Tyrone go in search of their first National Football League crown in a decade on Sunday when they face off against hot favourites Dublin in Croke Park, writes Seamus Donnelly.
It may be hard to believe for Tyrone fans but it’s now 11 years since Tyrone captured their first national title at senior level.
That 2002 National League title gave a young Tyrone team the confidence and experience they would need of competing at the highest level of senior football, something they put to good use when claiming their first All Ireland title 18 months later.
The centre half back on that 2002 league winning side Ciaran Gourley remembers that league campaign fondly.
“It was a big day for all of us”, said the Rock St Patrick’s man. “I’d joined the senior squad a couple of years before that and we’d won an Ulster Senior title in 2001. For much of that squad it was our first time playing in a national final at that level and it was a real stepping stone for us.”
“Art MacRory and Eugene McKenna were in charge at that time and we’d had a fairly successful league campaign that year. We’d played well to beat Mayo in Enniskillen in the semi final and then in the final against Cavan we put in a good performance that day.
“It was a milestone and a stepping stone for that bunch of players but the championship campaign probably didn’t go to plan that year.”
Gourley, a teacher in St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon has had another role in recent years guiding some of the county’s brightest prospects at schools level.
Two of his star players over recent years, Niall Morgan and Conor McAliskey have been leaving their mark on the county scene this season.
“Working with the fellas in the school, it’s pleasing to see them coming through.
“Niall won two MacRory Cups and a Hogan Cup in his time here. He played in goals for the first couple of years and then in his final year he played outfield.
“Niall’s a talented footballer as well and I suppose one of the things I liked about him at the time and you’re seeing it now with Tyrone is that he can act as an extra defender for you, not just a goalkeeper.
“His passing and distribution from defence and his kick outs are beginning to give Tyrone a real edge.”
“Conor [McAliskey] in his time at the school probably didn’t reach his potential in the younger age groups but he really blossomed as he got older and matured as a footballer.
“By the time he reached MacRory he won an Ulster Colleges All Star which probably showed his quality. Both Conor and Niall were probably unfortunate in that in their final year at MacRory they lost out narrowly in the semi final.
Gourley went on: “The two boys have done really well this year and they’ve shown that if you have the talent and are prepared to put in the work then you’ll get the reward.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s clash with Dublin and Gourley believes that Dublin present as hard a proposition as Tyrone could have faced.
“Tyrone could have asked for a tougher task. Dublin have been racking up some big totals during the course of the league and they seem to be able to hit a scoring burst like they did against Mayo and put you out of sight.
“I suppose Tyrone might have a small advantage in that while they’ve changed the team from time to time they’ve been working with the same core of players all season whereas Dublin with their new manager have chopped and changed a bit bringing players in and out.”
Gourley pointed to Stephen O’Neill and Bernard Brogan as the key men: “Tyrone will feel that if they can get Stephen playing in the same form as he did last week and they can bottle up Bernard Brogan then they will have a chance. But Dublin are probably thinking that if they can bottle up Stephen and get Brogan scoring then they should win.
“I’d be hopeful though that Tyrone can shade the game by a point or two.”