Brian Gormley and Tony Boyle recall Tyrone’s 1994 Ulster Championship win over Donegal

By Alan Rodgers

IT was the summer of 1994. Tyrone hadn’t won an Ulster Championship match for five years while Donegal were emerging from a golden era of success which had seen them win their first ever All-Ireland title.

Breffni Park was the venue for a clash that saw one era begin while another ended. The rain poured, too, as the attraction of this latest clash between the keen north-west rivals brought a bumper attendance to see how things might develop.

Donegal’s team included many veterans. Martin McHugh, Anthony Molloy, Declan Bonner and company had soldiered for the county throughout the past decade. They had also reached the pinnacle of Sam Maguire Cup glory just two years previously.

The Red Hands came to Breffni with a young team boosted by their win over Armagh in the first round. The team included experienced campaigners such as Plunkett Donaghy and Feargal Logan, and newcomers anxious to make their mark including Peter Canavan, Adrian Cush, Paul Donnelly and Eamon McCaffrey.

Among them, too, was Brian Gormley from Carrickmore. What followed on that soggy June day 30 years ago was an emphatic Red Hand win. For Gormley, there was no doubting the significance of the victory for the team as they earned a provincial final place.

“We had reached the National League final in 1992 and sort of flopped a bit against Derry in the championship. It was the bulk of that team which lined out in 1994, Tyrone hadn’t won a first round match for five years and there was new management in place for that year in Art McRory and Eugene McKenna,” said the An Charriag Mhor Naomh Colmcille clubman.

“There was a bit of pressure and probably a little expectation because that was a fairly young team with a mix of more experienced players. Donegal obviously had the bulk of a very good team, but maybe their old players were waning and I think that singled the end for the likes of Martin McHugh who was stretchered off in that game.

“We had a few players like Feargal Logan, Plunkett Donaghy, Stephen Conway and John Lynch. The rest of the team was made up of a few in their mid-20s and then the rest of us who were coming from the u-21 All-Ireland winning teams. It was probably a good mix of players.”

What followed was an emphatic 1-15 to 0-10 victory for Tyrone, and what was described as a watershed moment for Donegal’s fortunes.

A goal from Stephen Lawn after good work from Gormley sealed the victory for Tyrone. It was a day in which the attacking talents of Canavan, Ciaran Loughran, Cush and Gormley shone brightly.

“At that time a lot of people forget that this was knockout football. You might have thought you had a good chance every year, but if you got it wrong on the day or a few things went against you then it was seen as a terrible year,” added the Carmen and Red Hand player.

“For example, we lost to Derry in Celtic Park in 1992 after a very good year and that set in motion a couple of poor years. I had only joined the squad again after missing out on 1993. Every year was different, but you only got one chance and really only focused on the first round.

“Once you get one win, then the confidence levels grow. Donegal were in the same going in with high expectations. Luckily we got the goal from Stephen Lawn which was the difference between the teams.

“The goal came at a good time for us in that we had a lot of energy because probably we were slightly younger. That goal set the tone and we chipped in two or three points immediately after that. Donegal were tiring and Martin McHugh going off was a blow to them.”

Recalling the game from a Donegal perspective, Tony Boyle says that 1994 marked the end of an era for a batch of experienced players who had helped spearhead their All-Ireland title success just two years previously.

The wheels came off the wagon against an energetic Tyrone team, however, and manager Brian McEniff decided to call it quits in the aftermath of the game.

Boyle said: “Brian had been there since 1990 and everyone had felt disappointed with how 1993 had panned out, losing the Ulster final to Derry.

“There were rumblings in the background that the backroom team was going to be changed up but it didn’t happen.

“We still fancied our chances because we had the bulk of the 1992 team, but Tyrone were a coming force and they turned out to be the team that broke up the stranglehold of Donegal, Derry and Down in Ulster.”

Boyle also recalls that Donegal found it nigh-on impossible to get the grips with Tyrone star Canavan, who scored six points on the day in a man of the match performance.

“Peter was in his pomp at that stage, an unbelievable footballer. I bumped into him a few weeks ago, I won two or two Railway Cups with Peter, he’s a great fella.

“I remember we struggled with him big time that day in 1994, he scored six points and Adrian Cush scored four as well. We gave away a goal at the start of the second-half and that knocked any wee chance we still had on its head. It proved the breakup of the 1992 team basically especially with Brian leaving.”

Donegal had appeared in the previous five Ulster finals, a remarkable achievement in hindsight. Boyle was only in his early twenties but he had become accustomed to success. Too accustomed, he now considers.

“I won an All-Ireland in 1992 after making my debut in 1990. I was thinking this must be the way it’s going to be. I missed 1993 through injury then Tyrone beat us in 1994 and we didn’t get back to another Ulster final ‘til 1998. We lost that one to Derry and that team didn’t reach another final after that.

“Sometimes that’s just the way it goes, you can have success early on but it might be the tail-end of that particular squad’s life cycle. That’s the impressive thing about what Jim McGuinness is doing right now, he’s blooded a lot of new players and they stood up to the plate so well last Saturday.”

Tyrone subsequently lost in the Ulster final to a Down team which went on to win their second All-Ireland in three years. However, there were better times ahead for the Red Hands, and two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland final appearance followed in 1995 and 1996.

Canavan went on to lead the county to All-Ireland glory for the first time just seven years later, and Tyrone’s curve has remained consistently high in the All-Ireland stakes during the subsequent decades.

Gormley said: “Five or six teams in Ulster had the same level of confidence at that time, as evidenced by the Sam Maguire success in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. They all thought if they could win Ulster then they would have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland and there was a real high.

“Probably at that stage we maybe under-estimated how good a Down team that was. A similar team with another few players came in for them. It was a tough competition to win at that time.”

Thirty years on, Tyrone and Donegal will meet in another Ulster Championship semi-final this Sunday. The names have changed but the sense of rivalry between these two latter day giants of Ulster football remains undiluted all these years later.

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