The long and winding road

November 30, 2005
Sunday 25th September 2005 will live long in the memory of Tyrone players and supporters alike. To win a second All Ireland in the space of three years is very special and extremely satisfying. No one can say that the route taken was straightforward and at various stages we didn't perform anything like potential All Ireland champions. Even before a ball was kicked we stumbled our way into the first round clash with Down - our feathers ruffled by the NFL semi-final defeat to Wexford. The first round clash with Down was played in terrible weather conditions. Whilst not spectacular Tyrone produced a solid workmanlike performance to see off the Mournemen. To be sprung from the bench for the last twenty minutes was more than gratifying for myself. I had only just returned to the panel three weeks previously and my expectations of playing any part were minimal. But during those twenty minutes I felt reinvigorated. It was great to be back and the uplifting reception I received when introduced sent a great buzz running through me. Having made up my mind that this would be my last year with Tyrone I was well aware that the Down game would be my last on home soil. Thankfully we finished strongly and left Healy Park with the feeling that bigger days lay ahead. Cavan in the Ulster semi-final was on paper a straightforward game for Tyrone. What a battle it proved to be and after 70 minutes of 'blood and thunder' - nothing separated the sides. Cavan's Michael Lyng held his nerve to force a draw with the last kick of the game. It was a more focused Tyrone side for the replay and with three goals in the first half we settled to play some composed and controlled football. The manner of our victory that day firstly reassured me that the quality of players present in the squad was high and secondly that there was a ruthless streak still present. The Cavan victory set up a mouth-watering clash with the National League Champions Armagh. Such was the hype surrounding this game that the Ulster Council decided to play the final in Croke Park. This decision may not have been very popular with spectators but both sets of players were content to go 'head to head' on the 'field of dreams'. Little did we know that it would be the first of seven games in which we would participate at Croke Park that summer. Like all Tyrone/Armagh games in recent years, it was close and hard fought but my initial recollections of that day were the feelings of dejection I experienced after that game. A rib injury that I carried into the final deteriorated and I was forced to withdraw at half time. But more worrying for Tyrone was the fact that we outplayed Armagh for long periods yet still didn't beat them - we let them off the hook. If we felt disappointed after the drawn game then that was heaven compared to how we would feel after the replay. Again Tyrone played some great football but once more Armagh were still standing at the end. And still standing with a full quota of players! In the last 12 minutes of that game everything that could go wrong did. Stephen O'Neill and I were sent off, decisions went against us, shots were coming back off the upright, and once again we threw away a good lead in the closing minutes. The National League champions had now retained their Ulster title and we were left devastated and demoralised. On appeal the red cards were rescinded but we had already paid a high enough price. On reflection, it is easy to highlight this game as the turning point in the year. Both players and management had been subject to ridicule in certain elements of the press. In a previous era this type of defeat would be enough to set a team back for years. It was a time to stand up and be counted. The management took the lead in this respect with regard to appealing Ryan McMenamin's suspension. Mickey Harte in particular went to great lengths to ensure that justice was done for Ryan. Mickey's 'never say die' attitude would epitomise the spirit that was to be needed in the months ahead. As the back door opened we were once again harnessed in Croke Park against neighbours and Division 2 league champions Monaghan. After a shaky start we got to grips with the lightning Tomas Freeman and ran out convincing winners. Two incidents had a huge bearing on the game that day. With Monaghan leading by four in the first half Packie McConnell pulled off a great save from Rory Woods, if that one had sneaked in, who knows? The other incident came shortly afterwards when Owen Mulligan and Stephen O'Neill combined for Stephen to score a goal that oozed class. This cameo highlighted two players crucial to the Tyrone cause. Owen would go on to figure prominently in the end of season games and Stephen once more illustrated how he has blossomed into the best player in the country. All Ireland quarter final, Tyrone v the Dubs. What an atmosphere! What a game! What a goal! In a previous article I stated that playing against the Dubs before a packed Croke Park would be special - that was to prove a major understatement. The football played that day was of a very high standard - Whelan's catching, O'Neill's points and then Mulligan's goal. Tyrone were five points down at half time were in trouble and we needed a lift - Owen Mulligan provided it! His goal which won the 'Top Twenty GAA Moments Of The Year Award' will be talked about for a long time to come. The replay was played at breakneck pace and once again Mulligan hitting the net had a huge bearing on the outcome. With every game we were gaining confidence. In particular Conor Gormley was excelling in his role at the centre of the defence, while Brian Dooher's surging runs were becoming more regular and more productive. The semi-final against Armagh was our prize for defeating the Dubs. This was our chance to redeem ourselves and reach another All Ireland final. Once more the game was tension filled, ultra-competitive and the tackling ferocious. In contrast with our previous two games, Armagh were dictating the play in terms of possession and Tyrone were guilty of too many turnovers. For long periods our game lacked the normal fluency but this time it was Tyrone that showed the resolve to hang in there and compete. When the chips were down that day and especially coming into the last ten minutes, Tyrone needed leaders. The man who stepped up to the mark in my opinion was Sean Cavanagh. When we needed ball won he won it, when we needed a big point he scored it. People have highlighted the importance of my last free kick but the scores minutes before were massive (Shane Sweeney's and Sean Cavanagh's). There is less pressure on the free taker, knowing he is kicking to win the game rather than kicking to stay in the game. Having said that, it will probably go down as one of the most important frees I have ever taken. My preparations for the All-Ireland this year contrasted greatly with those two years ago. Back then injury prevented me from taking part in training sessions. Now I was relishing taking part in training and pushing hard for a place. Throughout the year the training had been sharp and precise and coming to the end of September the players were all so fresh and full of energy. This is testament to the coaching methods of trainer Fergal McCann. We were entering the final in a positive manner - feeling fresh but knowing that we had emerged through a number of tough tight battles. The game itself seemed to pass in a flash. The pace was hectic and the scores were going over from all angles. Those that anticipated a negative, defensive game would be greatly disappointed. Tyrone finished stronger in the first half and our goal gave us a leading cushion that we would not relinquish. We began the second half brightly but as with most things this year, it did not run smoothly for us - Tomas O Se's goal reducing our lead to one point. But again, as in so many other games this year, we had different players coming to the fore at critical stages. In particular Ryan Mellon fetched some important kick-outs, while Chris Lawn introduced himself with two vital interceptions. Like 2003, it was a terrific team effort that culminated in Brian Dooher ascending the Hogan steps to lift the Sam Maguire - the last steps on a long and winding road, leading to the door of All-Ireland glory.

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