This week’s Friday Feature sees former Tyrone legend and outstanding goalkeeper Finbarr Mc Connell reflect on his playing career and speak frankly of the highs and lows of lining out with his county.
Q: If you were to pick out three highlights from your playing career Finbar, what would those be?
I suppose the three highlights that I would pick would be first of all getting to play for Tyrone, then getting the call up for Ulster before finally getting the chance to represent my Country in the compromise Rules series against Australia
Q: Had you any success at school level?
To be honest I never even played Gaelic whilst I was at school. There was no real push on it and we would have played a bit of soccer. The underage structures back then aren’t what they are like now and I never played Gaelic until I was minor age.
Q: How did your underage County career go?
It came and went in a flash and we had no real success in those days. I played two years at minor level and four years at U-21 level and in all that time we only managed to win one championship match. That was against Fermanagh at U-21 level.
Q: Who were the early influences on your career?
Liam Morris at our club was a very big influence on my career in the early days. I remember coming out of Mass one day and he told me that I had been picked to go along to minor trials. I went along to the trials at Loughmacrory and with a bit of luck I did alright despite having a poor kick out. The then Tyrone manager Liam McGrath picked me and told me to work away at my kick outs, something that Liam Morris helped me with
Q: When did you make your senior championship debut for Tyrone and what are your memories of the game?
It was in the 1989 Ulster semi final against Down at Castleblayney. We had both Sean Donnelly and John Lynch sent off that day but we still managed to win the game to qualify for the final.
Q: Was it always your ambition to play for Tyrone?
It wasn’t something that I had really thought about to be honest with you. I never even saw a Tyrone game until 1984 when Tyrone played Offaly in the Centenary Cup in Dungannon and the only reason that I was there was that we were playing Offaly minors beforehand in a challenge game. I was fortunate in that I was straight into the U-21 side after minor level and when I made the senior panel it changed my whole life.
Q: What was it like playing understudy to a keeper like Aiden Skelton?
I sat on the bench for nearly two years but I would say I learned more in that time from just watching Aidan play. For his stature he was a brilliant keeper who was very determined. I was very green at that time and that was the best education that I could have received. He was also a great character in the squad and was a very bubbly character in the changing rooms
Q: What are your memories of the 1989 Ulster title success?
After playing against Down in the semi final I missed out on the decider as I had picked up a suspension while playing for my club. Perhaps it was just as well as Aidan Skelton made saves the first day against Donegal the likes of which I had never seen before or indeed since. His performance that day alone should have secured him an All Star award. We were lucky to get a second bite at the cherry after Stephen Conway’s late free earned us a replay but in the second game we got two early goals and we never looked back after that. I had been substitute the year before as well when we lost in the Ulster final to Monaghan and the big games were coming thick and fast and I suppose I thought that was always going to be the case.
Q: Did you play in the All Ireland semi final against Mayo that year and was that a game that was thrown away?
I did play in the All Ireland semi final as my suspension was up and Aidan unfortunately had injured his knee cap in the replay of the Ulster final. There is no doubt that was a game that we should have won. Eugene McKenna’s goal put us three up that day but we never scored after that and Mayo won it with six points from play in the last twenty minutes or so. We should have had enough experience to have gone on and won it that day and perhaps in those times Ulster sides were just happy to be there. That was the first time that I played at Croke Park and I remember thinking that that was what all the training was about, big occasions like that. At that time I suppose I thought that we would be back on a regular basis but that defeat was the start of a poor run of results for us in the championship and we never actually won a game again in it until 1994.
Q: With the success in the early nineties at U-21 level were you always hopeful that would transform onto the senior stage?
Those were exciting times at U-21 level with players such as Peter Canavan, Adrian Cush, Chris Lawn and Adrian Kilpatrick to the fore. You of course hoped that would eventually lead to the success that we were all after both at Provincial and National level. My brother Brian was in goals in those teams and I suppose he was unlucky that I had just got into the senior set up ahead of him as he was just as good a keeper if not better. In a way I suppose I kind of stood in his way of progressing to that level.
Q: How big a disappointment was it losing the 1992 National League final to Derry?
At the time it was complete devastation. To lose any game by a single point is bad enough but the manner in which we did it was just heartbreaking. We were the better side that day and Plunkett Donaghy had a brilliant game but between the two of us we made a balls of it on the goal line. At that time you think that you will never be back and it turned out to be a hard enough road back
Q: Do you think that defeat set Tyrone back a few years?
