It has been 20 years since Errigal Ciaran were Kings of Ulster and former defender Barry O’Donnell looks back on their journey….
By Michael McMullan
ERRIGAL Ciaran had weathered the early storm. After trailing by three points before raising a flag themselves, the champions were back to within a point at the break and would have the wind at their backs for the second half.
The 2001 Tyrone senior decider was showing early signs of Errigal having enough to keep their hands on the O’Neill Cup.
It all changed when Peter Loughran’s free dropped in around the house where Dermot Loughran picked up the loose ball before burying beyond goalkeeper Cathal McAnenly from close range for the game’s defining score.
The goal-scorer was dismissed three minutes later, but with Conor Gormley limiting Peter Canavan’s influence on proceedings, Carrickmore were able to keep their noses in front.
Losing hurts. Losing a final is worse. And to your neighbours, it leaves that feeling over the winter even rawer. Of the nine times the great rivals met in the a decider, including two replays, it was Errigal’s second loss.
“That was a sore one,” Barry O’Donnell remembers. “We were not going to experience that again.
“That was the mind-set and whenever Mickey (Harte) came in, it was reinforced even further that it wasn’t going to happen again.”
After taking an underage team from u-12 to u-21 – that included players like his son Mark, Barry O’Donnell and Damien Neill – it was Harte’s only year in charge before taking over the Tyrone senior post in November 2002 days before the third game of their Ulster trilogy with Crossmaglen.
The ethos was a positive one. Much like his approach with the Red Hands, it was all about fully switching on for the next game under your nose. It laid down a marker for the year ahead.
“When I think back to that year, it is with very warm memories and a great sense of satisfaction that we went through the entire season unbeaten – in league and championship,” recalls O’Donnell, who was part of Errigal’s winning management team this year under a joint ticket of his brother Adrian and Mark Harte.
“That was down to the approach that was adopted from the top, from Mickey Harte, that we contest every competition with everything that we have.
“That bore fruit at the end of the season, we were league champions, we were county champions and we were Ulster Club champions, so that message set its way through the team in that regard.”
Their campaign started off in Moy with a preliminary round win over Kildress in May before months passed until their first round win over Moortown with Peter Canavan hitting five points in an eight-point win.
With the county players offside, it worked in the club’s favour. Others stepped up and the week-on-week nature of club helped the overall progress of team.
“It was only deemed as a positive in our eyes,” said O’Donnell, one of the players not on the county scene. “Everybody was getting competitive football and it was feeding into the competition for places on a weekly basis.”
Their quarter-final with Moy was nip and tuck until Sean Cavanagh picked up an injury in a collision with Peter Loughran and Errigal pulled away for a 2-18 to 0-8 win as the momentum began to gather.
“We moved on to a semi-final with Trillick and it was a rip roaring game,” O’Donnell continues.
“It was very high scoring, there were 28 scores in total and 23 of them might have been from play. It was quite open and Trillick were quite a strong team as well.”
A Peter Canavan goal steadied the winners’ ship in the second half before his brother Pascal added a second to seal their passage to a final with Killyclogher who would bounce back from a 1-9 to 1-7 defeat to take the 2003 title.
“There wasn’t much between the two teams,” O’Donnell explains of a game that sparked into life in the second half.
“It was a real battle and there were a few crunching tackles, I was on the end of one myself.”
Two frees from Ciaran Carland tied the game at 0-5 each before Martin Cochrane’s fisted goal had Killyclogher in the lead after they had threatened a goal earlier.
Errigal replied with points to settle them before Peter Canavan blasted home the clinching goal. Pascal was involved before Adrian O’Donnell drew three defenders and passed to Peter in space who gave ‘keeper Mark O’Kane no chance. The cup was on its way back to Ballygawley.
“They are memories you look back on very fondly and we’re very proud to have banked them,” Barry O’Donnell said. “There is a great sense of pride to be able to say you were part of it.”
With the streets sealed off, the victorious team was paraded from the roundabout to the top of the town for a hero’s welcome from their supporters.
But was only the start, as Errigal began their march towards their second Ulster title after bringing it home in 1993.
A mammoth campaign began with a visit of Crossmaglen who had three All-Ireland titles to their name under Joe Kernan. It was only the first installment of three games that will live long in the memory of everyone in Errigal.
“We had the history and we knew we had the ability to beat them in the past,” O’Donnell said, referring to their 1997 win when Eoin Gormley hit all but three points of their tally as they ended Crossmaglen’s reign as Ulster and All-Ireland champions.
“We knew they were beatable and it was going to take a massive effort and obviously took the three games to do it.”
Cross were seven points ahead with Peter Canavan forced off with a dead leg. Mark Harte hit 1-7 with Eoin Gormley adding a second goal before a hobbling Canavan returned from the bench to set up Gormley for a wonder score in a draw that helped force a replay.
Oisin McConville kicked Cross into a 1-8 to 0-2 interval lead in front of close to 10,000 fans before Errigal came back from the dead again.
With the gap back to four points, a high ball was won by Peter Canavan against the towering Paul Hearty before he slotted to the net from the tightest of angles and the saga was heading towards another Sunday, this time in Clones where the rest of Errigal’s campaign would unfurl.
On the Thursday before the game, Harte was unveiled as the new Tyrone manager, something that had zero impact on his role with Errigal.
