Our Friday Feature this week is an interview with former Tyrone defender John Lynch. The uncompromising Lynch won many honours as a county footballer and has recently turned his attention to coaching, being involved this year with the Coalisland team that won The O’Neill Cup for the first time in twenty years. He is also very active within his home club Castlederg and is currently involved with development squads in Tyrone.
Q: Who were the early influences on your career John?
A: Charlie Gallen would have introduced us to football in School and then you had the likes of John McCrory, Eugene McLaughlin and Harry Brennan who all done a lot of work at underage level within the club. I first played for the club at U-14 level, which was the year that we were formed.
Q: Did you enjoy any success at School on the football field?
A: I went to St.Eugene’s Castlederg and we had a great bunch of lads about at that time. We won a County Vocational title, beating Dungannon in the final. The side was made up of lads from my own Club Castlederg as well as from our neighbours Aghyaran.
Q: When did you first play under Art McCrory?
A: I played under Art for two years at inter County Vocational level. He first played me on the team in the full forward line. We reached two Ulster finals in a row but lost on both occasions to Armagh who were very strong at the time.
Q: How many years did you play for Tyrone minors?
A: Three, 1977 to 1979. We won the Ulster title in 1978, beating Monaghan in the decider. I played at midfield that day and the likes of Noel McGinn, Damian O’Hagan, Aidan O’Hagan and my own club mate Charlie Lynch were on that side. Dublin beat us in the All Ireland semi final that year in Croke Park with Barney Rock scoring a couple of goals on a side that also included Ciaran Duff. Down beat us in the Ulster final the following year in a game that we should have won. Greg Blaney played for them that day.
Q: What about your U-21 career?
A: We won the Ulster title in 1980 beating the then reigning All Ireland champions Down in the decider. I remember breaking my nose in the semi final that year. We lost to Cork in the All Ireland semi final and I remember that it was played at an almost empty Croke Park. We had a good side that year but lost out to a Cork side that included the likes of Dave Barry and John Crowley. One unique feature about the Tyrone U-21 squad that year was that it contained four players from Castlederg, unheard of for a junior club. Apart from myself there was Charlie Lynch, Colm Lynch and Francie Lynch.
Q: Didn’t you play in the Ulster senior final that year as well?
A: I came on as a sub that day when we lost out to Armagh by three points. I was young at the time and I suppose when you are only a sub you don’t feel a part of it. At that age you don’t really be bothered about losing as you know that you have a lot of years ahead of you.
Q: Who did you make your senior debut against?
A: It was against Monaghan in the National League. I remember I got a thump that day from Nudie Hughes. That was my introduction to senior inter County football, my wake up call if you like.
Q: Who were the established names around when you first came on the scene?
A: Gerry Taggart, Patsy Hetherington, Patsy Kerlin, Pat King, Barry Campbell.
Q: What about the next couple of years for Tyrone?
A: They were tough times for us. We always knew that we were good enough but we just couldn’t manage to make that breakthrough. In 1982 we beat the reigning Ulster champions Down in their own back yard in Newry but then lost out in the semi final to Fermanagh at Breffini Park. Peter McGinnity was very good for them that day and was ultimately the difference between the two teams. The next year we lost at the first Hurdle to Cavan also at Breffini Park but I don’t remember that much about the game. We had worked hard, especially Art. Nowadays there are two or three in along the line but back then Art was doing the bulk of the work himself.
Q: What about the 1984 Ulster championship?
A: Unfortunately I broke my leg that year and missed the first two championship games against Derry and Down. We had beaten Donegal in the McKenna Cup final that year in Irvinestown. I marked Martin McHugh that day and I played well on him. It was easy for me as I was in great shape but it was very disappointing when I broke my leg in a club game against Aghaloo a week later. I came on in the final that year late on against Armagh. It was special winning my first Ulster senior medal and even though I was on the sideline for most of the game it was great to witness the display that Frank McGuigan put in that day.
Q: Who did you mark in the All Ireland semi final that year?
A: I marked Barney Rock that day and I had plenty of running to do. In hindsight I wasn’t fit enough to play that day but I had come in for the injured Frank Rafferty. We showed our inexperience that day.
Q: Looking back, were you satisfied with an Ulster title that year?
A: That was our target at the start of the season and we achieved our goal. I remember us sitting down at a meeting at the start of the year and Art was laying down his plans for the year or two ahead. He said that the target that year was an Ulster title followed by getting to the final the next year before winning it in 1986. I remember thinking to myself, what are you talking about?
Q: What about 1985?