There is no doubt that it did. We met them shortly afterwards in the championship at Celtic Park and too many of the Tyrone side that day I feel were intent on trying to mix it with Derry instead of concentrating on playing football. Fair play to Derry they went on and won the All Ireland the next year, they went forward while we went in the opposite direction.
Q: What about the 1994 Ulster championship campaign?
I picked up a club suspension and that ruled me out of the semi final against Donegal and the final against Down. Down were a very good footballing side as well as being physically strong and of course they went on to prove that later in the year when winning the All Ireland.
Q: At the outset of 1995 did you think things were going to be different?
I headed off to the States in 1994 after Tyrone lost in the Ulster final and I remember watching the concluding stages of the championship on TV out there. If someone had said then that I would be playing at the same stage twelve months later I would have never believed them.
Q: Who did you beat in the first round that year and what about the famous semi final clash with Derry?
We beat Fermanagh in the first round before getting the better of Derry in Clones in a game that I will never forget. That is the one game in my career that always stands out for me. That was a game were we really came back from the dead. Going off at half time we were arguing with the Derry players as well as the match officials but at the end of the day we were only looking for somebody to blame. The managers got us in at halftime and sat us down and devised a game plan which we stuck to and it worked out. I was to play a more advanced role as we believed that they would try and hit the ball into space and that’s what happened as they hit it aimlessly forward and I was there to help clear it up. In the last seven minutes of that game there wasn’t a score as we hung on to win by a point. I remember Geoffrey McGonigle hitting the post near the end, the ball went behind me and I thought that it was in.
Q: Were you confident going into the final with Cavan and what are your memories from that game?
We went into the game on a real high after beating Derry. I firmly believe that if Derry had beaten us that year then they would have won the All Ireland again. We got four or five ahead of Cavan inside the opening twenty minutes or so and we were playing well. Once we got into that position we knew that they were going to need goals to beat us and that was going to be difficult for them as our defence was playing well. I remember the supporters flocking onto the field at the final whistle as they probably believed that to win the Ulster championship that year was a stepping stone to the All Ireland but of course that proved not to be the case.
Q: What did it feel like to beat Galway and qualify for the All Ireland Final?
We knew that we were favourites to beat them as at that time Connaught was seen as the weakest province and Galway just happened to be their champions that year. They put it up to us though and in the end we were more than lucky to win our way through to the final. We were perhaps a little complacent going into that game and we almost paid dearly for it. When the final whistle sounded it was a great feeling to know that you were going to get playing on the biggest stage of all.
Q: What was the atmosphere like as a player in the build up to the final with Dublin?
Stephen Conway was the only playing member in the squad that had been there in 1986 although the management duo had learned from that experience and they tried to protect us and make us aware of all the hype surrounding the final.
Q: What about the game itself, was it one that got away?
There is no doubt that it was as too many of us underperformed on the day against a Dublin side that was on the wane. To lose the way that we did, Sean McLaughlin’s late point being disallowed for something that you have seen let away time and time again, that was very disappointing. Charlie Redmond’s goal will always stay with me. I can still see it now, Jason Sherlock’s shot hitting my elbow and stopping dead for Redmond to score. I still maintain that if it hadn’t have hit my elbow the ball would have gone out across the goal mouth. That’s something that I will never forget about and I was reminded of it again when it was shown on the “Up for the Final” programme the night before the 2005 decider. Adrian Cush getting injured the week before the final was a big blow to us. I remember him trying to train with us the morning of the match and you could see from his face that he wasn’t going to make it. That was very sad and I’ve no doubt he would have been the difference had he been on.
Q: How determined were the lads to bounce back the following year?
The lads were very determined. We knew that we had a good side and our attitude was that we were going to win it.
Q: What about the championship run in Ulster that year?
We were perhaps guilty of not giving our opponents in Ulster any respect that year. We just went out with the attitude that we weren’t going to lose and we beat Fermanagh, Derry and Down on our way to retaining the title.
Q: After beating Down, Tyrone were installed as favourites for the All Ireland, what went wrong that day against Meath?
We probably read too much into all of that and believed it ourselves. There were decisions that went against us that day and men that were playing that were perhaps carrying niggly injuries. In my opinion there were as many mistakes made on the line that day as there were on the field. Meath got away with a few things but at the end of the day they did what they had to do to win and I’m a great believer in that motto.
Q: What happened Tyrone in the next few years?
