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In Focus: Colm McCullagh – Standing up to be counted

IT was always going to be nigh on impossible to slip into Tyrone’s stacked forward six in 2005, but Colm McCullagh decided nevertheless that he had enough of sitting on the sidelines.

With Canavan, O’Neill, ‘Mugsy’, Dooher and McGuigan knocking around the place, it was a major challenge for a relative newcomer to the intercounty scene like McCullagh to force his way into consideration.The only game-time he accrued en route to their second All-Ireland title in three years was a cursory five-minute spell in an Ulster Championship semi-final replay rout of Cavan.

On a personal level, it was obviously brilliant to get the opportunity to lift the Sam Maguire – McCullagh was drafted into the panel in 2004, and he’d done the exact same work as the training pitch as everyone else, after all – but he was left questioning his intercounty future.

So when 2006 rolled around, he gave Mickey Harte his answer; sorry Mickey, but I’m leaving the panel. It was this simple – sitting on the bench watching Stephen O’Neill ping over the points from all angles was great and all, but it wasn’t enough to motivate him to go through all the toil of training for another year.

Of course, we all know that wasn’t the end of McCullagh’s story as a Tyrone a player.  Harte went personally to his place of work at the Ecclesville Centre in Fintona to ask him back after they could only muster a draw against Louth in a backdoor Qualifier later that year.

McCullagh was only too happy to oblige – with Canavan retired and McGuigan sidelined with injury, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there was an opening, and he picked up the Man of the Match award in the replay.

For the next few years, he would be one of their most important players – stick in the DVD of Tyrone’s All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Dublin in 2008 and you’ll see that he was involved, in some capacity, in practically every score that either rattled the net or sailed over Stephen Cluxton’s head.

And that’s without mentioning a star-studded career with Dromore, an entire story in itself; three championship and seven league medals is some haul, and he was the leading actor in one of the most dramatic club championship moments in memory, hitting a winning penalty with the last kick of the game in the 2009 final against Ardboe.

But back to where it all started. McCullagh was in the same class as fellow Dromore legend Ryan McMenamin at St John’s secondary school (“’Ricey’s’ the best. We were best mates really. He got a reputation as the years went on, but off the field he’s very civil”).

His next move was to study for a BTECH at Enniskillen Technical College, where he won an All-Ireland Vocationals title in 1996 alongside fellow Dromore youngster Paul McGirr, who tragically died while playing for Tyrone minors a year later.

McCullagh first tried out at minor level for Tyrone in 1995 but never made the cut, and he attended trials for the senior team in 2001 while Art McRory and Eugene McKenna were in charge.

He didn’t feature any further after sustaining a broken hand in club football, but he was earning a reputation for himself as a skilful soccer player.

McCullagh played a junior international with Northern Ireland in a tournament in the Isle of Man, and signed for Omagh Town in the Irish League Premier Division, ending up as club captain in 2003.

All the while he still harboured aspirations of representing Tyrone, who won the All-Ireland title for the first time in their history the very same year.

“I was waiting until I got the call, I suppose. I still had aspirations of playing for the county but I just never got a call for a trial during that period. It was frustrating when things didn’t work out in 2001, I went in at the start of the year but a broken hand ruled me out when the panel was being selected.”

He had mixed emotions watching from the terraces as Tyrone mounted a memorable comeback against Down in the 2003 Ulster final before destroying them in the replay, but by the time the All-Ireland final came round, he was just hoping they’d get across the line.

“’Ricey’ got me tickets for the final. I was in the Hogan stand with Joe Campbell. Like everyone else, I just wanted them to get over the line, but I remember watching the Ulster final in Clones, and thinking I’d love to be involved, I’d love to be out on that pitch.”

It wasn’t long before his prayers were answered; McCullagh was drafted into the 2004 panel, scoring 2-10 in the McKenna Cup alone. He had no real choice but to forgo his soccer career (Mickey Harte said at the time that “there had to be a choice at county level. I don’t believe you can handle both games at that level”) and he was initially only too happy to oblige.

Unfortunately, the McKenna Cup campaign proved to be something of a high water-mark for McCullagh that year.

Captain Cormac McAnallen passed away on March 2, less than a fortnight after captaining the side to their McKenna Cup final victory over Donegal, which was obviously a massive blow to everyone, while McCullagh had to be content to play a bit-part role during the league and championship season.