A: We were more aware of what was happening that year. We reached the National league semi final and a last gasp point from Ciaran McGarvey earned us a draw with Monaghan at Croke Park. They beat us in the replay at the Athletic grounds in Armagh after extra time. Those were two very tough games. They were a coming team at that time and their manager Sean McCague as well as Art McCrory no doubt started to show the way to Ulster sides what could be done and they helped lay the foundations for the success that the Province enjoyed in the early nineties. I missed the championship that year against Derry at Ballinascreen due to injury but I ended up getting suspended for an incident after the game that I didn’t commit and I took the rap for it.
Q: Did the lead up to the 1986 campaign feel any different from other years?
A: The lead up to the first round game with Derry at Omagh was very poor. In the two weeks before the game the atmosphere in the camp just wasn’t good and you would nearly think that a lot of the players just weren’t bothered. I was injured in the run up to that game and Art asked me on the Thursday night how I felt. I told him that I didn’t think that I would be fit to play and he told me that I had to play as we were already carrying a few injuries. Noel McGinn’s goal late on won the day for us. Noel was always good for doing something like that and there is no doubt that he went for it that day. Everything turned around after that and we knuckled down as we knew that we had got out of jail. In the semi final we comfortably got the better of Cavan in Irvinestown. I recall that Damian O’Hagan had a superb game that day; he was one of the unsung heroes of the team.
Q: Were you confident going into the final?
A: We were confident of beating Down. We knew that they had some great players who we had met before at senior and underage levels but Art was a great man for getting our confidence up, he was a very good motivator. Plunkett Donaghy got the goal that day when their keeper stepped over the line but I believe that Mickey McClure’s point immediately after that was vital to us winning the game as well. A funny thing leading on from that game, I was treating a man from Donegal a few years ago for a bad back and he told me that he was the umpire who gave the goal that day, I probably should have given him free treatment on hearing that!
Q: What about the Galway game?
A: We were nervous that day. We knew that we had the beating of Galway but then again we were just a step away from an All Ireland final and that made us nervous. The old hands of Damian O’Hagan and Eugene McKenna kept us going that day as we only played well in fits and starts. They had good forwards like Val Daly, Gay McManus and Stephen Joyce but we had some great man markers and in full back Ciaran McGarvey we had the best player in his position at the time. At that time it was the best feeling to have made it through to the All Ireland final, words couldn’t express how we felt.
Q: What about the build up to the final?
A: Art kept us well focused in terms of the Media and the people on the streets. Again, we felt confident going into the final. We had Kerry in our sights and thought that we had every blade of grass covered. The only thing that we had not reckoned on was that we would be so far ahead and that maybe was our downfall for what happened that day.
Q: You had marked Mikey Sheehy brilliantly that day, what happened with the injury?
A: The ball had come in and I was turning into it when Ciaran McGarvey and the Bomber Liston took me out at the same time. I knew straight away that something wasn’t right and I signalled to the bench. Between that time and the time I was taken off Sheehy got in for a goal when I was hobbling after him. I should have been off straight away as I later found out that I had fractured a bone in my Leg. That was one of a few things that went wrong that day. Eugene McKenna got injured as well, Sean McNally was taken back into defence despite playing well up front, Kevin McCabe missed a penalty and Mickey McClure took a point just after our goal when another one could have been on. Those were all body blows that we failed to recover from. Having said that I don’t agree with the abuse that Kevin McCabe took for missing that penalty, there was never any word of the one that he scored in the semi final. He was a brilliant defender for Tyrone and would have won another All Star award if we had won that day.
Q: How special for you was it to win an All Star award that year?
A: It was a nice personal honour to get although I would have swapped it for an All Ireland medal. I got to go on the All Star trip to Chicago and San Francisco and I actually captained the All Star side that year which was a nice honour to receive. I made friends for life on that trip and have since gone back and forward to the States each summer.
Q: What about the following year?
A: After the injury I didn’t play in the National League in 1987 but I was in good shape come championship time as I had done a lot of work at Athletics. In the first game against Antrim I got man of the match and we were nearly away that year only for Iggy Gallagher’s last gasp point at Casement Park. We won the replay but Armagh embarrassed us in the Ulster semi final. A lot of the boys didn’t do much and perhaps weren’t mentally ready to play as much as anything. Looking back on it, that wasn’t a bad Antrim side, it was one of their better sides in recent years, and it would have been perhaps better if they had gone on.
Q: Tyrone were back in the 1988 Ulster final?