The word tired began to creep into the squad. Danny Ball was the manager for that three year period and he wasn’t to blame for what had happened. He had inherited a lot of selfish players who didn’t want to put the work in at training and were happy enough to rest on their laurels. Players were complaining of being too tired but that was a lot of nonsense as Armagh and the present Tyrone team have proved in recent years, they are still going. There was a lot of crying going on and players thought that we were going to get things handed to us. At the end of the day we had only won two Ulster titles but there were some players who believed that we were the top dogs in GAA circles.
Q: What about the Ulster title win of 2001?
It was great to win it again after a gap of a few years. We beat Derry comfortably in the Ulster semi final but of course they were to come back and haunt us. We beat Cavan in the final again and it was a close enough affair. My one memory of that game was nearly being caught out for a goal. I was giving off to somebody, as usual, when I almost got caught out by a quick free kick that just went past the post. I honestly thought it was in as I went back and it’s amazing the amount of prayers that you can say over two or three yards!
Q: That was the first year of the qualifiers, were you confident going in against Derry in the quarter finals?
Prior to that draw everybody was saying that we were going to draw Derry in the quarter finals. To be honest I was almost physically sick when I heard that we drew them. They had everything to gain for that quarter final after we had already beaten them in the championship. That turned out to be one of my worst performances for Tyrone and I made a bad boob for their goal. One of the biggest disappointments in my county career was at halftime in the changing rooms that day. Peter Canavan had been sent off in the first half and we were a few points behind but the management seemed to have given up because Peter was sent off. They appeared to have accepted defeat at halftime when there was still a long way to go. Derry seemed to find another gear or two after the break.
Q: When did you play your last championship game for Tyrone?
It was in the above game and it was a disappointing note to go out on as I feel that we could have done something that year as it was Connaught [Galway] that we would have met in the All Ireland semi final.
Q: What did it mean to you as an ex player when Tyrone finally won Sam in 2003?
It was just brilliant that we finally made the breakthrough as a County. I shouted and kicked every ball in that game just like everybody else. When the final whistle blew I actually sat down in my seat to take it all in. That team had an exceptional crop of players. We hadn’t that strength in depth in our day.
Q: How proud were you of your brother Pascal when he helped Tyrone win it again in 2005?
It was as good as playing myself to be honest with you. I was very pleased for him as at times he had taken a lot of unwarranted stick about his kick outs. I thought that he had a very good year for Tyrone in goals.
Q: What about you club career with Newtownstewart?
I enjoyed it all and I would like to think that I gave my all to the club whilst I was playing. I always played out the field for my club and that is something that I would like to see Pascal try. I think playing out the field at club level would certainly help him at County level as it gives you a greater understanding of what is going on around you. I won a couple of junior leagues and two junior championships with Newtownstewart as well as a Jim Devlin Cup. I played against Ardboe in the senior championship when they were the holders and even though that came in the later stages of my career it was still a highlight as it was the only time that the club has played in the senior championship. I played a game or two for the Reserves towards the end of my career as they were short a few players and I managed to get a goal although I think that the ball hit me as much as anything else!
Q: Did you enjoy your Railway Cup career?
Yes I did. From a player’s point of view it was a great honor to represent your Province and fair play to Brian McEniff for the work that he did with Ulster at that time but I feel that Croke Park aren’t really interested in the competition. I won three Railway Cup medals with Ulster and I am very proud of that.
Q: Did you enjoy playing in the Compromise Rules when you had the chance?
I really enjoyed it when I played for Ireland. It was at Croke Park and I think we lost the first test by two points but finished up winning the series by six.
Q: Have you any regrets from your career?
I suppose my biggest regret was that I quit playing a year or two too soon. At that time there was a fall-out with the management and hand on heart I believe that I could still have been around in 2003. Whether the new Tyrone manager decided to pick me or not was another thing.
Q: How big an honour was it to win an All-star award in 1996?
It was a great personal honour to receive. I was always happy just to play for Tyrone and anything else after that was a bonus but it was certainly nice to win one
Q:If you had the chance to go back and change one moment that haunts you, what would that be?
I would love to change the moment when Dublin scored their goal in the 1995 All Ireland final. If that hadn’t gone in things would have turned out differently for us
Q: Who was the best forward that you ever played against and why?
It would have to be my former teammate Peter Canavan. Other keepers met him only once a year but I came up against him two or three nights a week at training and there is no doubt that it helped my game. He was a brilliant player but apart from his natural ability he worked extremely hard at his game as well. Peter was a perfectionist and if something wasn’t working out at training he would stay there until it did. That’s why he stayed so far ahead of the rest.