“I will never forget his words of encouragement. Ciaran told me that the Tyrone players had met the night before and that they were not blaming me for their defeat.” – Paddy Russell
IN a lesson in grace, it’d take some beating. Ciaran Corr, the losing captain in the 1995 All-Ireland final between Tyrone and Dublin, made a bee-line for Paddy Russell at a post-match reception for the two teams.
Russell, whose sheepish disposition told the story of a man who’d rather have been anywhere else, had found himself in the spotlight after two major moments of controversy on the previous day.
You know the ones; he made a hash of the sending off of Dublin talisman Charlie Redmond, who stayed on for another couple of minutes before Russell cottoned on and gave him his marching orders, while Tyrone were denied a replay when Sean McLaughlin’s late point was disallowed after Peter Canavan was adjudged to have touched the ball on the ground moments earlier.
Tyrone fans were incensed, but even outside commentators felt that the county was hard done by: Pat Spillane, on that night’s Sunday game said “He had a very, very poor game, and I would suggest, Paddy, for the rest of this programme, maybe switch off the television. He was very poor.”
It’s with that backdrop that Ciaran Corr decided to have a few words with the now-retired Tipperary referee, and it’s to his eternal credit that he was a model of graciousness – so much so, that Russell later said it inspired his decision to wait for the storm clouds to pass and keep on refereeing.
It can’t have been easy for Corr, and the defeat played on his mind for some years thereafter, but it shouldn’t define what was a stellar intercounty career for club and county.
The Coalisland man was brought into the panel not long after Tyrone’s All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry in 1986, but he had to bide his time and made his championship debut in an notorious Ulster Championship victory over Armagh in 1989.
The Red Hands trailed by six points at the break but a bust-up in the tunnel only served to galvanise the team and they produced a stirring second-half comeback with Corr scoring a superb goal to mark his debut in style.
Video footage of the half-time fracas doesn’t exist – no smartphones in those days – but John Lynch was knocked out cold and from all accounts arms and fists were flailing everywhere. Corr was encouraged to stay well out of it.
“There was a bit of fisticuffs in the tunnel and it kept on going right up to the changing rooms. I remember Harry McClure taking me by the scruff of the neck and saying ‘get you out of this before you’re busted’. I was only a young lad, I got out of the road as fast as I could. I think the row actually suited us as we came out with a bit of fire in our bellies in the second-half.”
Tyrone ended up reaching the All-Ireland semi-final that year, where they were defeated by Mayo, and Corr says that manager Art McRory was an inspirational and forward-thinking figure behind the scenes.
“Art was direct and didn’t mince his words. He didn’t bring you onto the panel unless he felt you had something to offer.
“I found him ahead of his time. He brought people from Queen’s University to look at our fitness and he even had dieticians looking at our diet at a time when other counties weren’t really doing that kind of thing.
“You had someone coming down from Queen’s every four or five weeks and conducting fitness tests, and individuals were told if they had to focus on their speed or their strength and things like that.
“I was that way inclined anyway – I like keeping myself in good shape and had an interest in training, so I was all ears to be honest with you.”
Corr spent most of his early career in the half-forward line, and he was a key part of the Coalisland team which won back-to-back senior championship titles in 1989 and 1990.
Their fierce rivals Clonoe denied them the three-in-a-row in 1991, but Corr said they managed to put club enmities aside as soon as they donned the county jersey.
“We probably would have won the three-in-a-row if we’d been playing against any other club, but the fact it was Clonoe probably got in our heads a bit. They got their tactics right, negated certain individuals and were more up for it on the day.
“We got on well though, I was very friendly with Kevin McCabe and Harry and Mickey McClure and still am. I always say to Kevin, you have to thank me for giving you a championship medal.”
Corr’s form dipped in the early ’90s, something he attributes to burn-out. There was never any question on missing out on club matches, so his hands were tied and it was no surprise that fatigue set in.
John Donnelly, who managed the county between late 1989 and 1992, gave Corr a massive vote of confidence when he said he would keep on playing him come what may, and he stumbled his way into form again.
“It’s like anything else, you can get a bit stale after a couple of years. Coalisland had won the championship in ’89 and ’90, and won the league both years as well, and the players and management expected Damien O’Hagan and myself to be there at training.
“I remember playing for Tyrone in a national league match in Omagh and then going to play for Coalisland in a friendly later that even. I think fatigue and burn-out had set in.
