By Niall Gartland
CORMAC McAnallen is forever young. The Brantry Boy is immortalised in the mind’s eye as the fiercely determined Tyrone footballer whose mid-season reinvention as a full-back was the missing piece of the jigsaw in 2003.
Four games was all it took for Cormac to nail down the All-Star full-back position.
Tyrone’s calamitous defensive display in the drawn Ulster final against Down had called for clear and decisive action: McAnallen was shunted from midfield to full-back and it speaks for itself that Tyrone only conceded a single goal for the remainder of the campaign.
At the time there was obviously no guarantee that the move would pay dividends, and his personal remit seemed to get more daunting with every game – Down’s Dan Gordon, Fermanagh’s Stephen Maguire, Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan and Armagh’s Steven McDonnell (who had bagged 5-23 over the course of the Championship leading into the All-Ireland Final) were the dangermen he was tasked with handling.
Within the space of a few short months, culminating in Tyrone’s day of days on September 28, 2003, it looked for all the world that McAnallen was destined to become one of the great full-backs. It’s still difficult to parse that his life was cut tragically short when he died in his bedroom at the family home at Eglish on March 2, 2004.
His brother Dónal, who penned a poignant not to mention beautifully written book about Cormac (The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen) says that Tyrone’s All-Ireland Final victory over Armagh twenty years ago today remains a source of genuine pride and happiness.
Dónal said: “Cormac packed so much into those halcyon days, the All-Ireland Final, all those first-time homecomings, touring the county, the trip to Dubai for the team holiday.
“We could never have anticipated that everything would be turned upside down within six months, but I don’t look back on the All-Ireland final anniversary with any regrets per se.
“I remember it as a special occasion, happily sitting in the front row and jumping over the hoarding as soon as the whistle went for full-time.
“I was able to go into the hallowed area of the dressing room. I wouldn’t normally have tried to do so but I had the opportunity that day and I’m glad I did. It was a special moment and remains a special moment.”
He added: “The anniversaries are enmeshed because the All-Ireland win and Cormac’s death happened in a six-month period. As the years pass by and it recedes into the distance, they become closer to each other in a way.
“This is obviously the easier anniversary to reflect upon. It’s a very fond memory to have though it unfortunately fades a little bit with the passing of time”
Dónal also recalls the monumental hype that engulfed the historic all-Ulster meeting of Tyrone and Armagh, and to say Cormac was at the coalface would be an understatement. He taught in St Catherine’s College Armagh and there were constant reminders of the big game, and he wasn’t minded to close the door on the media either.
“There were five weeks between the semi-final and final, an extremely long period, and there was so much media coverage at the time.
“Some people argue that media coverage is better now because of the internet, but it was the absolute high point of print media and there was plenty of broadcast coverage on top of that given the northern teams were doing so well.
“Cormac was probably the most interviewed player on the team, he always went out of his way if he thought the journalist was coming from the right place, and he did several one-on-ones in the lead up to the final.”
He continued: “The game was already massive for the players as it was the first All-Ireland final for the vast majority of the team, but it was especially the case living close to the border.
“There was obviously all the bunting and the coverage that went with the game, and Cormac taught in Armagh so it was a lot to take in.
“When you’re that age in life and there’s so much going on, it all happens so frantically but it was a time like no other really.”
With so much at stake it’s hardly a surprise that the game itself was so claustrophobic and niggly. Tyrone won a low-scoring final by 0-12 to 0-9 but that mattered not a jot as they finally reached the promised land. And Cormac did his bit with a stellar performance on the soon-to-be-crowned player of the year Steven McDonnell, curtailing the Armagh danger-man to only two points. History had been made and his brother Dónal sums up its significance:
“They were the trailblazers. Even though it wasn’t the best game or the best display from Tyrone, it will always be remembered as the first All-Ireland. They won it so unquestionably, with no defeat or need for the back door, but above all else, it will always be remembered as it had been so long-awaited for the people of Tyrone.”