“I did well in the McKenna Cup but it was just hard to nail down a place on the team at that stage because of the calibre of playing. There’s times I thought I should’ve been involved more, but I just wasn’t so I had to bite my tongue and get on with things. It was hard sitting back and not being involved those two years.

“I always felt there was maybe one place in the forward line that could’ve been mine. There were four or five certs but I still felt I could’ve been squeezed in.”

Tyrone embarked on a 10-game journey to the top in 2005; epic encounters against Dublin and Armagh culminated in a note perfect performance against Kerry in the final in front of 82,000 people.

McCullagh watched on from the bench as all six of Tyrone’s starting forwards scored from play, and while it was great just to be involved, it wasn’t in the capacity he’d have chosen for himself.

Asked if he has vivid memories of collecting Sam, he said: “I remember going up and lifting it surely. It was still great, and you’d done the same work as everyone else, but I’d be the type of person that if you don’t play that same part, it’s just not the same feeling. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great honour and nice to win it, but when you’re not playing you just don’t get the same kick out of it.”

McCullagh mulled over his options, and decided there was no point hanging around if game-time wasn’t forthcoming. He returned to soccer, playing half-a-season with Newry Town under his old Omagh Town boss Roy McCreadie, but it wasn’t long before he was back with Tyrone.

“I wasn’t getting many opportunities to play so when I was asked back at the start of 2006, I said I wasn’t going back because I didn’t want to sit on the bench.

“I was missing out on club football and could earn a few pound playing a bit of soccer, so I decided to leave the panel, and Mickey understood.

“Tyrone were cursed by injuries that year, and after drawing away to Louth, Mickey came to the Ecclesville Centre on the Monday night, and asked if I’d come back to training the next evening.

“They were a bit short on numbers so I came back and I enjoyed it actually, I got Man of the Match against Louth in the replay.”

McCullagh had a decent year in 2007, even though their championship campaign came to an abrupt end against Meath in a forgettable All-Ireland quarter-final outing. He says he always felt at home on the Tyrone team, even though he wasn’t part of the core grouping that emerged from the 1997/8 minor team.

“I always felt a part of it. One thing about that group is that there were some great characters in it, some great lads and they made you feel welcome.

“Everyone was in it together and I couldn’t speak a bad word about any of them. There was a great togetherness and we had good craic as well. I’d have been friendly with Brian McGuigan, ‘Hub’  (Kevin Hughes), Shane Sweeney and fellas like that – ‘Ricey’ as well obviously.”

While he was still named in the corner-forward position in 2008, in reality he was the team’s playmaker. Brian McGuigan was no longer an automatic starter after coming back from two career-threatening injuries – a broken leg and a dreadful eye injury – and McCullagh turned out to be a natural fit for the role. While he admired McGuigan, he can’t say he modelled his game on him either.

“I’m not sure I’d say I learnt from him as such. I suppose I picked up and bits and pieces. I loved watching Brian. He was a joy to watch, but I was confident in myself and what I was doing. That playmaker role suited me and I got a clean run at it in 2008.

“I was friendly with Marty Penrose and Tommy McGuigan and we got our opportunity that year. ‘Mugsy’ wasn’t in form and Stevie O’Neill had left the panel, and obviously Canavan wasn’t about. We had the jerseys and we were taking our opportunities.”

Tyrone stuttered through the Qualifiers after losing an Ulster Championship replay to Down at Pairc Esler. They overcame Mayo by a point in a dogged, low-quality affair in their fourth round Qualifier at Croke Park, so there was little indication of what was to come.

They were written off by the media ahead of their quarter-final against Pauk ‘Pillar’  Caffrey’s Dublin, and McCullagh says that motivated the Tyrone players to go out and prove a point to the rest of the country – does two All-Irelands in the previous five years count for nothing?

“We’d been through the Qualifiers and the games were coming thick and fast. We knew everyone was writing us off before the Dublin game and that was something that Tyrone team wasn’t used to, and I think we used that to our advantage. It was set up perfectly for us.

“Mickey spoke about it but the players had in the back of their heads anyway – the best type of players are like that anyway, when their backs are against the wall they’ll come out fighting. On top of that we were in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin, so that’s motivating in itself.”

