Posted by Shane Stapleton

We take a trip down memory lane to see how the Red Hand county unburdened themselves from a history of pain

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It’s ten years since our Eircom GAA ambassador Mickey Harte led Tyrone to their first ever All-Ireland title.

Ahead of the Red Hands’ All-Ireland semi-final clash with Mayo this Sunday, we’ve spoken to the wise old ahead about what dragged his side over the line in 2003. How they unburned themselves of a weight of history to beat traditional heavyweight Kerry in the semi-final before dethroning All-Ireland champions Armagh in the final.

“It was vital for us in 2003 to get the mentality right because we were up against a traditional power,” Harte says. “What helped us was that we met Kerry in the semi-final rather than the final so it was less daunting.

“We showed that you can beat the traditional teams if you approach it in the right way.

“So when we met Kerry in the final in 2005 it was no big deal for the players. There was no sense of awe about who we were up against. In fact, it may have been the opposite, with Kerry feeling they had something to prove.”

That hugely satisfying win was still two years away but first Tyrone had to make their breakthrough. Armagh were top dogs in the country and Harte feels that his men took a lead from Joe Kernan’s revolutionaries. 

“I do think that Armagh should have got more than the one All-Ireland and most Armagh people would think so, too. They believe they were unlucky not to beat us in 2003 but that’s all a matter of opinion.

“That final was very intense. Armagh were champions the year before and, in many ways, Tyrone were enthused by that because in the couple of years previous they would have felt they were as good as them.

“So, the way Joe Kernan’s side went on to get that breakthrough win in 2002, it gave Tyrone renewed ambition

“That ambition was fulfilled quickly when our under-21s joined the seniors to form a great mix of confidence and experience.

"And while the 2003 final was low-scoring, it doesn’t fully reflect how the game went because I remember there were plenty of goal-scoring opportunities. There were probably four very good chances at least and, ordinarily, you would expect at least two of them to be taken.

“I recall one Armagh chance in particular when Diarmuid Marsden burst through only for Cormac McAnallen to put pressure on him and stop him from getting a shot in. And then there was the dramatic save by Conor Gormley when he blocked Steven McDonnell, which many people see as the defining moment of that game.

“To some degree that is true but, it must be said, it’s not the whole truth. There was still some time to go in the game at that stage and I think that had McDonnell scored, it would not necessarily have been the definitive moment in the game.”

That moment might well be when Peter Canavan re-entered the fray in the second half. The Tyrone legend had damaged ankle ligaments badly in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Kerry and it was touch and go whether he would feature in the final.

After discussions with Harte, it was decided to risk the star forward from the beginning and Canavan responded with five frees in the first half. He then had pain-killing injections at the break and this continued on as the second half begun, before his return helped drag his team over the line.

“A lot of people talk about Peter Canavan’s role that day,” says Harte. “He wasn’t fit to last the full 70 minutes but we wanted to have him on the field at the start of the game and at the final whistle.

“I spoke to Peter about his role in the week before the final and we spoke about what it would do even for the crowd alone, that it would give them a sense of calm to see him in the starting line-up.

“It took away any apprehension and we agreed that he would play as long as he could, come off, and then return at some point in the second half. It’s something we had done before and this was as much a psychological ploy as it was a practical one.

“You want your best finisher on at the start because often that’s when little mistakes happen and you want someone like Peter there to capitalise on that. You also want the player who’s got the nerves of steel to take those early free-kicks in a game.

“We knew we had to find the best way to accommodate him and it worked out for us.”

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