By Barry O’Donnell
DESPITE the passage of time memories of that halcyon summer campaign are still vivid.
It’s 20 years exactly today (September 28th 2003 ) since the famine ended with Tyrone laying claim to its first ever All-Ireland senior football title. A 0-12 to 0-9 triumph over defending champions and old adversaries Armagh in an historic all-Ulster decider meant the long wait was finally over.
Recalling the sights and sounds of that defining afternoon evoke a full gamut of emotions. Joy and happiness naturally as the jubilant red and white hordes swept onto the Croke Park pitch, but the images are also tinged with sadness at those no longer with us, several of whom were at the hub of the post match-celebrations.
Peter Canavan was bestowed with the honour of being the first man from Tyrone to get their hands on that previously elusive Sam Maguire trophy.
One of a few veteran campaigners in a primarily youthful setup, he was the captain of a side managed by fellow Errigal Ciaran club man Mickey Harte, who was in his first season at the helm.
For Peter the Great, the subsequent two decades have flown by.
“Where did those years go to. We actually had a reunion a few weeks ago. It was great to meet up with the lads again because it is amazing once you stop and leave the county set-up there are a lot of lads you don’t run into on a regular basis. We were all just happy to look back on times that we certainly cherish.”
Coming into that 2003 Championship season as back-to-back National League champions, Tyrone were considered as genuine contenders for the top honours, but doubts persisted over their ability to get over the hump and replicate the All-Ireland successes of several of their northern neighbours.
While the mood in the camp was upbeat before the Championship, Canavan stated that their Ulster aspirations were so nearly derailed at the first time of asking.
“In the first round against Derry we came in having just won the National League back to back so we were going into the Championship fairly confident. We had a new set-up and things were looking good. But we very nearly lost against Derry and we needed a free kick at the end to get a draw. We beat them well at Casement in the replay to get going again. We then beat Antrim in the semi-final and in the final against Down we went in favourites. But we were nine points down with ten or so minutes to go and managed to come back and get a draw. It was a brilliant game of football when you look back on it.
“At the time it wasn’t so good from our point of view given the amount of goals that we conceded but to come back from that gave us great hope and certainly showed great spirit. We produced a brilliant performance in the replay to beat Down with a bit to spare.”
Tyrone then swept aside Fermanagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final but they really stamped their intentions with a ruthless destruction of Kerry in the semi-finals. Canavan was a frustrated spectator for much of that contest, having limped out of the fray with an injured ankle early on, but watching from the line he knew that his team-mates meant business that day.
“Those couple of minutes of intensity and ferocity epitomised that Tyrone team. It is replayed time and time again, that remarkable 50-second spell of tackling. When you see a team playing with that hunger and passion you know that you are going places. Despite the fact that I was injured myself I felt that there was something good happening here.”
It was all such a contrast to what unfolded almost exactly 12 months earlier at the same venue when Tyrone suffered an humiliating All-Ireland qualifier loss to Sligo. The six-time All-Star recipient believed the Kerry result underlined to the wider footballing public that Tyrone were a different beast in 2003.
“The Sligo defeat was a hard one to take but, by and large, apart from four or five older personnel there were a lot of younger fellas playing in ’02. It was a harsh lesson for those boys but it certainly stood them in good stead.
“So a year later it was massive to go down there again and take on Kerry. We were very much aware of their calibre and knew that if you let them play ball they were capable of wiping you out. Hence Tyrone played the way they did. The intensity and the way the players went about their business that day was just brilliant.
“I know people highlight just that few seconds of tackling and intensity but there was some brilliant football played too, especially in the first 20 minutes.
“Tyrone blew Kerry away with their all out attack and the quality of scores. We could have had two or three goals easily in the first half but it was our football coupled with that manic intensity that got us over the line.
“And again for us it was about getting the monkey off our backs and doing something that had never been done before. We hadn’t been accustomed to beating Kerry too often or winning too many big games at Croke Park.”
Recalling the four-week buzz around the county in the build-up to the meeting with the no-nonsense Orchard men in the Sam Maguire showdown, Canavan stated that he tried to pass on his first hand experience from his previous All-Ireland outing to the younger members of the panel.