McCullagh had a fantastic game in torrential conditions as he pulled the strings in Tyrone. He had a direct hand in Davy Harte’s second-half goal, which well and truly ended any hopes of a Dublin comeback, and he hit three points from play, including two first-half efforts from an identikit position under the Cusack Stand.

“That was just an accident really, I just found myself out there. It was one of those days where everything clicked, not just for myself but for the team. It was a real wet day, we were on the front-foot from the start and never looked back. Everything we did came off for us, we all had good games.”

McCullagh quips that they might have had to stay in Dublin had they lost their All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford. Tyrone raced into a 0-11 to 0-2 lead in the first-half, and although their opponents battled hard in the second half, there was only ever going to be one winner. The Dromore man had another superb game and won the Man of the Match award as a result.

CLUB CLASS….Colm McCullagh made history with Dromore

“The roles had reversed after beating Dublin, we were the big favourites. I suppose we were always in control of the game. Ciaran Lyng  got  a second-half goal and closed the gap a bit but we pulled away again.

“Being honest you’d have been kicking yourself if you lost to Wexford in the semi-final of the All-Ireland. If we were beaten we might have had to stay in Dublin for a while.”

There was a three-week gap before the All-Ireland against Kerry, who were aiming for their third title in-a-row. McCullagh said he always enjoyed the big occasions, and tried not to let the whole experience overwhelm him.

“I suppose you get used to it. I had the experience of the 2005 final even if I wasn’t playing. Whenever Dromore or Tyrone were doing well, everyone wanted to talk about it and you try to get the conversation over without saying too much.

“But people are just wishing you well really, and the whole reason you play football is to play in games like that. So I looked forward to it and enjoyed the big crowds. Even just playing in Croke Park is a dream and something you wish you could do every week.”

McCullagh was a nailed-on starter at that stage, but could’ve been forgiven for feeling some trepidation when Stephen O’Neill made a dramatic return to the panel a fortnight before the All-Ireland final. However, there was no dissent when the team met to discuss his return.

“I’d no gripes about it at all. Stevie’s a quiet and modest fella and had given so much to Tyrone at underage and adult level.

“I think we had the meeting in Paudge Quinn’s and it was settled fairly quickly. There was a bit of a discussion but we were just making sure everyone was happy about it. It was fairly black and white to be honest, there was no real dissent. I remember ‘Mugsy’ spoke up, he was the most vocal about it.”

The week leading up to the final was difficult enough for McCullagh – his wife’s father died on the Tuesday, and goalkeeper John Devine’s dad passed away on the eve of the match. In terms of tactical preparations, he says he was completely sure of his own remit at that stage.

“My specific role hadn’t changed from any of the games leading up to the final. I was starting in the inside forward line and then drifting out between the 45 and the D area. Mickey obviously did a lot of analysis, but he kept it fairly simple for everyone, each player knew their own individual role.”

While Tyrone won the day with a 1-15 to 0-14 victory over the Kingdom, McCullagh had to be taken off in the 25th minute with a dead leg after an accidental clash with Declan O’Sullivan. It was possibly the losing of an All-Star for him, but he says that sort of thing never interested him.

“I remember getting a dream start that day. I got a free from 21 yards in the first minute and tapped it over, and I’d a few plays after that.

“I clashed with Declan O’Sullivan on the 20-yard line and his knee caught me on the thigh, and I knew right away I was going to struggle to shake it off. I tried to run it off for four or five minutes, the physio was on twice, but I couldn’t get the full movement back.

“I knew my time was up. It was gutting, it really was, for it to happen so early in the game. The game was fast, it was high tempo, and I felt I was starting to get into the swing of it when I got injured.

“I was nominated for an All-Star but I wasn’t overly bothered about missing out. It’d be nice to get one but it wouldn’t be something that would claw at me.”

On the whole though, he still has fond memories of the 2008 season, and with good reason.

“I loved 2008, it was obviously the highlight of my county career. The likes of myself, Tommy and Marty took our chance. We were underdogs ourselves and had a point to prove, the responsibility was on our shoulders when we didn’t have Canavan or O’Neill, and I felt we took our opportunity. It’s something you can take great pride in.”

McCullagh was already 30 at that stage, and between injury and advancing age, he fell down the pecking order again before retiring in November 2010.

