McKenna Cup 'warm-up' act no longer excites Tyrone stalwart McGuigan
The days of 'crazy' crowds of 19,000 have long passed in pre-season fare
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. "It was some shock running out onto the field. And even when you heard the figure after the match you were like, 'Jesus Christ… for a McKenna Cup game?'
"It was because of the previous years' 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."
Mickey Harte himself was chuffed at the attendance, saying: "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 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. McGuigan had already played in front of big crowds in his minor and U-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. 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.
"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," McGuigan chuckles.
Twelve years on, the 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 Cormac McAnallen lifted in his brief spell as Tyrone captain, so Harte wanted to see it take up permanent residence. 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. For years Harte would carry an extended panel over the winter and when the axe fell, nobody was safe.
"It meant you worked for your jersey," McGuigan states. "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 bate in anything."
The distance between then and now has changed the Ardboe man's 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 time. But the powers-that-be don't feel that way."
He continues: "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. I 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 if 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."