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I'm still finding it difficult to let go of Tyrone: Gormley

By Donnchadh Boyle

"Gerry McGowan," Tyrone hero Conor Gormley smiles by way of explanation when he's asked what happened on his miserable Croke Park debut for Tyrone.

It's 2002 and the final round of qualifiers. Tyrone are league champions and tipped to make the last-eight by seeing off Sligo at HQ.

The Yeats men have other ideas, however, and after a slow start they storm back. It seems unthinkable given the career he would go on to have but Gormley is gone by half time after finding McGowan unplayable.

"He took me clean out," grins the Carrickmore man at the launch of the EirGrid U20 Football Championship.

"I don't really know what happened. It was my first day in Croke Park and I think I was looking around me!

"Gerry was flying that day and scored (a point). Tyrone were playing rightly that first half but it was just one of those days, and I think it helped me in the long run, playing corner-back.

"Gerry was flying, he won a lot of ball out in front and I never really got a hand on him. Personally, I learned a lot from that game and used it, I managed to build on it and improve myself then for the next game."

It was a miraculous journey from that lonely place at half time to just a year later when he made one of the most famous blocks in GAA history.

In the 68th minute of the 2003 All-Ireland final, Gormley emerged from nowhere to prevent what surely would have been a goal for Armagh's Stevie McDonnell to level the game up.

Tyrone won the Sam Maguire that day and would go on to win two more. Gormley was awarded an All Star in each of their three winning seasons as he established himself as one of the best defenders of his era.

Life moves a little slower these days. He'll turn 38 at the end of the year but is still playing senior football for Carrickmore.

For a day job, he's coaching school children in the county in and around the Strabane area. He helps train the club's Under-6s, where there are "50 or 60 kids coming at me every Thursday so it does get a bit mad".

It helps fill the gap there's been since his retirement after the 2014 season. But he admits that after 15 seasons with the county, it was difficult to move on.

"I found it hard to let go, still do a wee bit. I found it hard to go to watch the matches, just because... I don't really know, it's difficult to go and watch them sometimes," he says.

"I fully support them, but in the back of my mind, I don't know if I'd go and watch them. I'm a wee bit jealous or something like that. I found it hard to let go.

"From being so much a part of your life, just to go on from finishing and not having nothing the following year is tough."

That first season outside the bubble, where Tyrone made the All-Ireland semi-final, was particularly tough.

"I found it hard. I thought I could be involved, thought I could offer something, but when I saw the boys playing and how fast they were going, I knew that my time was up," he admits.

"I found it difficult to get into that mindset of being so involved for (15) years to not being involved. I just found it hard to sit there and watch them.

"They played Monaghan that year here, beat Monaghan, and the next day they played Kerry in the semi-final. I had to leave, I just couldn't watch it.

"I just had to leave straight away, I was just saying to the wife, 'Let's go'. I had the wife and kids up the road, I just couldn't watch it.

"I was probably envious, sitting there for an All-Ireland semi-final and felt that I could be involved. It was hard to adjust back to the life of a club player and back to being a supporter."

He made it to Croke Park for last year's All-Ireland semi-final and he wanted to leave that day too.

"Probably what disappointed me so much was that after Con O'Callaghan's early goal after five or six minutes, they maybe just gave up a wee bit, they didn't just show that fire or that fight to get back in the game," he says.

"Maybe they did a wee bit at the start of the second half, when they missed a few chances, but I think they've learned from that."

Expectations have changed in the county from when Gormley started but that loss to Dublin knocked some of the belief from supporters.

It prompted much conversation about Tyrone's style but, as far as systems of play go, Gormley reckons manager Mickey Harte is playing with the hand he has been dealt.

"There's a lot of chat about these marquee forwards and maybe they just don't have that. Mark Bradley has been tried in there; Connor McAliskey, it's good to see him back; maybe Ronan O'Neill," he says.

"But maybe we don't really have that Conor McManus stand-out forward, a Michael Murphy or Paddy McBrearty really stand-out forward to play in there.

"So that's the system (Harte) designed and that's the way they played. That's what he has to go with at the minute.

"It's going okay but maybe when they get to the Super 8s or that semi-final, will it be okay? It's hard to know.

"I suppose if they are marquee forwards, they have to be 1-2 or 1-3 or 0-5 or 0-6 against Dublin, against the Jonny Coopers and Philly McMahons, then you can say these boys are really top-drawer. Or against the Keith Higgins, that is when you need to be showing you have the full package.

"We were fortunate at that time to have some of the best forwards that ever played the game. Stevie (O'Neill), Peter (Canavan), Mugsy (Owen Mulligan), Brian McGuigan, (Brian) Dooher, Ger Cavlan, where do I stop?"

And Gormley insists matching those players is the challenge Tyrone's forwards now face.

"They are at a good level now, but can they step up to the next level and show that they can hit 1-2 or 1-3 against the top teams and really take the thing by the scruff of the neck and show they are the man?" he adds

"They can be the marquee forward if they want. They have all the talent, they have shown what they can do: Ronan O'Neill, Lee Brennan, Connor McAliskey, they have shown what they can do at a certain level. But can they show it at the next level, an All-Ireland semi against the big teams?"

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