February 21, 1992
Tyrone and Ulster keeper Finbar McConnell
Goalkeeping runs in the blood
of the McConnell family
Finbarr McConnell is saving up for a trip to Dublin. In fact, he's been saving so well that he looks like he'd be able to bring the whole Tyrone team with him. The giant goalkeeper's super saves have helped Tyrone chalk up three marvellous pre-Christmas victories which have left them proudly sitting on top of Division 1A of the National Football League, writes Francis Mooney.
McConnell has performed brilliantly in a team which set the football world alight this season with a refreshing brand of attacking football, conceding one goal in the League to date. And that solitary three pointer came in the uncertain stages of the opening game against Mayo, which Tyrone went on to win in style. Clean sheets followed in that resounding Croke Park victory over Dublin and the enthralling one-point win over Cork.
Now McConnell is looking forward to more of the same and the prospect of a return to Croke Park for National League Knock-out action. But before the 6'4" Newtownstewart clubman is preparing for a difficult conclusion to the divisional programme. "We have played very well, we have some great victories under our belts, but our two remaining games are likely to be our most difficult so far," says the 24-year-old 'keeper.
Tyrone have two remaining fixtures before they can contemplate the lucrative knock-out stages, and both are away - firstly to Armagh next Sunday (23rd) and finally to Galway on March 8th. "I would rate our next game away to Armagh as a tougher prospect than having to go to Croke Park to play Dublin," says McConnell. "There is always great local rivalry between the two counties, and they will be very keen to halt our unbeaten run. They will be really geared up for it. The other game against Galway will also be very tough, as they might be desperate for points to avoid relegation at that stage. It's a very difficult run in."
He has no doubt that despite Tyrone's breathtaking form to date, all the hard work has still to come. "Our success so far was not something we consciously planned for. We didn't train particularly hard, but everything seemed to click for us and we got the results. But from now on it will be more difficult, as teams get down to more serious training with an eye to the Championship."
The Championship, of course, holds some painful memories for Finbar McConnell. Last season's defeat by Derry was a bitter pill to swallow, especially as it was a last gasp Enda Gormley which settled this issue in Omagh. "I was never so disappointed in my life. I was really shattered. Even two weeks later I was talking about the game to someone and I was nearly in tears," he says. "We had built up great team spirit, things were going well, and everything fell in around us. We had dominated the game but couldn't kill them off, and then we suffered the consequences. So much was expected of us, and I suppose that put immense pressure on the team." But Tyrone have an early opportunity to make amends for that unexpected defeat in the Ulster Championship preliminary round tie in Omagh. Derry are their Championship opponents again this season, and although Tyrone have to travel for what will undoubtedly be a difficult assignment, McConnell is quietly confident. "We're only thinking as far as the first round and that will be a difficult hurdle. But it would be great to get a Championship run. We are a young team with a lot of talent and a good Championship run could us up for some time. It's probably the best panel tyrone have ever had, but it has yet to produce real form in the Championship. That will be the real test, and I must say I'm looking forward to it."
But before Championship time comes around, there are a few things the towering goalkeeper would like to sort out. While Tyrone's defence has performed soundly to date, the fact that some key positions are still without regular occupants is the main cause for concern. He would particularly like to see someone into the full back position so he can begin the task of building up an understanding. "I would really like to see a settled full back. When I first into the team, Ciaran McGarvey was the full back. He was a key figure, so steady and so experienced. In fact, he was one of my heroes when I was a young Tyrone supporter, so to get to play with him was a dream come true. I was able to build up a good understanding with him, but since his departure, we have had a lot of different people on the edge of the square, and we still haven't got a regular full back. That makes it very difficult for a goalkeeper to build up teamwork and understanding with his defence, for full back is a crucial position. I would like to see someone given the position, to be persevered with, and to be there through thick and thin, so we can get to know each other's play."
Success has been a long time coming for Finbar McConnell. Two seasons as a county minor saw the Red Hand twice crash out of the Championship in the first round. But his apprenticeship as an aspiring county Senior goalkeeper brought him into contact with a household name who had tasted his fair share of success in a long and distinguished career.
Aidan Skelton was first choice Tyrone goalkeeper when McConnell came into the panel five years ago as a raw 19-year-old, and he was only too willing to share his expertise and experience with the youngster. "I learned a lot from Aidan. He really helped me when I first came into the squad. Being his deputy helped me immensely. I watched him play and really learned a lot from that, and give me advice about various aspects. His attitude was a great asset, and I think a lot of that rubbed off me."
And now Finbar, an employee of Woodlock is passing some of his knowledge on to his brothers, for goalkeeping is the family tradition in the McConnell household. His father was a goalkeeper with Fintona, 20-year-old brother Declan is a former county minor 'keeper, Brian (18) is the county Minor goalkeeper for the second year in succession, and is also a member of the Under 21 squad which will be starting the defence of it's All-Ireland title shortly. In fact, when Finbar was unavailable for a pre-season tournament game in Leitrim a few weeks ago, it was younger brother Brian who made his first Senior appearance as deputy, turning in a flawless performance. "I give him advice when him doing something which I think could be improved, but it's getting to a stage where he's giving me advice," says Finbar. "I think I may soon have to start looking over my shoulder."
At club level the McConnell brothers display a variety of talents, as there's not room on any team for three goalkeepers. And this season Finbar showed that he's as good a goal scorer as a goal stopper. Operating from midfield, he grabbed half a dozen goals as Newtownstewart coasted to the Division 3 League title without losing a match - the only team in Tyrone to go through the season unbeaten. And now his famous long kick played a major part in his side's success. Arguably the longest ground kicker in the country, his mighty thumps will certainly prove very useful to Tyrone this season.
Right now, Finbar McConnell is contemplating another another unbeaten run to complement the one he has already achieved with his club.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
21st February 1992
Most Read Stories