McCusker relives fierce rivalry that's never lost its edge
ON Tuesday last, Paul Donnelly, the shaven-headed uncompromising Tyrone defender of the mid-'90s called into the Dungannon branch of the Bank of Ireland.
There, he met Fergal P McCusker, another defender from the same era for Derry, with perhaps a more cultured approach to his duties. Nowadays, McCusker manages the bank. It took only a few seconds of pleasantries before one of their recurring topics of conversation came to the fore - the cross-Sperrins rivalry of their prime, examined and analysed over breakfast in a local café.
And well they remember. Tyrone shaped Derry, just as much as Donegal and Down did throughout that period when half of the championship matches in Ulster were de facto All-Ireland finals. Consider that for the first four years of Peter Canavan's senior career he had never tasted victory for Tyrone in the Ulster Championship. That changed in '94 when they reached the final.
In the meantime, Derry relished keeping their boot on the Tyrone throat. They edged them by a point in the 1991 preliminary round. They benefited from Plunkett Donaghy dropping a late Anthony Tohill free from his grasp into the net to gift the 1992 league final.
When they reconvened for the championship opener weeks later, the BBC were covering their first live match and the throw-in was delayed due to their aversion to broadcasting the Irish anthem. By the time the ball was thrown in, the place was about to blow.
"That was a proper championship game, in the white hot heat of Celtic Park. The crowd hanging over the wire, baying for blood and a full house, two teams going at it hammer and tongs," recalls McCusker.
With all that as a backdrop, the 1995 game was always going to be labelled 'extremely flammable'. The uncharacteristic heat played its part too. "Outside the ground, I think the temperature was 28, 29 degrees," says Jody Gormley, Tyrone's midfielder that day. "Inside Clones, with the crowd and everything else, the temperature was certainly higher than that."
And because of that, "Maybe we didn't cope all that well with the situation in the first half," says Gormley with understatement.
They had their pre-game stuff right. For all the gruff persona that he did little to discourage, then-Tyrone manager Art McRory was a multi-layered character. With tastes ranging from the opera to his stewardship of greyhounds, he was up with the science of the time and Tyrone had their hydration and electrolytes on board.
What they weren't expecting was an early red card for Seamus McCallan, followed by another when Pascal Canavan sent a flurry of flakes into Damian Barton's face as he held him by the throat. Tyrone looked sunk. McCusker knew Cavan ref Michael Greenan would be put under pressure. "He was cornered in the changing rooms at half-time. Art was waiting for him and ambushed him," he says. "I can imagine the referee's state of mind as he came out for the second half. We were well-schooled for what was going to happen."
And then… "I was sent off for a brush with Peter Canavan. That's all it could be described as. I was going out with the ball, fisted it over his head and Peter ran into me, lay down and I was sent off."
Gormley's recollection is of Dr John Kremer, a renowned Sports Psychologist attached to Queen's University and part of the Tyrone backroom team, loosening the tension at half-time.
Tyrone would nibble away at Derry's lead. Canavan was inspired, giving birth to the old joke about taxis only having to carry four passengers, while Canavan carried 14 that very day. But the mood was ugly in the Gerry Arthurs Stand.
"It was the most vitriolic and poisonous atmosphere of a Gaelic football match I think I was ever at," states McCusker. Although he was from the heart of south Derry in Maghera, he had spent enough nights in Cookstown to recognise the edge between the two counties.
As the heat exacted its toll, the sides were locked at ten points each before Stephen Lawn - himself from Cookstown - raced out to take a handpass to Canavan on the sideline, turning Gary Coleman as he gathered the ball, prompting Jimmy Magee to say in the commentary gallery, "His foot went out but the ball stayed in."
When faced with a retreating Tohill, he turned back and found Jody Gormley in a perfect position to float over with his left foot.
"There could have been as much as four or five minutes to go. At the time it was just an opportunity to score, a great pass from Stephen and I was in a position where I couldn't really miss," he recalls.
Tyrone held on and reached an All-Ireland final that they still fume about the injustices of. That's how strong Ulster was back then in those pre-back door times.
"The beauty of those games were that it was s**t or bust. It was all-in," says McCusker. Tonight, the cross-Sperrins rivalry continues. League is league and all that, but this is a rivalry that never loses its appeal.