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Champions Omagh are back in the big time

By Declan Bogue

At half-time in last year's Tyrone county final, the Championship-winning Omagh team of 1988 was honoured as the jubilee side, 25 years on from winning the O'Neill Cup.

The joke then was that they, along with the Healy Park stewards, were the only Omagh people that might ever see action on Championship final day.

Laurence Strain, Omagh manager, broke off from Sunday's post-match celebrations after beating Carrickmore to win the O'Neill Cup to refute that thinking.

"Town teams, it's a lazy generalisation," he said. "Maybe you have something else to distract the players (in towns) but those boys have nothing in their lives but work and football. We have had 50 lads training this last few months."

A publican by trade with a traditional bar in Omagh's Bridge Street, Strain is asked if he would have a job keeping the players out of his premises over the next while, he responds with a laugh but makes a serious point.

"Drink ban? There was never a need for one. Those boys are unbelievably committed."

Around a decade ago, Omagh put a serious emphasis into their youth structures and began planning for the future. They reared a group containing the likes of the ultra-composed goalkeeper Ryan Clarke, Barry Tierney, Conán and Aaron Grugan and ace finisher Ronan O'Neill through the youth ranks, winning everything from Under-14 right up to now, a senior Championship.

Some might have already questioned why they have not delivered one at senior level, but as Strain explains: "Maybe they are just a year older. Most of those lads are still only 22, 23. You don't come to Championship football at 18, 19 and be able to turn it on, you have to lose a couple and those boys have taken a few beatings.

"People can give reasons, you don't put steel into people. People either have it or they don't. Those lads have it, they are just getting it out of them."

That younger group have tied in with the veterans of the squad such as Joe and Justin McMahon and Conor Starrs, while there are a number of skillful operators that bridge the gap such as Jason McAnulla and the injury-hampered Connor O'Donnell.

Man of the match Tierney is one who has come through the grades as an out and out winner, and he feels Omagh were always closer than imagined.

The manner in how they won their games over Coalisland, Dromore and Carrickmore, with late scores, speaks a lot about their character, he maintains.

"If you look at previous years, the team that have put us out of the Championship have gone on to win it," he explained.

"We always had the belief. This year, we showed with victories over Coalisland and Dromore that we can go to the wire."

The clubhouse in Omagh welcomed the O'Neill Cup warmly on Sunday night, but the players will realise how tough it is to defend with Carrickmore the last side to do it in 2004 and 2005.

"It shows the intensity and the doggedness that is in Tyrone club football that it is such a hard thing to win," said Tierney.

In the meantime, they will play host to the champions of Armagh at the same venue on November 2 in the first round of the Ulster club Championship. And only a fool would believe that the side pulling up that day would be anyone other than Crossmaglen Rangers.

The big time truly is back for Omagh.

Belfast Telegraph

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