Tyrone hero Tommy: Cup has had it's day
Tommy McGuigan wasn't likely to forget one of his first games for Tyrone.
Brother of Brian and son of Frank, he was cursed and blessed in equal measure as he made his way through the underage ranks with his county. Expectation was heavy, but he also had the boon that whenever he laced up boots, management, team-mates and the crowd expected a ball player of skill and vision.
Happily he turned out just that, with his career highlight undoubtedly slotting home the winning goal in the 2008 All-Ireland final against Kerry.
Two and a half years earlier, he found himself in the dressing rooms of a Dr McKenna Cup semi-final. Armagh were the opposition. The two had played out three titanic tussles in Croke Park, the Ulster final that went to a replay and an All-Ireland semi-final. Tyrone lost the Ulster final battle but won the war.
It could be argued that they were the two greatest teams of that era, so when McGuigan exited the tiny Casement Park dressing rooms and went down the steps onto the pitch, he was astonished to see a crowd of 19,631 present.
He said: "It was some shock running out onto the field. And even when you heard the figure after the match you were like, 'Unbelievable… for a McKenna Cup game?'
"It was because of the previous year's games between Tyrone and Armagh. Which is why it took on a life of its own. You have the Ulster final, the replay and then the All-Ireland semi-final and it was all still fresh in the memories of supporters.
"I remember it was great weather-wise too, so it brought them out.
"It was just the fact it was Armagh. The rivalry was still fresh for everybody and that's why it drew those numbers."
Harte himself was chuffed at the attendance, saying after the game: "Crazy. But isn't it a lovely day and a lovely setting for people who want to see football?
"You might have anticipated this seeing as there were 11,000 to see us in Ballybofey last week, and ourselves and Armagh were always going to draw a crowd. But isn't it great to have this opportunity to play football at that level at this time of the year?"
It also represented Kevin Hughes' return after a year spent in Australia, the Kileeshil man joining the fray at half-time.
McGuigan had already played in front of big crowds in his minor and Under-21 finals, but had dismissed the possibility of a January game having so much importance.
But the relationship between Tyrone and Armagh at the time was unique. In many respects they elevated the game to another level and supporters fed off that.
So when he made his way to his position, he was given an instant crash course in senior county football, courtesy of an Armagh folk hero.
"The likes of myself and a few others were new to it. But then I ran out and noticed it was Francie Bellew that was waiting to mark me! Ah, he wasn't dirty off the ball or anything like that, but when you got the ball you knew you were being tackled," chuckles the sales rep for JP Corry.
Twelve years on, the Dr McKenna Cup still has enormous resonance with Tyrone and Mickey Harte. There are reasons for that, some sentimental and some cut-throat.
For example, it was the one Cup that the late Cormac McAnallen lifted in his brief spell as Tyrone captain, so Harte wanted to see it take up permanent residence in the county. It has led to their present run of six consecutive titles, which they will seek to stretch to seven with a semi-final against Fermanagh in Brewster Park tomorrow.
As for the brutal reasons, the McKenna Cup represents a rare chance to shine. Prior to Christmas, Tyrone hosted Carlow in Garvaghey for a challenge match, the one single time Harte has relented on his policy.
"Challenge matches, he never was a fan of them and I never played one challenge match in my time with Tyrone, not one. I don't think Brian and the boys did either so he was unique in that respect," McGuigan explained.
"When I came onto the squad, when Mickey was talking to you one to one, he said, 'we do this here, we get through the group, you have a semi-final and then you have a final. And I need to see you boys playing'.
"So it was felt that there was nothing better than competitive games. He said there were more games as you went along and that only put you in the window and you could make the squad for the league.
"He would have always preached that, get through the group, get more games to perform and it left it that you were able to make the league squad which was your ultimate aim."
You didn't want to be left on the January scrapheap. For years Harte would carry an extended panel over the winter and when the axe fell, nobody was safe. Your name would be thrown in with a load of others in newspaper reports at a time when GAA news can be thin on the ground.
"It meant you worked for your jersey," McGuigan stated.
"When you are there, Mickey is putting big emphasis on it. He is building it up and you are buying into it. You have it in your head, 'right, we need to win this'.
"But that comes from Mickey. Mickey hates losing, he doesn't like getting beat in anything, he wants to win everything he plays. And that's great, it's a great thing to have and it's why he is successful, building that winning habit throughout the year."
Nowadays, he is out of the county bubble. He is still playing away for Ardboe, in a sweeper role now that his pace is on the wane.
The distance between then and now has changed his perception of January football.
"Come the league I will be out supporting Tyrone, but the McKenna Cup?" he quizzes. "They should start the league sooner anyway. Free up more time for the clubs to play their games in the summer. But the powers-that-be don't feel that way.
"When I was a player, I thought it was a big deal. I definitely did, it was great, putting on the jersey was a great honour and then you did give it serious importance.
"But to be honest now, I wouldn't go near it. I wouldn't look at it, I think it is a waste of time. I honestly do. It wouldn't interest me at all. There are two Ardboe lads now on it and I still wouldn't care. I barely check the results in the McKenna Cup.
"The league, now you will watch it. And Championship. But McKenna Cup, you see it for what it is - a warm-up."
There won't be anything like that 19,631 crowd in Brewster Park tomorrow. But that won't bother Tyrone, their manager, and the hungry Young Turks trying to make their way in county football under a most demanding manager in January.
Dr McKenna Cup semi-final:
Brewster Park, Sunday, 2pm