A: Yes we were, gaining revenge over Armagh at the semi final stage. Monaghan undid us in the final though with the help of a Nudie Hughes goal. Credit for that win again has to go to Sean McCague. That was one of the best Tyrone sides that I played on but he set out to do a number on us and he achieved that.
Q: What about that incident in the tunnel the next year in the opening round against Armagh?
A: We were very poor in the first half and we were coming down the tunnel and I was clipped when I wasn’t expecting it, I was totally innocent that day. I wanted to play in the second half but I was concussed and manager Donal Donnelly wouldn’t let me. I don’t mind much about it although it turned out it was the kick up the backside that we needed that day.
Q: Weren’t you sent off in the semi final that year?
A: Yes I was, against Down. I fell over John Kelly that day but the referee deemed that I had kicked him and I got a three month suspension out of that. I probably shouldn’t have played that day as I still had a bad eye. I missed the rest of the championship as my suspension was due to expire just before the All Ireland final but we lost out in the semi final that year to Mayo.
Q: Did you feel that you were a target for referees as you were distinctly recognisable?
A: I always put it down to the scuffle that I had with one of the Australians in the Compromise Rules in 1986. I got a reputation after that and it never went away. I suppose no matter where I went after that the referee on any given day knew about me.
Q: When did you quit playing for Tyrone?
A: I was in the panel for the Ulster final in 1994 against Down and I quit playing at the Christmas break that year.
Q: Have you any regrets from your playing career?
A: Obviously I would have loved to have won an All Ireland medal in 1986. I believe if we had won it that day then we would have had three or four more by this stage. Having said that I got great enjoyment out of playing County football and it was a big honour to represent my County at senior level and get to play with so many great players.
Q: What about your Railway Cup career?
A: I was part of the winning squad in 1984 but never got playing. I played in a few campaigns after that but those were lean times for Ulster and I never got to win it again. It was of course a great honour to play, it was another step up and you got to play alongside players that you were always in opposition to. That made you see them in a different light.
Q: Did you enjoy the Compromise Rules?
A: I did, I played in two series and it was a great honour to get to play for your Country. Personally though I believe the series is a waste of time. There is a lot of money wasted that could be ploughed into the GAA in Britain and in America. The money could be better used to coach the kids in those Countries and then through time you could have your own International series with our own game.
Q: What about your club career with Castlederg?
A: We were always a junior club and I suppose we are playing in a bad area where there is a lot of soccer being played. We never had our own field and that didn’t help either although that has now changed and our facilities are as good if not better than any in North Tyrone. I started playing at fourteen and right the way through I won no honours with the club. In 1988 Castlederg won the grade one minor league and championship double, something unheard of for a junior club, but we never seem to be able to hold onto lads.
Q: Didn’t you play in Donegal for a few years?
A: Yes, I played for Red Hughs from Killygordon. They were a neighbouring club and had pressurised me to play for them for a couple of years. I really enjoyed that spell and we won a senior league title as well as getting to the semi-final of the championship twice. They were a great bunch of players and it was nice to win something at club level.
Q: What do you do in the game at the moment?
A: I am trying to help out with my club Castlederg at the moment. I also coach the young lads at the club as well as at school after hours.
Q: Who were the best players that you ever played with?
A: Damian O’Hagan, Kevin McCabe, Frank McGuigan, Peter Canavan.
Q: Who was your toughest opponent?
A: Greg Blaney.
Q: What did 2003 mean to you as an ex Tyrone player?
A: It was the closing of the book if you like, the end of the final chapter. 1995 was just like 1986, so near and yet so far away. Winning the All Ireland that year was just brilliant although it died with Cormac. We must be the only County that got to celebrate an All Ireland for just six months.
Q: What do you think of the backdoor System?
A: At the beginning I wasn’t a fan of it as I believe the one off nature of championship football is hard to beat. On the other hand people get to see more games on TV and there is more money coming in for the association. The cream always comes to the top at the end. It has definitely helped football, particularly in Leinster where recently we have seen the likes of Laois, Westmeath and Wexford all challenging.
Q: What about the role that Art McCrory played in Tyrone football?
A: He is one man that should always get a mention when Tyrone football is mentioned. He gave everything that he had to Tyrone and was the man that made it all happen and he played a major role in us finally winning the All Ireland.
Q: What about your Athletics career?
A: My wife, who is from Donegal, is an international athlete and her Father was a coach and that’s what got me started. I was always fast anyway and I started competing for the Finn Valley Club over 100m, 200m and 400m. I got great enjoyment out of it and I got to a National Final one year. I found that it complemented the football and I believe that track athletes are the elite when it comes to training.