“John Donnelly was very understanding. He knew my form wasn’t good. I remember him saying to me, ‘you don’t become a bad player overnight. You need to get the hunger back, and I’m going to keep on playing because the worst thing I could do is drop you’.
“Fair play to John, I could’ve had a stinker but he decided he wasn’t going to drop me no matter what the crowd or papers said.
“He stuck with me until I got through it, and I’m very thankful for it because at any stage he could’ve pulled the plug on my county career. I’d lost my appetite but he kept on playing me and thankfully I got it back.”
Corr’s rehabilitation as a Tyrone player seemed to come to fruition in the 1992 National League final against Derry. Repackaged as a midfielder, he gave a spectacular display of high fielding despite being dwarfed by Derry giants Brian McGilligan and Dermot Heaney. Unfortunately, they gifted the title to Derry when Plunkett Donaghy, in a rare error, dropped a late Anthony Tohill free from his grasp into the net.
“It was one of my best performances for Tyrone but it was unfortunate to lose in that matter. There was always that rivalry there with Derry. I thought we were the better team, but we switched off in the last seven or eight minutes, and when we conceded that goal, it shocked us for a few minutes and we let Derry get on top of us.”
Corr was honoured with the captaincy in 1994, and they won their first championship match in five years with a first-round victory over Armagh in Healy Park. They were overpowered by Down in the Ulster final, but they were making incremental progress. Corr was happy to skipper the side, and he remembers that star player Peter Canavan was happy with that too.
“At that stage I don’t think Peter even wanted the captaincy. Sometimes it can put a bit of pressure on individuals. Peter would’ve coped with that fine, but I don’t think he was too interested and I’d been part of the set-up a bit longer.
“I think it was actually the players who voted for whom they wanted to be captain. It wasn’t fully down to the management. Peter just wanted to concentrate on playing, something he did better than me!”
He continued: “I remember Eugene McKenna telling me that I shouldn’t feel the need to speak all the time because it would take my mind off the game if I dwelled on what to say.
“He said that the captain’s role was more important out on the field – building the players up, and nine times out of ten they can’t hear the management anyway.
“If I’d something to say I’d say it, and lads like Peter and Pascal Canavan and Paul Donnelly were much the same. That’s how I approached it and I didn’t take it so seriously that I felt I had to speak all the time.”
Art McRory, in his second stint as Tyrone manager at this stage, formed a formidable partnership with Eugene McKenna on the sidelines, but they weren’t afraid to look for external help, even recruiting a sports psychologist. It didn’t work for everybody, but Corr says that enough players benefited for it to make a tangible difference to their fortunes.
“Art always seemed to have a good relationship with Eugene going back to when he was a player. I suppose he didn’t want to come back in on his own, and approached Eugene who was such a big name in Tyrone football. Eugene was fairly quiet unless he had something to say, and you always knew when it was coming, he was very direct. Art was fairly similar in that regard.
“I remember even at that stage we had a sports psychologist, a Welsh fella from Queen’s University called John Kremer. Again, other counties weren’t doing things like that at the time.
“His famous line was ‘draw a line and move on if you make a mistake’. He’d speak about different scenarios so if we went a couple of points down with a few minutes to go, everyone would know how to approach it from a mental perspective.
“Art and Eugene knew it wouldn’t work for everyone, and John knew that himself, but they realised that if it even worked for five or six members of the starting team it would make a big difference.
“It was all about mind over matter – some players struggled more than others when playing in front of a big crowd, and John was there to help them cope with that. A lot of the things he said were common sense, but it took somebody to say it to think ‘right enough, I know what you mean there’.”
So everything was clicking into place; players like Peter Canavan, Fay Devlin, Paul Devlin, Adrian Cush, Paul Donnelly, Ciaran McBride, Jody Gormley and Brian Gormley were part of the group that won All-Ireland U-21 titles in 1991 and 1992, and their winning mindset went a long way to explain the senior team’s fantastic run to the brink of ultimate glory in 1995.
“Those boys were used to winning at youth level and you knew there was the nucleus of a really good team. You could see things developing and that alone gave the rest of us a bit more confidence.
“When a team from the starting 15 to the bench has that winning mentality, they become very hard to beat. If you’re totally sure you’re going to win, nine times out of ten you’re going to come out on the right side of things.
“Our confidence sky-rocketed and you were able to look a fella in the eye and know that they had your back. It’s a funny feeling – I remember it even with Coalisland, being two or three points down with 10 minutes to go, but every individual would know ‘we’re going to win this game.’