“I had the experience of being involved in ’95. You knew what the hype was like and you tried to make the fellas aware of what to expect. Supporters were obviously very excited coming up to the final but it was up to the players to remain focused on what they had to do.
“From my own point of view you are aware there is a lot going on around the fringes among the supporters and with it being a local derby. I was carrying an (ankle) injury and every day I was concentrating on trying to get back on the pitch again. So my build-up involved a lot of trips to physio. I knew my chances were slim but as far as I was concerned it was my last chance so I was prepared to do whatever had to be done to get there.
“In fairness to the management they had us very well prepared and focused. There was a few bits and pieces around the edges – I know Mickey Coleman had a song doing the rounds, Total Faith – and there was a bit of craic that way. There was a great buzz in the weeks up to it at training. It’s a brilliant position for players to be in and thankfully for us it went pretty well.”
The final itself wasn’t for the faint-hearted, with scores at a premium and the commitment and intensity levels off the charts. Peter stated that inspite of the fierce rivalry Tyrone held Armagh in huge admiration given what they had already achieved.
“It was a great Armagh team and in spells in the final they actually played very well. Some of the scores that Stevie McDonnell got that day were top class. They were also a very physical side and had a serious presence about them in the middle third of the pitch. Whatever break ball was won around that sector had to be earned.
“You don’t realise it at the time but when you watch it back it was a different style of football than is played now. There was more energy and more action up and down the pitch. Your time on the ball regardless of where you won it- be it the full back line or full-forward line- was very limited. The tackling was crisp from both sides. It was a very physical game with a few big hits going in and thankfully we managed to come out the right side of it.”
The highlight reel moment of the final, which is still talked about to this day, was Conor Gormley’s stunning block to deny Stevie McDonnell a crucial goal heading into the closing stages. Peter admits that incident still stands out, while he also applauded the contribution of a fellow forward.
“Stevie O’Neill’s introduction for us was massive. As I said before it was a massive gamble from Mickey’s point of view to start me because if we had lost the argument would have been why did you not play Stevie O’Neill. He was fully fit compared to someone who was playing on one leg so we got to witness how strong he was going forward.
“He really hurt Armagh in the second half but our defending all over the pitch and our workrate and tenacity was brilliant. But the turning point no doubt was Conor’s block. If Armagh got a goal at that stage I am not too sure how Tyrone would have responded to be honest. They would have had their tails up and been in a very commanding position. But to see your team-mate doing that was the equivalent of scoring a goal at the other end.”
Canavan, who was subbed, came on again in the closing stages to help see the team across the winning line. He joked that when the final whistle blew, the Croke Park officials quickly reneged on their policy of no pitch invasions.
“Plan B came into action pretty quick. There was not a chance anyone was going to stop Tyrone supporters that day getting on the pitch. For years they had been looking at other supporters from other counties sprinting onto Croke Park to acclaim their players so this was our turn and it was a fantastic feeling.
“It was something that myself, Chris Lawn and some of the older boys had been waiting a long time for. There was occasions and times you felt it was never going to happen so to be there and be on the pitch and to hear that final whistle and see the masse of red and white sprinting onto the pitch it was exhilarating and something that I will never forget.
“A good friend of mine Paul Hughes, who has since departed was one of the first men that sprinted onto the pitch, himself and Eugene (Snooge) Harper from Castlederg, hoisted me onto their shoulders.
“There was a lot of faces that you recognised and faces that you didn’t but you were floating on air. You’ve reached the pinnacle and reached the position that you always dreamt of being in so those few seconds were magical, knowing that you were going to get the opportunity to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to hold the Sam Maguire. That was something else. Twenty years on you don’t forget that.”
As regards a lasting legacy from that breakthrough triumph, Peter feels that Tyrone’s standing as a GAA powerhouse really took roots from that day onwards.
“We won three in the space of five years and if 2003 was at times a nervous performance it was because we didn’t know how to win back then. But I think the 2005 performance was laced with confidence and there was probably a higher skill level.
“No matter what Kerry fired at us we had more going forward but that comes with winning an All-Ireland Final and the same in 2008. Since 2003 we go out fully expecting to win and that maybe wasn’t the case prior to that. It’s been the same since with Tyrone teams be it Minors, u-20s or Seniors. It lifted the whole county and that attitude and approach has been there ever since.”