“In 2009 I cracked my ribs against Cork in a league match. I ran into big Noel O’Leary of all people in the first half, and I was struggling to breathe and came off early in the second half. I was out for about six weeks and then got another bang in the ribs in a club game after coming back too early. I ended up missing about three and-a-half months in total.

“By the end of 2010 I knew my time was up for the county. I wanted to leave and Mickey left it up to myself.

“Whenever you’re involved with something like that, it’s hard to let go. You know that it’s really the end so you want to make the right decision. Your head sometimes knows you’ve got another year but when you do a bit of training you realise you haven’t. I knew I didn’t have the legs anymore for county football.”

He remained a hugely important player on the Dromore team which won three O’Neill Cups in five years between 2007 and 2009, an achievement which looks all the more remarkable with the passing of time. They won the Tyrone Senior Championship for the first time in their history in 2007, thrashing Coalisland on a cathartic, dream-fulfilling day for the club, and didn’t look back.

“I’d put the club success before the county success to be honest. We hadn’t won a championship in our history, so it was a bit similar to Tyrone’s story.

“We made the breakthrough in 2007, winning the double that year. We reached the final again in 2008 but were beaten by a 45 in extra-time against Clonoe.

“I was captain when we won the championship in 2009, and I think people thought we were finished when we were well-beaten by Carrickmore in 2010 but we bounced back and won the final in 2011. We were in the final five times in six years and won the double in 2007 and 2011, which no-one in Tyrone has done since.”

Their last-ditch victory over Ardboe was particularly memorable as McCullagh nailed a penalty with the last kick of the game, securing a one-point victory in dramatic circumstances. Brian and Tommy McGuigan made a point of congratulating the Dromore skipper, even though it had been a stomach-churning defeat for the Loughshore crew.

“You couldn’t write it really, to be captain that year and win it with a penalty in the last minute of the game. It wasn’t the best penalty in the world but it hit the net anyway.

“I was very friendly with Brian and Tommy from playing with Tyrone obviously. I didn’t see them after the game as the pitch was invaded, but before I got back to Dromore both of them had texted me congratulations. It was a sore one for them to take so it shows the measure of those men. Things like that still stick with me.”

The stars seemed to align for Dromore during that period as a talented young group of players gelled with the more experienced heads, but the managers and coaches also played a significant role in their success.

“Younger lads like Sean O’Neill, Cathal McCarron and Shane McMahon and gave the older group of players a bit of a lift. Kevin O’Neill and Pat McCusker managed us for a number of years. They did great work with Ryan Porter, who was with us for 10  years and was very important to the set-up.

“He brought serious professionalism and ideas to training.

“Noel McGinn took us to our first championship in 2007, he brought a freshness. Seamus Goodwin was manager with Ryan in 2009 and did good work, then Paul McIver brought it to a new level again.”

McCullagh played his last game for Dromore when he was thrown on in the latter stages of their Division One final victory over Killyclogher in 2016. He modestly attributes that to sentiment from their manager at the time, Ciaran Meenagh, but it was still nice to crown his career with a seventh league medal.

He’s now entering his second season as Dromore manager, and he has plenty of talent at his disposal as their u-21 team won the Ulster Championship in early 2019. He also says it isn’t a strange experience managing former teammates like Eoin McCusker and Niall Sludden.

“I’d been pulled in a few teams after managements left after the championship, to help see it out until the end of the year. Then whenever Ciaran Meenagh stepped away, the club asked me if I’d be comfortable taking it on myself.

“It was easy to manage the boys I played with, and I suppose there were a lot of lads I didn’t know as well and I’m still getting to know their way of doing things.

“We’re trying to build again. To get that win over Omagh in last year’s championship was a step in the right direction, then against Errigal we were a point up with a minute to go and conceded two points in injury time.

“We were beaten in the league final on penalties as well. It’s a work in-progress at the moment but we’re hoping the younger lads coming through will be around and help bring us back to where we’d like to be.”

Reflecting back on his playing days, however, he says it was a privilege to be part of such successful Dromore and Tyrone teams. He never took it for granted – but what he wouldn’t give to be in the thick of it once again, winning medal after medal after medal.

“We were all in a bit of a bubble but I have to say I did appreciate it. Looking back I’d love to do it all again. I enjoyed the success – those eight years between 2003 and 2011 was really when everything was won, it was unbelievable for both club and county. I’ve great memories from it all.”

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