By Niall Gartland
MEET the new Tyrone hurling manager, Stephen McGarry from Ballycastle – but while we say ‘new’, he’s hardly been plucked out of thin air.
Over the course of the last three years, McGarry regularly took the 90-minute trip from Ballycastle to Garvaghey alongside manager Michael McShane, who stepped down at the end of their Christy Ring Cup campaign back in May.
From here on in there’ll be an empty passenger seat as the erstwhile assistant has taken the plunge and gone for the main gig. And why not? It had been a memorable few campaigns, and while Damian Casey’s untimely death was an utter tragedy, it only served to solidify an already tight-knit camp.
He was officially appointed on a three-year term last Tuesday evening but McGarry says the transition from assistant to manager had been spoken about for quite some time.
“The possibility of staying on had been mooted at the end of last year for the purposes of continuity”, said the former Ballycastle and Antrim hurler.
“That was something I wasn’t dismissive of. I’d got into the routine of heading to Tyrone and had an affinity with the group so it had just become part of my life really.
“I thought long and hard about it, and decided you know what, I’ll give it a go. I’ve a vision of how we can improve the structures in the county and I spoke to quite a few people in Tyrone including some of the county hurlers who had come to me and that’s how it all transpired.”
The high-profile appointment of Michael McShane in early 2021 was a real shot in the arm for the hurling scene in the county.
McShane had landed Ulster Senior titles with Sleacht Néill (they go in search of their latest Derry title this weekend with McShane still at the helm) and he made a massive impact at the Red Hand County throughout his tenure. McGarry was his right-hand man and he learnt a hell of a lot from the vastly experienced manager.
“Michael would’ve been my manager when I hurled with Ballycastle, so that was a very different relationship. I’d been doing a bit of coaching and Michael came to me when he got the Tyrone job and asked me to come in and coach.
“I thought I’d give it a lash and see how we got on. It was a strong appointment from the county board and you knew you were going to get a response from the players. The two of us have a great relationship and it’s been invaluable working in alongside him.”
Tyrone hurling was riding the crest of a wave when their 2022 campaign came to a close. They bagged the Division 3A title and followed that up with one of the greatest performances in the county’s history when they demolished Roscommon in the Nickey Rackard final, their talisman Damian Casey scoring 14 points at Croke Park. Just less than a month later, the shock news filtered through that Casey had died while in Spain for a wedding.
His status within Tyrone hurling was and is unparalleled and his passing had the potential to detail the county’s hurling ambitions entirely, but the players were determined to honour his legacy and they managed to stay the course in the Christy Ring Cup competition this year, no mean feat given it was their first time fielding in the competition.
“They’re a brilliant bunch of lads and that’s probably the thing that drew me towards taking the job after three years.
“I felt a loyalty to the group and they’ve been through more than anybody could even imagine with the passing of Damian.
“We wouldn’t have hammered the nail over it but it was always there and the players spoke about it as Damian was such a huge figure in Tyrone hurling both on and off the field.
“Everybody looked up and respected him and when he passed, we looked at and thought it could either fall to pieces here or it could galvinise players and management alike to put their shoulders to the wheel.
Tyrone fielded for the first time in a competitive match without Damian in a memorable Division 2B encounter in his home grounds of Eoghan Ruadh, Dungannon. It turned out to be a special evening as they clawed a memorable victory.
“It was a really poignant moment for us. It was Tyrone’s first time hurling at that level against a seasoned London team and they produced a brilliant performance. You could see how much it meant not just to the group but the hurling people of Tyrone, all the hurling strongholds really rowed in together and got behind the team.”
Tyrone have had some memorable days out in the last few years and McGarry said the players wanted to inspire the youth of the county to aspire to line out for a county that is generally perceived as a ‘football county’.
“The players wanted to put pride into the jersey. It’s a football orientated county and you have to respect that because they’ve set massive standards down the years, but we also wanted to make it prestigious to come out and hurl for Tyrone.
“Our lads did that in abundance through hard work in training and matches.
“It’s my job to maintain and drive those standards, there’s no point standing still and there’s still things we can work on.”
The Tyrone hurlers generally can’t call upon thousands and thousands of spectators but they got a taste of the high life when they played Derry in the curtain-raiser to the Ulster Senior Football Championship first-round clash against Monaghan at a heaving O’Neill’s Healy Park. They played some super hurling in their Christy Ring Cup opener en route to claiming a draw on a scoreline of 2-20 apiece.
“There is seriously good talent in Tyrone, it’s just about getting them to come out and play. The Derry game was a prime example. The Tyrone crowd came out for the second-half and really filled out the stadium.
“It lifted the players so much and we were saying ‘can you imagine being a footballer for Tyrone, training through the winter and knowing you’ll have those big crowds coming to support you.’ It probably makes it easier to get motivated during the wet and dark nights in Garvaghey. It was alien to our players and you could see them rising to the occasion in the second half.”
McGarry is in the process of finalising his backroom team but he’s already recruited former Tyrone stalwarts Sean Óg Grogan (who retired a few months back) and John Devlin. Caolan Harvey is back in as Strength and Conditioning coach after a year’s travelling while Noel Brick, Aidan McHugh and Colm Thomas remain involved. His big challenge is facilitating a transition period for a Tyrone team that have been somewhat reliant on the same core players over the last decade, but he’s excited about the road ahead.
“I’ve come into the job with my eyes wide open and I’m fully aware circumstances have changed for a number of players in the panel due to travel commitments and retiring.
“What we need to do is get players coming through from the u-20s and progressing into the senior hurling team because that’s how we’ll get sustainability.
“Sean Óg has retired and is there going to be a Sean Óg coming through the u-20s this year that we can mould into being a top senior hurling?
“That’s the challenge but it’s one I’m looking forward to. It’s an opportunity to manage at intercounty level and that wasn’t lost on me. I’m relatively young for a job of his magnitude but there’s positives going into the job as there’s continuity from knowing the players and their characteristics and the set-up around Tyrone and Garvaghey.
“The County Board have also been very supportive in the last three years as well, they want to improve the standards of Tyrone hurling and that’s benefitted us massively, knowing that they’re behind us.
“It’s a big job but I’m rubbing my hands and can’t wait to get at it. I got a good grounding with Michael, I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, and I’ve got some ideas of my own as well so let’s get to it.”