A FORTNIGHT in May 25 years ago saw Tyrone’s worst footballing nightmares become reality when Derry dealt a double-blow to hopes of a big breakthrough for the Red Hands.
There was a new sense of excitement and optimism surrounding the fortunes of the county at that time. All-Ireland U-21 success in 1991, as well the influx of a host of talented new stars, created a fresh buzz.
It was reflected in their march to the 1992 National League Final, a campaign that had seen them defeat Dublin twice, including a 4-11 to 0-11 trouncing at Croke Park. Players like Peter Canavan, Adrian Cush, Ciaran McBride and Paul Donnelly were poised and ready for glory.
The stage was set for a first national triumph. Everything was going perfectly to plan as the game against old rivals, Derry, entered its closing stages. But then disaster struck when the Oak Leafers grabbed a dramatic late goal.
Anthony Tohill’s 45 metre free sailed all the way to the net. Finbar McConnell was in goals for Tyrone that day and remembers that crucial score and its impact on the county’s subsequent championship clash against Derry just two weeks later.
“We were in front going into the last few minutes of that National League Final. A ball came in from Declan Bateson and I put it out for a 45. At that stage my feeling was that we were in the clear,” said the Newtownstewart clubman.
“But then Anthony Tohill’s free kick went all the way to the net and Derry ended up winning the game. We should have been clear of them earlier on.”
Derry subsequently denied Tyrone what would have been a first league title on a score of 1-10 to 1-8. To make matters worse, the counties were due to meet again in the championship later in that month of May.
The 1992 Ulster championship game was also significant for the fact that it was the first broadcast live. The sun shone, and a capacity attendance at Celtic Park reflected the interest in the high profile encounter.
However for Tyrone, the fall-out from the league final defeat was hard to shake off, according to their goalkeeper.
“Two weeks later we were due to play them in the championship at Celtic Park. John Donnelly was the manager at that time and I’d describe him as the unluckiest man to be in charge of the county team,” Finbar McConnell added.
“I’d say that in every game that Tyrone lost while he was manager we only lost by a point or two. He did his absolute best to get us mentally right for the Derry game in the championship.
“Maybe we were too keen to get at Derry again after the game at Croke Park. The teams had swapped jerseys after that match and then Derry came looking for them to be returned. That really got us going.
“John Donnelly’s approach for the championship game couldn’t be faulted. Everything was done in a really professional and structure way.
“Maybe, the reality was that Derry were probably that bit ahead of us during that time. Tyrone were a team in transition with a lot of new players coming in to replace the stars of 1986 and 1989.
“It’s not to reflect on what might have happened if we had held out to beat Derry in that league final. There were only two points in it at the finish and it would definitely have added to the championship match. They would have been wounded
“It took those couple of years for them to settle down before the Ulster successes of 1995 and 1996.”
Now, a quarter of a century later, and the fortunes of the two counties could hardly be more contrasting. Derry are no longer genuine contenders, while Tyrone’s quest to reach the closing stages of the All-Ireland has fallen just short in recent years.
However, as he looks back on 1992, Finbar McConnell, says he’ll be surprised if the Red Hands don’t record a second successive championship victory at Celtic Park.
“It’s going to take a massive turnaround for Derry to beat Tyrone, but we can’t be complacent either and you never know what might happen if they are still in contention going into the second half,” he added.
“We’re probably still about four players at least short of the kind of team that would be needed to win the Sam Maguire.”
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