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Omagh talisman Tierney targets Ulster glory over Cross

By Declan Bogue

Almost five weeks ago, Omagh St Enda's captain Hugh Gallagher stood on the presentation podium of Healy Park. Out in front lay a sizeable crowd, beaming and not quite sure what to do with themselves.

County champions. No more soft townies tag to put up with. A first O'Neill Cup in 26 years.

Perhaps sweetest of all was the manner in which they achieved it. It took last minute scores and big final-quarter pushes against Coalisland, Dromore and in the final, a last-minute goal against Carrickmore. Every one of them a recognised, blue-chip 'Championship' team.

Again, no more soft townies tag. Gone forever.

At the final whistle, one Omagh man forget himself in the emotion.

He threw his car keys to his wife, saying, "I'll be home at some time!" before vaulting the fence to celebrate on the pitch.

Gallagher concluded his captain's speech with a humorous line: "Now for the shortest homecoming in history!"

Omagh celebrated with the abandon of a club that knew it would be five weeks before their next game of consequence. Late into the wee hours, reinforcements were sent for from a local hotel to keep the porter flowing.

The following day it got rowdy and messy but nobody was harmed in the merry-making. Truly, breakthrough county titles are a tonic for the soul.

At the heart of it was Barry Tierney, Omagh's rampaging centre-back with the Progressive-rock beard and hair.

When two Martin Penrose points looked to have etched out another Championship for Carrickmore, Tierney kept making himself available, kept generating attacks.

"Eventually, the banks bust when Ronan O'Neill kept his head amidst all the panic to slot home the winning goal in injury-time.

"I suppose we were always questioning whether we could win it or not," says Tierney, a 22-year-old Sports Studies student in Jordanstown.

"Especially this team, when people said we hadn't the bottle for it, we weren't up for it and we hadn't the guts.

"I think this year we proved it and it was a monkey off our backs maybe. It was sheer relief to get over the line."

One of the most over-used phrases in Gaelic games is where a team is given the usually superfluous description of being a 'good mix of youth and experience.'

However, in Omagh's case it does apply.

When they needed experience at the finish, they could call on 38-year-old Conor Starrs, a veteran of the 1998 side that were beaten by Ardboe in the county final. They also had Paul Tierney and Keith Burns of the same vintage, hanging on because they knew ­- just knew - the potential of the underage squad that came through all grades, winning every available league and Championship.

"They had the belief that a Championship was coming soon," says Tierney, who grew up in that Golden Generation.

It also included goalkeeper Ryan Clarke, Ronan O'Neill, Conán Grugan, Aáron Grugan and the sadly-injured Conor Clarke, missing since the first game against Coalisland when he ruptured his cruciate.

"They had the belief in us and I suppose they were always saying 'one more year' and they kept pushing us on, saying 'this is our time, we will never have a better chance of winning the Championship," he added.

"The fact that they were right, you have to give credit to them boys for not giving in, keeping on and pushing us on."

Some missed the big day. Micheál Gallagher, a brother of Hugh's, could not defer moving to Australia any longer to take up employment. The same for Dean O'Neill and his work in London.

A clip emerged on the phones of the Omagh lads after the final of Dean's brother Darragh, another exiled player, sitting watching the concluding stages of the game on his laptop in Australia.

The pure agony of watching Omagh slip away into the night was contrasted with the explosion of joy when O'Neill potted the goal. As Tierney describes, "Unfortunately he has missed out this year but that video shows what it means, the passion of everybody involved with the club and how long we have waited for it."

In recent years, a perverse delight would be taken by club rivals in Omagh's Championship failings. When you have such an illustrious group coming through at underage it tends to get up the noses of others.

Championship losses in recent years prompted some glee as a result, but they knew themselves that the all-singing, all-dancing underage teams would have to pay their dues in one of the toughest of club competitions.

"I think when this team came up, a lot of people, when we were 18, 19 years of age, expected us to just take Omagh through games. But it took the right time and the right conditions to get used to Championship football," is Tierney's reasonable assessment.

"From playing minors to seniors there is a big difference and we soon found that out. You are coming up against Conor Gormley and Ryan McMenamin, you weren't coming up against them at minor level, so it was a complete readjustment. It took us a few years to do it, but we adjusted right and won it."

Tomorrow, they have the sobering thought of Crossmaglen Rangers coming to Omagh for the first round of Ulster.

They are going for their 150th win in Championship football, ever since that defeat to Mullaghban in 1996. Only seasoned, experienced teams can live with them. The bookies price it as 1/7 for Cross.

With home advantage and the experience of winning at underage level in an Ulster environment, Tierney feels they are going in as equals. Their suffocating style will be stretched to the limit.

"There is this breed of Omagh players in the squad, they have adapted well and I think they have proved that we are not afraid of anything anymore and whatever comes, we are going to deal with it in the right way.

"Come November 2, when the game starts, the nerves go out the window."

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