By Alan Rodgers
TWO decades on and the scene which greeted Kevin Hughes in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle on that fateful day in September 2003 is still etched on his memory.
Thousands of fans were converging onto the Croke Park pitch. The Killeeshil clubman managed to get the ideal vantage point to witness the amazing joy which was greeting Tyrone’s 0-12 to 0-9 victory in the All-Ireland final. He remembers, too, the sheer relief he felt as the enormity of what the Red Hands had just achieved began to sink in.
Now, 20 years all those memories are still fresh. Peter Canavan’s famous speech on the Hogan Stand, standing with the Sam Maguire in the middle of the circle in the training area of the dressing-room afterwards, the homecoming to Omagh, taking the Cup to his St Mary’s clubrooms, and to his family. All those special moments, and the dreams which came through on September 28, 2003.
“The lasting memory for me is almost that time when the whistle goes and you experience the relief and euphoria of getting over the line,” says the player affectionately known as ‘Hub’
“I remember the delight on people’s faces, the pitch invasion, going up the steps of the Hogan Stand and listening to Peter’s speech. Everything after that is just everything that you could imagine from being a wee lad kicking the ball against the gable of the house playing for your school and club and dreaming of playing for Tyrone in Croke Park and winning the All-Ireland.
“It was just remarkable and everything you could ever savour. You never get to savour or enjoy things during the game because there’s a red heat battle, you’re in the trenches, helping your teammates. Then just after the whistle, there is that 30 seconds where you’re hugging the players, being respectful and shaking hands with the Armagh boys.
“I made my way over to the Hogan Stand and myself and Brian McGuigan stood up on the hoarding. We had a small aerial view of the fans going out onto the pitch. There was a time when I kind of thought that this was the pinnacle of where we wanted to go. There was a sense for a few minutes where you could take it in and could just lap it up and enjoy that moment.”
For Hughes and his teammates, those moments represented a culmination of a journey which stretched back decades, and gathered serious momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The All-Ireland Minor and U-21 triumphs of 1998, 2000 and 2001, the National League success of 2002 and 2003 and the Ulster success of 2001 all instilled confidence and belief.
Of course, the last steps of that journey to the historic Sam Maguire Cup success were not without their stumbles. Sligo defeated Tyrone in the 2002 All-Ireland Qualifier, and then there was the dramatic comeback and revival against Down in the 2003 provincial decider.
All of this built towards the All-Ireland final against the reigning champions from Armagh. Their victory over Kerry in the 2002 decider had proved Tyrone with a major incentive, and the fact that this was the first all-Ulster final and featured two traditionally great rivals only added to the intrigue as the big day approached.
“We had made great strides in the couple of years before 2003 under Art (McRory) and Eugene (McKenna) and that was a great start. Peter and the older lads had won the Ulster titles in 1995 and 1996 and 2001 was our first taste as the younger generation coming into the senior panel,” he adds.
“Then in 2002 we won the National League which was Tyrone’s first national title. So, there were good stepping stones and foundations. In our minds, we thought we weren’t far away and then obviously there was that bad day against Sligo in 2002.
“That game really hurt because we thought we were making good strides and then to watch Armagh go on and win it after that there was always a sense among the players that we were very close.
“Mickey came in and we just picked up where we’d left of. The underlying belief was always there, but the Down drawn game where we came from nine points down to level and then went three down and came back. The replay was won in such commanding style and you thought we’re on the right track here.
“With Tyrone and Kerry, we had never really got over the line with them. There was a sense of going in believing that we could cause an upset. When that game was won, we believed that there was one more step and we could win the All-Ireland.”
Hughes won the prestigious Man of the Match award for his performance in that 2003 All-Ireland final. Individual awards, as he quickly points out, were never a target. Instead, it was all about the team and in the 20 years that have passed since that famous day, the Red Hand players have left an important legacy.
It’s one which has generated a huge belief among subsequent generations of young players in the Red Hand County, and inspired them to emulate their ground-breaking achievements which reached such an historic height on that fateful day in 2003.