December 13, 1991
Tyrone great - Eugene McKenna
Eugene McKenna, that prince of footballers who graced the football fields of Ireland for 16 years, has much in common with other all-time greats of the game.
His supreme skill, outstanding qualities of leadership, sheer athleticism and undoubted charisma combined to make him one of the GAA world's most famous and most revered figures.
His Croke Park exploits are well documented, almost legendary, his contribution to Tyrone's spiralling footballing fortunes of the 1980's immense.
Parallels can be drawn readily between the flame-haired demon from Augher and giants of the game such as Mick O'Connell, Sean O'Neill and Dermot Earley.
But one crucial aspect of McKenna's career does not fit the pattern ...
Football fans throughout the country invariably learned with sadness of the decisions of many great players to quit the game after years at the top.
Such news brought a tear to many an eye, brought fond memories flooding back and sent scribes scurrying to the archives for suitable material, with accompanying superlatives, for sporting obituaries.
But the scribes have not yet written Eugene McKenna's sporting obituary.
Why? ... Because Eugene McKenna never announced his retirement from inter county football.
His absence from the scene during the last couple of seasons can be explained by a cruel series of injuries which threatened to end his career.
But with defiance to match his commitment to the Tyrone cause down through the tears, McKenna has refused to be beaten. He is back to full fitness and the old sharpness has returned as he turns in starring displays for his club in the beautiful Clogher Valley.
At 35, the Dungannon-based engineer is the first to admit that age is not on his side. And he refuses to court the romantic notion that one last fling with a rejuvenated Tyrone could be on the cards. But, significantly, he refuses to rule it out.
It's a subject McKenna speaks of with understandable trepidation, for his enforced absence has seen him lose touch with a squad which has been transformed by the arrival of a fresh consignment of exciting talent.
But he makes no secret of the fact that he would dearly love to return, although he admits such thoughts may constitute a forlorn hope.
"As the years and months pass by, that possibility of playing again becomes more remote," he said.
And he revealed that he had been gearing himself for a return earlier this year, but Tyrone's shock defeat by Derry upset those plans.
A catalogue of serious injuries have taken their toll, and the National League football is now virtually out of the question for McKenna, whose battered frame is best spared the exigencies of long-term training.
But an extended championship run with the former skipper back on board would do nicely for most Tyrone supporters.
Three times an All Star, he is without doubt Tyrone's outstanding modern-day footballer. McKenna won three Ulster Championship medals, and each time he went on to win All Star awards in three different positions.
In 1984, it was at midfield, in 1986, when he captained Tyrone in their first All-Ireland final it was at centre forward, and two years ago he was honoured at full forward.
But had he heeded doctor's advice he would never have won a single provincial medal.
At the beginning of 1984 a mysterious, niggling injury was eventually diagnosed as osteo-arthritis of the hip joint, and McKenna was told to quit the game.
Not surprisingly, he defied doctor's orders, and by the summer he had pocketed his first Ulster Championship medal.
Two years later millions watched him heroically battle through a pulsating All-Ireland final against Kerry with a snapped achilles tendon. And three years later yet another serious injury - this time a badly damaged cruciate ligament in a knee - threatened to bring the final curtain down on a glittering career.
The courage and determination which brought him back from the brink time and again have not diminished, and the thrill of watching Tyrone's new young warriors has kept the hunger alive.
"It's certainly very exciting, there's a great buzz in the county at the moment with such a successful start to the national league.
"I suppose any county is the same. Once they string a few good results together, the expectations of the supporters go sky high. They are the last people that reality dawns on. And the danger is that they could be expecting too much.
"But there is great potential there, there's youth, there's talent and there's always that unknown element. We still don't know exactly how good this team is, and I don't think there's any way of finding that out until next summer.
"The great thing about the present team is they are a team of winners. They haven't got into the habit of being beaten. The under 21 players won the All-Ireland title and now they have won every game they have played with the senior side."
But he warned: "The national league does not have a great bearing on what will happen in the summer when championship football arrives. But these young players play with great flair and skill, and I think they will be hard to beat."
McKenna resisted making comparisons between the present side and that which reached the All-Ireland final five years ago, but he did make an interesting observation.
"The young lads who have just graduated from the under 21 team are now playing so well on the senior team would have been around 15 years old when we reached the All-Ireland final.
"I have no doubt that the glamour and the excitement of that occasion made a big impression on young lads around the county at the time. It mad everyone want to play the game and that is one of the main reasons why we have such a good crop of young talent now."
And McKenna is hopeful that Tyrone will be back at Croke Park on All-Ireland day in the not too distant future.
"The talent is there, and there's no reason why a team capable of winning an All-Ireland title can not be built upon it."
Winners of the Royal Liver top Team Award for October/November following their all-conquering exploits in the opening stage of the National League, Tyrone appear to be heading in the right direction, and McKenna offered further words of encouragement.
"Ulster is tough, and in many ways it's easier to play in Croke Park than it is to play in Clones. They teams don't know each other so well, and therefore they don't tend to blot each other out. There's more open football as a result."
And even before Down's All-Ireland triumph this year, he was convinced the Sam Maguire was already preparing for a trip north.
"I felt even before Down won the title there was an All-Ireland there for an Ulster team. Since the Kerry/Dublin domination of the seventies and eighties has been broken, the cup has been there for the taking, and an Ulster team is just as capable of doing it as a team from anywhere else in Ireland.
"Now other Ulster counties realise that they can beat Down, and they're asking themselves the question: why can't we win an All-Ireland? and the answer is of course - they can."
McKenna feels Down's success has served to cast off the inhibitions and fears which in the past have prevented Ulster teams from performing well at Croke Park.
"Now people realise that Ulster footballers are as good as any in Ireland. More All-Ireland titles will certainly come north, and I hope the next one comes to Tyrone."
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
13th December 1991
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