Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Tyrone make perfect pitch

Tyrone power: The magnificent facilities at Garvaghey will ensure that Tyrone continue to be the team to beat in Ulster
Tyrone power: The magnificent facilities at Garvaghey will ensure that Tyrone continue to be the team to beat in Ulster
Tyrone power: The magnificent facilities at Garvaghey will ensure that Tyrone continue to be the team to beat in Ulster
Tyrone power: The magnificent facilities at Garvaghey will ensure that Tyrone continue to be the team to beat in Ulster

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of Missionary Priests strolled around the vast new Tyrone training complex of Garvaghey, led on an unofficial tour by centre manager, Ciaran O'Kane.

Today marks the date of the official opening which also happens to be 10 years to the day that Tyrone won their first All-Ireland. However, the Garvaghey centre has been warmly welcoming all to come and see.

Such as Fr Mickey Martin, one of the clergy party. As a full-back for Carrickmore, he won a Tyrone Championship in 1966 before departing for the Philippines the very next day.

The GAA he left behind holds no comparison with these advances. With six full-size pitches, a 3G floodlit facility, 10 dressing rooms, a gym with a £30,000 anti-gravity treadmill, an auditorium, along with an administrative centre and catering facilities, set on 43 acres, it is the most impressive venue dedicated to a sporting organisation in Northern Ireland, possibly Ireland.

Such a monument was conceived in the throes of the Celtic Tiger period by members of 'Club Tyrone', the fundraising arm of the county board. However, unlike other ventures that surfed in on waves of champagne flowing freely at the time, it will not become a millstone around their necks.

"Tyrone is white-van county," explains Mark Conway, one of the most-visible figures of Club Tyrone.

"It's not a wealthy county, although there are some wealthy people in it. But Tyrone is just a bigger version of the Leitrims and Roscommons, it's very rural."

At the heart of Tyrone's success are men like Conway. Unfussy. Unpretentious. Men who get things done. He sits in a room in the social club of Healy Park after watching Errigal Ciaran's demolition of Augher in the Championship and tells the story of Garvaghey.

From his childhood on he can hardly recall a Tyrone match that he missed, having been introduced to it by his father as they grew up in agricultural surroundings in Kildress. He cites the famous poem about Christy Ring, with its line about, 'The hay saved and Cork bate', only in Kildress, "we got to the Ulster final whether the hay was saved or not."

On the field he wasn't much use; "I'm not being modest. Worse than useless!" but as a Strategic Planner he had other gifts that were further developed through his club and the GAA network.

Come the mid-90s and a group of Tyrone Gaels, led by former GAA Trustee Jimmy Treacy, saw the need for some kind of perpetual funding body for Tyrone teams.

Each year they were threatening silverware and the old system of chapel-gate collections was wearing thin so they formed the 'Millennium Initiative,' the first task being to enrol 200 people that would contribute £500 annually, for five years.

This would evolve into Club Tyrone. Within their work, they always took the temperature of rank and file GAA members through workshops and focus groups and the need for a training facility was identified. Following all the feasibility studies and surveys, a price of £6.7m emerged and they cut the first sod in March 2009.

"The next thing was," recalls Conway, "'where is this money going to come from?' And a lot of it is estimates and suppositions and so on. Grant from here, grant from there, but the bulk of it was always going to have to be raised from us.

"So one of the things we came up with was the 'Garvaghey Patrons'. People who would give £5,000 hard cash to make the place happen. And the number we came up with was to get 100 of these."

Currently there are 292 Garvaghey patrons.

This project has been six years in the dreaming and planning. It's understandable that after today's jamboree, the main players of Club Tyrone might experience a slump. In dismissing that, Conway invokes one of Ted Kennedy's most famous speeches when he fails to secure the Democratic nomination in 1980.

He said: "'For all those whose care is our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.' We stole that. That's our philosophy in Tyrone.

"The temptation is that the day you turn the key in the door, you think it is over. Whereas in fact it is the opposite – that's when the work starts. So we would already be thinking about Garvaghey, the financial sustainability of it – which we will deliver, because we work hard at it."

Nothing illustrates the effort quite like the 'Hunt for 100' they conducted at the end of May. After defeat to Donegal, Club Tyrone made a concerted effort to bring up their membership, having gave much attention to the Garvaghey project.

Their target was to recruit 100 new Club Tyrone members before the Red Hands were next out in Championship action; which left them a month to convince people to put their hands in their pockets.

Before they held their last meeting prior to the round one qualifier match against Offaly, they had 127 new members. In the dressing room in Tullamore that day, Mickey Harte praised the spirit of the individuals involved and implored his players to match that effort.

As it happened, they hammered Offaly and scored the magical figure; 1-27.

"When that story comes back to our people," finishes Conway, "you can just see them rising, because that's the motivator, that's the biggest reward.

"That's the adornment on the soul, to bate the band."

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