Art: The man who spearheaded the Tyrone football revival

IT was rather poignant in the week that Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher were ratified to remain on as Tyrone senior joint managers, that their distinguished predecessor Art McRory should pass away.

The current management team are just two of hundreds of players down through the years to have benfitted from the astute guidance and sagacity of the legendary Dungannon man, during their time lining out in teams that he managed.

Art McRory was a person who more than anyone else spearheaded Tyrone’s rise from the depths of inter-county struggle to the pinnacle of Croke Park on All-Ireland Senior final day on two occasions.

Up to his death last week he still burned with the same pride and passion for the fortunes of a county that has been his life in the GAA.

His involvement stretches away back to 1958 when he debuted on the county minor team. In the sixties he represented the seniors and won an All-Ireland Junior medal in 1968. But it’s as a manager that he really made an impact.

Starting with the historic 1956 Ulster title win and ending right up to date Art’s story was at the centre of sporting life in Tyrone over the past fifty years and longer.

In an extensive interview with the Tyrone Herald back in 2021, he said that his interest in Gaelic football was nutured as a boy growing up in Dungannon.

“I recall the (Tyrone) 1956 and 1957 teams vividly, and even before that too going back to 1950. There was a guy in town here who ran a bus to Tyrone matches and I used to get on the bus. I usually paid nothing, the bus would be leaving and I’d be hanging around the steps of the bus when he’d say to get in,” he recalls.

Tyrone failed to build on those milestone successes but by the late sixties the wind of change was blowing and it was the promptings and action of men like Art which led to the establishment of a Tyrone Vocational Schools team for the first time in 1967.

Within months they were All-Ireland champions. In the previous 10 years just the Ulster Minor League title had been won, in 1960. The next decade would see three All-Ireland Vocational Schools successes, seven Ulster Minors and one All-Ireland Minor from three final appearances. The conveyor belt was finally in action, things would never be the same again and Art was right at the centre.

“I was a PE teacher and didn’t need any other motivation to become involved. You were trying to coach football and the Vocational Schools business came out of the blue. It was Mickey Brewster I think who was the first man to suggest the idea,” he added.

“It was a very successful move because it gave these young boys a target and definitely was the envy of a lot of the grammar schools, who did not have this target of wearing a county jersey and playing in Croke Park.

“There is no doubt that a progression took place to the minors. Donal Donnelly was manager of the Minors who won the All-Ireland in 1973 and I was with him. I have a theory about youth football which says you need a team that can go as far as a final, should that be a county final or an Ulster or All-Ireland final.

“They need to be good enough to win it, but winning it isn’t essential. If they win it they’re very hard to talk to, if they’re beat they realise they know there’s something to learn.

“I think losing finals doesn’t do one bit of harm to clubs because it lets them see they’ve work to do and to get on with it.”

While the 1970s were generally bleak for Tyrone GAA aside from an Ulster Senior title in 1973, things changed in the early stages of the following decade. The appointment of Art as senior manager heralded a new era, and things would never be the same again. Within 10 years, Tyrone had contested five provincial finals, won three titles and reached the All-Ireland final for the very first time.

“I was asked in 1980 to take the seniors and I was quite happy to take the job on. There was a big learning curve for the management and players at that stage. We were too short I think then, but I was fit to draw on my knowledge of the minors in the seventies.”

One of the top memories came with an Ulster title in the Centenary Year of the GAA (1984). Frank McGuigan’s eleven points from play in the Ulster final are legendary.

The big breakthrough year though was in 1986. Another Anglo-Celt title was sealed and the campaign reached a highpoint in August when a Kevin McCabe penalty sealed victory in the All-Ireland senior semi-final against Galway. The dream of reaching an All-Ireland final was fulfilled, and the Red Hands supporters were very much living the dream as the countdown to the ‘Long Watched Day’ began.

This was new and groundbreaking and the pressures of preparation were lost in the sideshows around the big day.

“The problem was no-one was prepared for an All-Ireland final. This was the stuff of dreams. The county board weren’t prepared, and we had no idea of the ramifications involved and all the rubbish that goes around it,” rememebed Art.

“Without doubt, the euphoria took away from us on the day. The thing was nonsense. You had boys attending functions, but Brendan Harkin was county chairman and he was pulling things together competently and capably.”

Paudge Quinn’s goal early in the second half put Tyrone seven points ahead against Kerry in the final. Hopes were high that the All-Ireland breakthrough was finally imminent. Then injuries to Eugene McKenna and John Lynch struck, Kerry came back and Tyrone were denied.

“People forget that in 1986 we went to the All-Ireland final without two of the greatest players this county has ever produced – number one Frank McGuigan and number two Patsy Kerlin.”

After 1986, a decade elapsed under the management of first Donal Donnelly and then John Donnelly before Tyrone returned to the Sam Maguire showdown. By then, Art was back as manager, this time alongside his great captain of 1986, Eugene McKenna.

A new team had emerged and the win over Derry in the 1995 Ulster semi-final was very special indeed for Art. The final was reached again.

“In 1995 we were a year too early and I knew it. I had a very reputable man that year closely associated with the GAA and he asked me what our chances were. But he told me I’d be disappointed. I said ‘do you think so’ and he answered ‘I know so.’

“He said Dublin need an All-Ireland and they’ll get it and it came to pass. At that stage Tyrone weren’t taken seriously. Peter Quinn in Croke Park from 1991 until 1994 made sure northern people got their proper respect due to them. If he’d been there in 1995 and 1996, it might have been a different story.”

Defeat to Meath in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final marked another bitter disappointment. Five years elapsed before Art and Eugene were back for another tilt. By then they were introducing many of the players who would go on to secure such glory in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

“Don’t forget that in 2002 we won the National League.

” If you’re capable of doing that then you’re capable of winning the All-Ireland. We felt it was there to be won,” he added.

“I was obviously disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to take that team on through. But circumstances conspired against me being involved. I had to pull the pin and one of the reasons was that I might have been a distraction and I couldn’t give it what was needed and was better away.

“I would like to have gone a way with them. The main thing was that they won the title.”

Tyrone have now won four Sam Maguires, the latter with two of Art’s proteges as joint managers.

A lifetime of memories and unrivalled experience informed his thoughts on Tyrone GAA. A lifetime of following Tyrone through the good and bad days.

Arthur McRory spent his life in the GAA. From travelling to those matches by bus in the 1950s, to beginning his inter-county career with Tyrone at minor level in 1958, then the management years and finally in recent times watching from a distance.

The belief that he put in place has served the Red Hands well.

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