Old hand McGurk relishing Fr Rocks' Croke Park return

Ciaran Woods

PAUL McGurk has been there for the rare highs and the many lows associated with being a Cookstown player.

The defender, who had the unenviable task of marking a young Stevie McDonnell on his Armagh debut way back in 2000, has been one of the Fr Rock's most loyal servants, but even he is struggling to believe that he will once again run out onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park in the sky blue and navy of his club side this Saturday evening, for the second time in three years.

"I remember 2010 when we had won the cup. We had gone back into the dressing rooms, wrecked about. The rest of the boys were heading upstairs to the banquet, and myself and Stephen Monaghan went back down the tunnel. There was only one steward left, he was basically shutting up shop. We went back out just to soak up that last wee bit of atmosphere, because to be honest, at 31, I thought I was never going to be back there in the inner workings of Croke Park.

"We'd all been there for Tyrone matches and the likes, but to be there for your club, to have people there in the stands in your club colours cheering for you, is something very special. It wasn't something I though I'd ever have got back to, but to have qualified back there again is another fantastic opportunity. Days in Croke Park are only enjoyable though if you win, and that's what we'll be heading down the road to do."

Now in his 34th year, McGurk continues to be a massive influence and guide to Cookstown's younger generation of players who are blazing their own championship trail. So has he undergone a change in mindset from starting player to being content with a bench or bit-part role?

"Yes and no. You can't do what you were doing when you were 21. Time catches up with you. As you get older, it's all about the conditioning. If you're well conditioned, and if you're injury free, then it's the old saying that age is just a number. Unfortunately for me, I have been injured for quite a bit, missed a lot of football. At that point then, it does get thrown about. 'Ah sure he's 34, he's had a good innings, he's been a good servant to the club.'

"But that's not something I was willing to settle for. I felt that if I could get back in shape, then I still had something to offer. I said to John [McKeever, manager] over the course of the season that was where I wanted to get to, to a place where I could contribute something to the squad and to the team."

The competition for starting berths in Cookstown this season has been fierce, and Saturday is no different. McGurk, like so many others, is still unclear as to what his Croke Park role will be, or how long it will last.

Whatever happens though, he appreciates and accepts that no individual is bigger than the team, and that nothing other than victory will do as they enter the final stretch of their championship adventure.

"That has been one of the hallmarks this year, that we have had boys who, at any given point, have been able to come in and do a job without it weakening the team.

"That's the same approach we'll take on Saturday as well. No matter what 15 starts, or who is used over the course of the game, the aim is just to get over the line and get the result by whatever means we can."