“It’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but once it’s instilled in a team, it’s very likely that they’re going to go on and be successful.”
Their break-out victory was a tremendous semi-final win over Derry in the semi-final of the Ulster Championship (three points behind at the start of the second-half, and two men down, they produced what Eugene McKenna described as the finest half of football ever produced by a Tyrone side). Corr won the man of the match award after they claimed a more straightforward victory over Cavan in the Ulster final, but, perhaps surprisingly, he claims his memory of individual matches are rather hazy.
“I just tried to go with the flow. Everybody has an interest in the GAA and back then it was nearly even more intense as it was a big outlet for everybody. People would come over and talk to me about games and i’d be thinking ‘I know the game you’re on about but can’t remember a big pile about it’.
“Part of that was because I never read the papers whether I’d a good, bad or average game. You’d find a lot of players, even today, tend not to read them because you’re a hero one day and a villain the next.
“When I retired, my father-in-law presented me with a couple of scrapbooks he had compiled for me, and he had all the games I ever played in put on CDs. Every now and then I’d have a read through it.”
There was also a good camaraderie on the team in 1995. Everyone got on well, and while Peter Canavan earned most of the plaudits after a string of incredible performances, he didn’t let the praise lavished upon him go to his head.
“Peter was very, very down to earth. He always went into games very well-prepared mentally and physically. He had total confidence in his ability, not in an arrogant way, but he knew what he wanted to achieve and was very driven to do that.
“He was a joker as well, often on trips away I’d come back to my bed and it’d have been soaking with water and you knew rightly he was involved. He was a joker like a lot of us.
“We’d have gone out for meals and a few beers as a team and that was part of the bonding process as well, especially as we were from so many different clubs.
“The bonding has to come from somewhere and it’s not always through training or football. Some players can be quieter than others and come out of themselves a bit more in a social environment. You’ll always have your half-a-dozen eejits but some players are more reserved so you need that social outlet to get those boys involved.”
Tyrone booked their place in the All-Ireland final with a semi-final victory over Galway. Adrian Cush went over on his ankle in a training session less than a week before the final, and it robbed Tyrone of a serious attacking option against Dublin. Lo and behold, they could only muster two points from play as they fell to a controversial 1-10 to 0-12 defeat against the Dubs.
Asked if he still harbours major regrets about the manner of their controversial loss, Corr said: “If I told you I’ve never sat down and watched the game, would that answer your question?
“I’ve spoken to numerous Dublin players down the years and they seemed surprised they actually won the game.
“They felt they would come under serious pressure against this young, fast Tyrone team, but you can’t win an All-Ireland relying on one man to hit 11 points.
“I’ve said it before, I think our biggest problem that day was Adrian Cush being out with injury. He always scored three or four points a day, and was on the same wavelength as Peter Canavan as they’d played together since they were minors.
“I suppose when teams were keeping an eye on Peter it opened up space for Cushie, and vice-versa. They were two of the greatest forwards Tyrone have ever had. We needed another marquee forward that day and Adrian Cush would have been that man.”
He continued: “We actually started off well that day, and that was something Art and Eugene had targeted. We really went at them but for whatever reason Dublin were able to come back into it and we were rocked when they got a goal.
“If we got a replay out of it, it could’ve been a different story but it is what is it. It’s unfortunate what happened with Charlie Redmond and so on, but I still had to get up and go to work in the morning, there was nothing we could do about it.”
As alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Corr had comforting words when he met referee Paddy Russell the following day, but he was more annoyed by the partisan attitude of the GAA President at the time, Jack Boothman.
“I made a conscious decision to go over and talk to Paddy Russell and his wife. I told him there’s no animosity from me or the players and that there wouldn’t be. You have to remember that he had to go for his work the next day too.
“He made what he thought were the right decisions and I said that there was no point in fretting about it.
“Of course I was annoyed about what happened, but I’ve spoken to him a few times over the years and he’s a lovely man and he didn’t need it hanging over his head. He’d a split-second and he blew the whistle because in his mind he thought the ball had been picked off the ground.
“To be honest with you, the one thing that really annoyed me was Jack Boothman, I was speaking to him after the match, and something he said stuck with me – he said Dublin GAA really needed that All-Ireland.
“It was around the time Jack Charlton and Ireland were going really well and a lot of young lads in Dublin were opting to play soccer, so that’s what he was getting at, but surely Tyrone needed an All-Ireland as well? I mean, we’d never won one.
