the wisest course of action.

"It was all a learning experience for us too," Fr McAleer says now. "We asked Kevin and he embraced this idea of playing for his brother. And Kevin Hughes was good that day. His game was so refined and disciplined. I think that was the day, in my opinion, when Tyrone gave out the message to Kerry and the rest of the country: we are here. We are here for the reckoning. It is easy to remember these days when you live through them."

That day in Parnell Park was, by all accounts, one of those sporting afternoons that caught all observers off-guard as it moved from a fascinating replay into deeper country so that the collective effort of the athletes transcended the result.

Tyrone won 0-23 to 0-21 after extra-time. Several youngsters were treated for cramp. Cormac McAnallen had to (temporarily) leave the field moments after landing an outrageously long free-kick, estimated in this newspaper at about 60 yards. The score put Tyrone three points up for the first time and proved the definitive chink of daylight between the teams.

"I don't think he even took frees for the club," his brother Donal remembered this week, thinking back in slightly vexed humour to the limitless self-belief contained within his younger brother. "I just think it was a case of his having won the free and he just decided to chance it. And it sailed over too. It kept travelling."

The late Seán Kilfeather was among the sportswriters in the press seats in Parnell Park.

"Not one player flinched although by the second period of extra-time several players were in need of attention for cramp," he wrote in that Monday's Irish Times. "Many spectators were in dire need of help as well. An elderly Tyrone woman was in tears at the end. Clutching an All-Ireland medal won by her late husband with the Tyrone minors 50 years ago, she echoed the feelings of a crowd of approximately 4,000: 'Nobody deserved to lose that match,' she said."

Afterwards, Kilfeather met Tim Kennelly on the famous Dublin field. The great Kerry man had two sons playing (Noel and Tadhg were the most high-profile starters on that year's minor team although in the 70th minute, the Kingdom sent in a skinny kid from Finuge listed as P Galvin).

"The amount of effort those lads put into that match, all of them, was astounding," Kennelly told Kilfeather. "I only hope the GAA finds some way to reward them for their effort."

On the bus back home, the players heard an unforgettable compliment crackling through the wireless on the evening news. Micheál O'Muircheartaigh was rhapsodising about the game. He said it might have been the best minor match he ever witnessed.

In retrospect, this was a fabulously talented group of Tyrone players. Ciarán Gourley, McAnallen, Hughes, Brian McGuigan, Mark Harte and Stephen O'Neill were among those who would go on to star at senior level. Harte scored 0-12 that day and was marked by Martin Beckett, a young Kerry star whose days would also prove tragically brief - another victim of Irish roads.

"A lot of people remembered Martin because he was very, very blond, he stood out on the field. He always stayed in my mind from that day," says Donal McAnallen.

Tyrone then came up against the celebrated Laois minor team, the sensational juvenile outfit of that era. They lost by 3-11 to 1-14 and had to wait 12 months for the ultimate glory. By the summer of 1998, Pascal McConnell, Michael Magee, Gavin Devlin, Owen Mulligan and Enda McGinley had earned their place on the starting 15. McAnallen, Hughes, and O'Neill were still there. McGuigan - injury-plagued and the original choice as captain - was on the bench along with Ryan Mellon and Philip Jordan. When one considers the Tyrone panel for tomorrow's epochal showdown, it seems like an outrageously dense amalgamation of talent.

Brian McGuigan allowed himself a slow, crooked smile when asked about his minor days when we met in Carrickmore one night last week. It was the Tyrone "press night" and afterwards, the public were allowed to come along and meet the players.

McGuigan had made the mistake of wandering on to the stands for a BBC Ulster interview and afterwards he stood in the light drizzle circled by hundreds of young fans, scribbling his name on literally anything and everything until his hand ached.

Lights shone on the Nally Stand and the famous Croke Park relic looked splendid and almost art deco in its new mid-Ulster home and under the canopy of the main stand, people were grilling hamburgers and sausages.

You thought about the grave battle McGuigan has been through just to become a football player again and watched him in this scene and something of the incredible resilience of this Tyrone bunch made sense.

Taking refuge in a corridor, McGuigan said: "It doesn't seem 10 years. You think back to when you were 17 and it was like yesterday. But then you think back through that time, there were a lot of ups and a lot of downs. There were extremes. You have to take the bangs with the good times. But the good thing is that through those 10 years a lot of real friendships grew between the players and, in later years, we will have those to look back on."

Upstairs, Kevin Hughes stood drinking tea and he felt the same as McGuigan about those intense and passionate couple of seasons.

"It is funny you say it. I was at the minor final last year and thinking, God, 10 years ago I was there. So on the one hand you think that the time has really flown by, but then you look back at the football we have played and yeah, we have been on the road a while.

"But it is great to be back here and to be involved with Tyrone and to have so many of the boys we played with at minor still around. Because Mickey always preached to us at minor to give it our all because according to statistics, only two or three of us would make it as seniors. We were lucky. There must have been 10 of us."

When their hour of joy came in 1998, it was played out against a truly terrible backdrop. The Omagh bombing - an atrocity that still reverberates through souls as well as contemporary news broadcasts - had happened in mid-August. Even after three decades of violence, it shook Ulster to the core and numbed Tyrone.

Everyone knew someone.

"Mickey and I had been to school in Omagh," says Fr Gerard. "A fair few of the boys were in school in Omagh. It wasn't far from anybody."

There was talk of the minor team withdrawing from the championship as a mark of respect. Harte and McAleer were not of that mind, but, at the same time, they had to gauge if their charges could still engage with sport. As with the true tragedy of the year before, the act of playing football somehow made sense. The squad were blessed with what Mark Twain described as "the elastic heart of youth".

