How One Death Built Sporting Dominance
A death in a sports team is tough but when a team chooses to use it positively it can unify a culture for a lifetime
That’s the worst injury I`ve ever seen in the sports I follow.
Now that’s not what you probably wanted to read but it’s true. And it needs to be acknowledged that sport has its dangers. Because, it is physical after all.
And with all things physical there is a real and present danger that you can get badly injured or possibly suffer the ultimate- the loss of your life.
Of course, that doesn’t happen all of the time.
It’s very rare.
It’s not even something that you comprehend when you travel to a sports game.
Still, it’s happened and like any loss of life when it occurs it affects those all around them.
When I was 17 years old a young man by the name of Paul McGirr who was the same age as me lost his life in a football game.
After scoring a goal for his team Tyrone in the Ulster minor football championship he collided with the opposing goalkeeper from Armagh. His was the only goal in that game and although his team beat the opposition, young Paul lost his life as a result of the injuries a few hours later in a local hospital.
It was a sporting tragedy.
As I was playing football at that time it brought home to me the risks every player takes when they play sport.
Although Paul’s death was horrible to hear of weirdly it seemed to trigger that group of Tyrone players and management into much greater things in life. But they still had to endure sporting heartache that particular year too. Although they came through the Ulster championship and made it to the All-Ireland final, ultimately they lost the final to a victorious Kerry team.
But that team wasn’t finished.
Rather, they were only getting warmed up.
Because within a couple of years those young boys turned into formidable young men. In the year 2000, they went a step further and won the Under 21 All-Ireland football championship.
And they repeated the feat a year later in 2001.
Yet that was only the beginning of even better things to come. Because Tyrone had never won an All Ireland senior football championship in their history.
One of the players that played with the late Paul McGirr was Cormac McAnallen.
McAnallen played as a midfielder for years and then when he was asked by the Tyrone manager Mikey Harte to become the main defender in the full-back role he duly obliged and became a wonderful addition to the team. He was a rock in 2003 and was awarded as the GAA All-Star full back for that season such were his performances in his beloved white and red of Tyrone.
And that was the year that Tyrone won their first All-Ireland senior football title.
What a tribute to the memory of the late Paul McGirr who had lost his life playing for his county only a couple of years before.
But soon after all went badly wrong again for that group of Tyrone players and their manager Mikey Harte.
And the change was not positive as death visited his players again.
This time it was their hero and one of their natural leaders McAnallen.
As he lay in bed one morning Cormac somehow experienced his final breath and soon passed away. It rocked the football community throughout all of the island of Ireland.
How could sport be so cruel to a team that had brought so much joy?
Why did two young men have to lose their lives?
So many questions.
Many sports teams would break up after such an experience but this Tyrone team was very different. Rather than walking away from the sport they united and became closer as a team. Within a couple of years, their dedication paid off as they were once again rewarded for their sporting strength of mind.
As in 2005 they won only their second All Ireland title.
This time they did it by beating Kerry who was the most successful Gaelic football team in the land. They had proved their worth and showed that they were not a one-season wonder. They were now considered a very good team and one that wasn’t going to shy away from the competition that was out there.
Although they faced stiffer opposition in the following couple of years Tyrone continued to be positive and in 2008 they proved their doubters wrong again when this time they claimed their third All-Ireland title.
Manager Mickey Harte was hailed as a miracle worker.
He had guided them to three All-Ireland senior championships and managed the young players since the 1990s to a time in life when they were now victorious men famous throughout the country.
Harte continued to manage the team for the following few years and Tyrone was one of the favorites to victor and feared among many.
At the start of the 2011 season, they were seen as being one of the handfuls of teams that could lift the Sam Maguire cup again. But before Harte or any of his Tyrone team could kick a ball in the championship they had to deal with a third tragedy in their camp.
This time Mickey Harte’s daughter Michaela was murdered while on honeymoon in Mauritius.
She was a beautiful young woman who went everywhere with her father Mickey and the Tyrone team.
It’s strange how life goes.
When a young man traveled to play a game of football back in 1997 he never knew his injury would not only lead to his premature passing but the passing of another two people close to him well before their time.
Nor did he know that his impact would lead his team to their first three All- Ireland victories and change the lives of many Tyrone people forever.