“I just kinda nodded and said okay. I could’ve said other things to him but I didn’t. I don’t think he was trying to be ignorant, it just came out of his mouth.”
Corr was also disappointed by his own personal performance on the day, and admits that it took some time to come to terms with the result.
“It did annoy me for a few years, not only because we were so close, but also because I knew I hadn’t played to my potential.
“When you get to an All-Ireland final, you really want to play well. I thought on the day I played okay, but I thought I could’ve contributed a lot more. You do your utmost but sometimes it just doesn’t click for one reason or another.
“It’s not a good memory but as I’ve got older I’ve looked back an odd time at the scrapbook or watch a certain match and it can be nice to reminisce a bit.
“It’s also great to meet up with the players, we’ve had a few charity games and you see all the grey and bald heads and the odd wee belly floating about.”
While Corr missed out on an All-Ireland, he was also pleased for Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn when their perseverance was rewarded in September 2003.
“They really deserved their All-Ireland medals. Peter’s mindset was that he wanted an All-Ireland and he wasn’t for stopping until he got one. You have to give him credit for that. It was fantastic to see him being the first Tyrone captain to lift Sam because he’s by far the greatest footballer I’ve ever played with.”
The addition of Brian Dooher and Ger Cavlan was a major boost to Tyrone in 1996, and they were outright favourites for the All-Ireland ahead of their semi-final clash against Meath. Their world came crashing down, however, in a hugely dispiriting defeat, and Tyrone fans were rightly aggrieved by Meath’s X-rated approach to the game. It was another bitter pillow to swallow, but Corr is largely philosophical about the manner of their loss.
“I was injured that day. Thinking back, Meath were very, very physical and deliberately took certain individuals out of the game. You could see what they were doing, they weren’t letting us playing a quick, fast moving game.
“I’ve read Boylan’s books and he was open about the fact it was win at all costs. That was his philosophy – even if you had to sacrifice somebody to take somebody else out, that’s what you had to do. History records that Meath won the game, it doesn’t really matter how.”
Tyrone went through a lean spell at the tail-end of the ‘90s, and Corr was forced into early retirement in 1997 as he had three prolapsed discs in his back. Initially, he thought it was a hamstring injury, but it progressively got worse and when he got it checked out he was told he had no real alternative but to hang up the boots for good.
“For a long time I had what I thought was a hamstring injury, and before every match I was getting massages and doing stretches.
“I started getting a bit of a limp, and when I got it checked out I was told I had prolapsed three discs in the lower back.
“It wasn’t the hamstring at all, but the nerves were being trampled and blood wasn’t getting through so I’d no real feeling on the left-hand side of my left leg. I was advised to hang up the boots or I’d lose all power in the left leg within 18 months.”
Corr admits he was grouchy in the aftermath of his retirement, and he made the self-imposed decision to stay away from matches for a number of years after he called it a day.
“I remember Eugene McKenna telling me I’d retired in my prime as I was only 27 or 28. I thought ‘thanks Eugene, you’re really making me feel good!’”
“I went to Coalisland’s first league game that year, I went to the bottom end of the field and stood there on my own. At half-time, another ex-player came over to me and said ‘you need to go home, I’ve never heard you shout and curse like that in my life.’ I said ‘I’m down here on my own’, and he said ‘I know, but everyone can hear ye.’
“I went home before the start of the second-half and didn’t go back to another game for another two-and-a-half years. It wasn’t good for me or the players for me to be standing there shouting at them, so I deliberately made the decision to stay away. It was just annoying me. It was around the time I got married and I wasn’t easy to live with either, but thankfully my wife is still with me, so maybe I wasn’t that bad.”
Thankfully, Corr, is able to live a full and happy existence despite those aforementioned issues with his back. It wasn’t the first set-back in his playing career, and he accepts that stoicism is preferable to self-pity.
“I just have to be very careful. Sometimes I got back spasms but in the last three or four years I’ve had no issue wit it. I started doing crossfit and for the first six months, we just worked on the muscles in my back before I was allowed to do anything else.
“That helped and I still keep myself in good enough nick. Sometimes I’ve a wee limp that other people pick up on, and I still have a dull feeling down the left-hand side of my left leg.
“I didn’t want to stop playing football but I had no other option. I don’t dwell too much on it, and as you get older you start to accept these things as happening for a reason.
“There’s no point beating yourself up about it as it’s something you can’t change.”