Young people keep going. They adapt. They have irrepressible energy. Tyrone beat the feted Laois team who were chasing a three-in-a-row. The final score was 2-11 to 0-11, the goals courtesy of Enda McGinley and the cheeky Cookstown youngster, Owen Mulligan. Aidan Lynch, a light bundle of tricks from Castlederg, landed 0-5, three from play.

Afterwards, the mutual grace displayed between the teams marked one of the shining hours in the history of the association. The O'Moore County lads formed a guard of honour and applauded the Tyrone men off the field. Kevin Skelton, the Tyrone referee who lost family in the Omagh bombing, paid a visit to the victorious dressingroom underneath the old Hogan Stand.

Oliver Phelan, the Laois coach, came into the packed room. "I told ye last year ye would win it," he told the audience. "Didn't tell ye to do it against us though."

The boys laughed heartily - probably for the first time in weeks. As their bus neared the lights of Omagh that evening, emotions were more complicated.

"Going back into Omagh that night was one of those times when emotions just crack open," Fr McAleer says now. "It was a spontaneous reaction to an awful moment in our lives."

Minor fame can be a dangerous addiction. Many's the foolish youth has dined out on it until he has found himself middle-aged. Not so with this bunch. All-Ireland under-21 titles followed in 2000 and 2001 under the tutelage of Harte and McAleer.

That autumn, Art McRory, the godfather of the Red Hand game, stepped down from the senior position and the squad felt like a continuation of the minor days - except that bone fide legends like Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher were the big voices in the dressingroom.

They won the senior All-Ireland in September 2003, a victory both local and universal because it was over Armagh. Go back into that dressingroom now and the scenes are bittersweet. There is Chris Lawn, the suede-headed veteran in disbelief that he has an All-Ireland medal, raising his hands like a celebrant at all the fresh faces around him.

"Why not go on?" he asks rhetorically. "Why not?" "These are young boys!"

Stephen O'Neill sits elsewhere rapping freely about Paul McGirr and concluding, "He'll be happy in Heaven tonight."

And McAnallen, the captain, talking at one hundred miles an hour. "The moment I am looking forward to is to wake up tomorrow as an All-Ireland champion. Aye, a night's sleep now cos I got no sleep last night. Just tossing and turning the whole night. Though at the same time, I want to stay up all night. Ah, it's just going to be magical."

And for several months afterwards, it was. Those light-hearted words from a young All-Ireland captain hold a terrible poignancy now. Everyone knows what happened that March 3rd, 2004, when Cormac McAnallen went in his sleep at the age of 24. Word spread before sunrise and it was stupefying. It was like being told Lough Neagh had become a desert. It made no sense. For many, it still does not.

"We were so young and to go through that then makes you think that what happened to them could have happened to any of us," Kevin Hughes said. "It frightens you. And it does make you a stronger person as well because you have to deal with things like that at a younger age. So when you have dealt with that, going out and playing football seems easy."

The life of the Eglish man, such a torrent of accomplishment and goodwill, has been eulogised plenty but they still struggle to find adequate passages to make sense of his death. Football was supposed to be a passion and a recreation for Fr McAleer but through his years with this Tyrone team, it confronted him with the most fundamental sacraments of his vocation. He has often mused on what it was about McAnallen that set him apart.

"I have tried to answer it myself. It was an elusive quality. It wasn't charisma. Cormac wanted to be good at everything he tried his hand at. He was always his own man and it didn't matter if everyone else was going in one direction, if he wanted to, he went his own way. And the crowd followed him. I can't explain why. They just did."

Although Tyrone were, understandably, a hollow force throughout that dark summer, they came back to win a second senior All-Ireland in September of 2005. Afterwards you only had to look at the strain on the face of Mickey Harte to understand this was the only ode they knew how to compose for their departed leader.

And now the decade turns full circle. Sport reduces everything to the fundamental glory and pain of the crowded hour and its powers of redemption can be limitless. But life is different. Years pass. Boys turn to men and jobs, girlfriends, houses, weddings, the muddle of ordinary life . . . just happens.

For the families of Paul McGirr and Cormac McAnallen, the everyday joys and annoyances bring memories and pains that are as vivid as those provoked by the grandest days in Croke Park. Donal McAnallen, although still immersed in Gaelic Games, found that he went less and less to see the county team after his brother died. "I suppose it just didn't mean as much to me."

For the many families afflicted by the devastation of the Omagh bombing, football could only offer so much comfort as well.

The thing about it is, the Tyrone football team just kept on playing through it all. They have coped with what has been an extraordinarily distressful barrage of heartbreak and have never sought to fixate on any of this. They have been pitched from the unconfined happiness of their All-Ireland splendour to days of unimaginable sadness and back again.

When Pascal McConnell was asked about his absent team-mates, the big goalkeeping man moved his bear-like hands and tried to reason out the unreasonable.

"We had our share of tragedies. Them fellas have been like the angels on our shoulder. The two lads didn't get to see what we achieved and it would be great to have them about today. But they are very much part of our thoughts.

"And you know, we have had our fair share of close shaves in games over the last lock of years on our way to senior success and you like to think that they are a guiding light in those kind of games."

As an explanation as to why Tyrone's glittering football years have been accompanied by such a grim and unforgettable shadow story, it is as good as any. The why of what Brian McGuigan rightly labelled "the extremes" are beyond any of us. All the Tyrone boys could do was keep playing. That is why their presence in tomorrow's All-Ireland final provides the most eloquent epitaph on everything the have striven to represent since that half forgotten day in north Dublin and that minor All-Ireland title of a decade ago, a victory for the power of innocence if ever there was one.

"Everyone says we are a young team," Owen Mulligan laughed after Tyrone had won their first All-Ireland, "but we became men out there today."

Rare men. Greatness beckons for the class of '97/'98. It is easy to remember these days when you live through them.