Gourley's rocky road back
Veteran eyes Croker glory after finding the desire to overcome long-term injury
In the lead-up to this weekend's All-Ireland Junior Club final against Glenbeigh-Glencar of Kerry, it is interesting to look back on Rock ace Ciaran Gourley's journey to this point.
While former Tyrone ace Ryan McMenamin got up to high jinks in the left corner with No.4 on his back, Gourley relied on timing, anticipation and application to do his job in the other corner.
A part of Mickey Harte's all-conquering Minor and Under-21 teams, he was one of the first to move up to the senior squad. By the time the 2003 All-Ireland final against Armagh came round, he had already accrued 16 Championship appearances.
He was ever-dependable, that status conferred when he was named the first Tyrone full-back after the death of Cormac McAnallen for the National League game away to Mayo in 2004.
Then there was the famous occasion in June 2002 when he hurt himself falling off a ladder while working on the family farm the week of a Championship game.
A teacher by profession who has since led St Patrick's Dungannon to MacRory and Hogan Cup success as a highly-rated coach, the notion of recreational farming the week of a Championship game now belongs to a bygone era.
In 2005, he was injured for the All-Ireland final. In 2008, he didn't make the matchday panel. He was always struggling to nail down his place after helping his club Rock - a tiny rural outpost between Pomeroy and Cookstown - to the All-Ireland Junior Club final, which they lost to Canovee.
Nine years later, he will take his place in a Croke Park dressing room ready to put right that wrong for Rock St Patrick's, and for himself.
At the age of 35, he ruptured a Patella tendon - the one that holds your kneecap in place - in a nothing game.
"The old stubbornness helped. I didn't want to finish up having been stretchered off the pitch," he laughed.
"I was told at that stage that it would do me, that I had had enough. I spent 2015, the whole summer, housebound. I wasn't fit to drive or do anything much.
"But once I started to see the shoots of a wee bit of recovery, and a few players in my own club had saying, 'ah, you'll get back, you'll get back', I wanted to get back."
And back he came.
It might have been easier to just say goodbye and slip on a manager's bib. With his experience with St Patrick's, there were no end of suitors.
"There have been a few calls," Gourley (below with Dublin's Jason Sherlock) revealed. "But my heart has still been in playing football. I know that someday that will be it and I will be involved in taking a club. In the school I am heavily involved.
"And it comes with a word of caution in taking on any management job now. The level of effort that is required is something that you have to take on board."
In the Tyrone Championship, the Rock beat a Castlederg side leaping out of their skin before accounting for Brocagh, then Owen Roe's in the semi-final and Tattyreagh in the decider. They won each by three points.
In the Ulster final it was even tighter again with just one point to spare against Blackhill of Monaghan. The only time they had a little bit of comfort was in beating Dunedin Connollys of Edinburgh in the All-Ireland semi-final. And so it's back to Croke Park for Gourley. All 37 years of him.
While he was swept up in a golden generation of Tyrone football, Croke Park became a place they could express themselves most vividly.
But now it's different. He married Carol, from Glenullin, last year. Time is ticking on in football, in life. This is probably the last time he will enter the stadium in a bus, possibly the last time he wears the black and green of the Rock.
"I never imagined I would be in this position again. And yeah, maybe there is a bit of romance to it," he admitted.
"There is no fairytale ending for any of these things. Come Sunday, I would love to finish up on a high note, but it may not happen that way.
"If it happens, then brilliant. We just want to produce a performance that would get us over the line."
There is no coincidence that Gourley is still playing. Of that 2003 Tyrone team, Philip Jordan and Enda McGinley have retired through injury and Gavin Devlin, Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan are involved in coaching Red Hands teams. Plenty are still playing ball, such as McMenamin, John Devine, Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan and Conor Gormley.
Their 'second careers' away from the bright lights have been rewarding.
"My club people would have taken a lot out of me representing the county and it might have given them a bit more affinity with the county," said Gourley.
"Talking to some of the boys now, it's just not the same anymore because they don't have someone from their own club involved. They are just not as close to the action."
But they are in the action now. Rock are back in the big time. And they have their best man with them.