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Tyrone proud of Cup pedigree

McConnell, Mulligan excited by Red Hands' bid to equal record

By Declan Bogue

Pascal McConnell can't tell you exactly how many Dr McKenna Cup medals he won in a glittering playing career with Tyrone, but he is proud of them nonetheless.

His point is illuminated by an anecdote about his goalkeeping predecessor and older brother, Finbarr.

Pascal and his Under-21 team-mates had just beaten Donegal in the 2000 Ulster final under Mickey Harte when senior management knocked on the dressing room door. They were facing Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup final.

Ahead of tomorrow's semi-final against Fermanagh in Clones, in which Tyrone hope to edge closer to equalling Monaghan's record of 14 crowns, McConnell recalled: "They came into the dressing room after the game and got a few of the boys to double up and play a second game that day, against Cavan.

"Eugene (McKenna) and Big Art (McRory), two men who were experienced, did that. Cormac McGinley played both games and got totally wrecked in the second.

"My brother went through 15 years and never won a McKenna Cup medal. It was something he wasn't happy about. He said, 'Ok, it's not the biggest competition in the world, but it would be nice to have something to show when you see other players with two or three to their name'."

Nowadays, player welfare and a greater understanding of the art and science of blooding young players would not allow it, especially as McConnell reminds us, "with a cup involved!"

In general, the GAA isn't great at killing off competitions that have lost their lustre, such as the Railway Cup, for example.

For decades, the Dr McKenna Cup hung out in the limbo period of just before the Ulster Championship, which was the original intention when the Bishop of Clogher, Dr Patrick McKenna, donated the Cup to the Ulster Council in 1925.

It appeared to be all over when it wasn't staged in 2001 and 2002, but it instead came back in a different format, re-housed in January and revitalised by the inclusion of the University teams in 2003 - by coincidence, Harte's first year as Tyrone senior manager.

Although he has stared the Ulster Council down on occasion over the eligibility and preferences of players in wanting to play for Tyrone over their colleges, nobody has done more for the credibility of the competition since its rebirth than Harte.

In his first year, he lost in the final to Monaghan.

The following year, their new captain Cormac McAnallen lifted it as his only trophy as senior captain. In Harte's first 13 years, they have won it eight times.

"Cormac's legacy comes into it as well. The fact that Cormac lifted the cup shortly before his passing away… it's always something Mickey has held dear," said McConnell.

That's not to say that everybody in Tyrone embraced it wholeheartedly.

Former Red Hands ace Owen Mulligan, who would have been jolted out of his Christmas routine by hard frosts and teams far too up for it, said: "To be honest, I hated it. I hated it at the time."

He admires the appetite, in another sense, of the present squad.

"I went to the first McKenna Cup game against Queen's and I couldn't believe how lean they were, how they were fitting into their jerseys instead of when we were playing. There used to be a couple of bulges in the stomach!" he laughed.

"Obviously, they were training by themselves over Christmas. I think that's how far the game has come.

"I spotted Sean Cavanagh warming up on the sideline two weeks ago and thought that would never have happened in the past."

Still, no matter what shape you reported back in, this was your only chance to impress Harte, with Tyrone's famous aversion to 'challenge' matches.

"When you are scoring points, your name is in the paper and you are doing everything right, it is hard for Mickey Harte to drop you," pointed out Mulligan.

For a man who bemoaned a creeping 'Spice Boy' culture among the Tyrone subs in his autobiography two years ago, Mulligan is delighted that indications are different right now.

"I was actually talking to Mattie Donnelly on Tuesday," he revealed.

"He said there is a great buzz around the whole set-up. Boys don't want to be sitting on the bench, they want to be starting. The Under-21 success catapulted a lot of players onto this stage and it is all good for Tyrone.

"There were too many boys, for too many years who were just happy to say that they were a Tyrone senior.

"There's always been that conveyor belt that we are proud of. I just think, in years gone by, there were boys who were not pushing as hard. That kind of rubbed off on everybody else.

"The likes of Kieran McGeary, he was brilliant in the first McKenna Cup match. I was very, very impressed with him and he will not want to sit on the bench after captaining the Under-21s to the All-Ireland title.

"That will push everybody on. The older boys will get a kick up the backside if they need one."

Now they face the Ernesiders in tomorrow's semi-final. Before Harte took over, Tyrone were only propped off the bottom of the roll of honour by Fermanagh, having one more victory than them with five.

Now they are seeking to equal Monaghan's record of 14 triumphs. Tyrone jerseys have always been precious and gametime scarce under Harte, but it is that culture that has them competing in January.

Supporters of other counties may sneer at the McKenna Cup or the GAA hipster types that follow it religiously, but the hard truth is that nobody in the O'Neill County cares.

McConnell added of his former manager: "Mickey has always wanted to take this seriously, treat it with the utmost respect and win.

"The McKenna Cup has been good to Tyrone, it has prepared teams well for National League campaigns. Okay, some campaigns may not have went to plan, like last year, but again, it's held dear in Tyrone."

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