“It was no distraction,” O’Donnell firmly stated. “We knew we were involved in a titanic battle with the former All-Ireland champions.
“There was no shift in the focus, it was exactly the same approach with the players and Mickey, so it had no real bearing on anything.
“You could see that in the third game in Clones. Again, we went down early on in the match and we dug out a win at the third time of asking.”
An early goal from the late James Hughes had the Armagh men in front once again, but there was no stopping Errigal and when Peter Loughran sent a pass over the top, Peter Canavan latched onto possession before slotting under Hearty to cap off a 1-5 haul in a three-point victory.
“If you are talking about memories of 2002, those three games stand tall and certainly are three of the best games I have ever been involved in,” O’Donnell said.
“We were able to dig in, get our shoulders to the wheel and grind out a result against an exceptionally strong Crossmaglen team.”
“The campaign was such a run and everything about it was positive with us being unbeaten, but that’s the trilogy everybody wants to go to.
“They were epic battles, tough encounters. There were some amazing scores; some very hard-hitting tackles.”
It was an era when both clubs supplied players to the Tyrone and Armagh teams at the cutting end of the race for Sam, but a statement from Pascal Canavan rang in the ears of the Errigal collective.
“He told us that to do what we needed to do, we needed the county players playing well and the club players playing even better,” O’Donnell recalls.
“That’s the good mix we had, some good club players playing better than the county men. It was a bit of a potent mix in terms of the hunger and desire that was about.
“There was mix of age brackets, the experienced and the non-experienced and it all came together very well.”
If beating Crossmaglen was an achievement, it got no easier with reigning All-Ireland champions Ballinderry now standing in their way of an Ulster final spot. Errigal were again underdogs, something they were beginning to thrive on.
“They had some savage attackers up front and were very strong at the back as well. It took everything we had to dethrone them,” O’Donnell said of a day Errigal held the Shamrocks to just four points.
Gerard Cassidy and Declan Bateson scored both Ballinderry goals in the All-Ireland final win over Nemo Rangers that year and O’Donnell picked up the man of the match award for spells marking both players.
“I always remember that, it was in the Irish News…it was a pleasing thing to look back on and it’s one game that stands out for me personally,” he said.
Learning from Mickey Harte as manager is one thing, but O’Donnell’s tussles with Peter Canavan in training would prepare a forward for anything.
“Yeah, that’s where I did all my learning,” Barry offers. “Peter was a ferocious competitor whether it was training in Dunmoyle or an All-Ireland final in Croke Park, it didn’t matter.
“He was the complete competitor and that’s whu he is renowned as he is today.”
Waiting in the final was an Enniskillen Gaels team in the middle of six successive Fermanagh titles and who had beaten Bellaghy in the 1999 campaign.
Rory Judge hit the net for the Gaels, with John Devine making a save to deny Ollie McShea paving the way for man of the match Paul Horisk and Enda McGinley to add insurance points.
Later that night, the lorry container at the top of Ballygawley street was bouncing with the stamping Errigal feet to the tune of “we are Ulster champions” as Seamus McFerran glistened in the night sky.
“It was great to get over the line after everything we had been through. The celebrations, there was a lot of euphoria on the pitch and back in the town,” O’Donnell remembers of the magical scenes.
“It was a mammoth campaign, filled with highs and lows. We had a few supporters during the first two Crossmaglen games who might have left a bit early to beat the traffic and have regretted it since,” he joked.
But, just as in their previous All-Ireland series (1993/94), Nemo Rangers came knocking and this time on the back of losing back to back All-Ireland finals.
With players like Colin Corkery, Stephen O’Brien and Derek Kavanagh, it was a step up. Despite playing against the breeze, Alan Cronin’s goal had Nemo 1-3 to 0-1 ahead after 18 minutes and on their way to a four-point win.
Looking back, O’Donnell can now appreciate the season and the titles they won. But in that moment, defeat cuts deep with Nemo two points to the good in the final against Crossmolina.
“You want to keep winning, that was bred into us from u-12,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to instill in the youth of the parish as they move up the ranks.
“Winning Ulster, we confident we could beat Nemo and were very, very disappointed we didn’t. It’s a long way back to that level and a lot of water under the bridge to get back to that.”
It was a special era. Togetherness was everything and cliques were non-existent. It was all about Errigal.
“The older boys like Peter and Pascal were equally involved in the craic with the younger boys who’d have been trucking up and down to Belfast to college,” O’Donnell said of the spirit in the camp.
Everybody on that team is very much involved in the club. Emmett McGinley is now chairman, with the O’Donnell brothers and Mark Harte involved with their latest championship win.
There are similarities between the 2002 group and the present day. The attacking flair, the mixture of ages and the emotion that winning reveals.
“There were great scenes of joy and it felt like the first time we won it this year, with the 10-year gap,” O’Donnell said.
“The amount of work that goes into lifting the O’Neill Cup, or any cup at that level, is massive. There is a lot of time invested in it; there is a lot of buy-in by families.
“There are various things going in in people’s lives that are more important than football, but football does take on a life of its own at times.”
He’d tell the current squad of how it puts smiles on faces and shortens the winter.
When Joe McQuillan throws the ball in at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday, the Errigal men of 2002 will rewind the clock to those days in Omagh, Crossmaglen and Clones when the best the of the rest couldn’t break them.