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'It was one of those days where we thought, 'if we get out of this alive, we'll be very lucky'

Ryan McMenamin remembers Tyrone’s lucky escape in the 2003 drawn Ulster final.

THERE WAS SOMETHING about Down’s half-time demeanour during the drawn Ulster football final in 2003, that inspired hope in the Tyrone players.

Ryan McMenamin and Brendan Coulter Ryan McMenamin holding off a challenge from Benny Coulter. Source: INPHO

They only trailed by two points but had failed to capitalise on their dominance in possession, and Down punished them with a Benny Coulter goal.

Gregory McCartan was sent off for throwing the ball into the face of Brian McGuigan just before half-time, but his absence appeared to galvanise the side.

They even managed to extend the gap to nine points at one stage during the tie and Tyrone were looking down both barrels.

Ryan McMenamin was part of the Tyrone defence that appeared to be rattled that day, but he took heart from what he saw in Down’s body language at the break.

We kind of noticed going in at half-time,” he tells The42, “that the Down boys were patting themselves on the back and celebrating. We looked at that said right, “if we can take two or three points off these boys, we’ll be in with a shout.”

Blind faith perhaps, but what did they have to lose?

Mickey Harte could sense their dismay, but exuded calm in the dressing room as he preached the importance of  ”attacking the scoreboard,” according to McMenamin.

As it materialised, they did manage to drag themselves back into the contest.

A perfectly executed Peter Canavan penalty proved to be a key part of their resurrection, and the numerical advantage did Tyrone no harm at all in the end.

Brendan Coulter Source: INPHO

Their comeback yielded a draw despite leaking four goals in total, an experience which McMenamin wasn’t used to in a Tyrone shirt.

“It was probably a bit strange that we conceded the four goals. Usually, we were tight defensively and back in ’03, we didn’t concede a goal in the league.

“We always knew Down had quality players from the minors in ’99 and we knew they were an up and coming team.”

McMenamin tried to stage an intervention for Coulter’s goal when he ran across the goal to put the hand in. But after seemlessly side-stepping the challenge, Coulter cracked a shot from close range.

It was nothing but net after that.

“Once they get their tails up, their forwards play to a different level,” McMenamin explains. “It was one of those days where (it looked like) we were never going to get it but from the word go.

“Benny (Coulter) is the kind of player where once he gets the first two touches right, and he gets a point or two and the head up, he is going to get a run on you.”

It was one of those days where we thought, “if we get out of this alive, we’ll be very lucky.” Down did have a very talented team and they were a confident team.”

“It was probably a bit of a shock and maybe other teams had seen a kind of a weakness in us but we hadn’t seen it.

“We were susceptible to a high ball and Down used that to effect that day and got two or three goals off us.”

We always struggled with them because Down always lifted their game for Tyrone. Whenever we play Down, they are naturally confident. That Down senior team from ’03 to ’08 was a bit under-rated, and only Armagh and Tyrone were at the peak of their powers, they probably would have won more.”

Footage of that drawn game shows McMenamin tumbling to his knees in despair at the final whistle.

He didn’t mistake the result for a defeat, but was visibly distraught with how the game unfolded.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

“I think we were just very disappointed that we let ourselves get into that position. When we were coming off the field, again, the Down players were being clapped off by their supporters.

They were clapping each other on the back, and we were kind of going, “well we’re the team that should be clapped off because we were nine points down.” It was bittersweet.

Tyrone made better use of the wait to the replay, conceding just the one goal in the second game on the way to an emphatic 0-23 1-05 victory.

Not entirely blind faith after all. In fact, Mickey Harte’s belief in a higher power permeated through those Tyrone players, and was a key part of their preparation.

McMenamin recalls how everyone bought into Harte’s religious message, regardless of where they stood on the matter as individuals.

“We had mass before all the big games and we had a priest in. There’s one thing about Mickey and that’s that he never hides away from his beliefs.

“I think the players appreciate that because they see another side of him. Mickey is always straight up with the players.

“We just thought it was something different and we felt that if it was going to help us, we all bought into it as well.

 Some of the boys like Owen Mulligan mightn’t have been queueing up to go in but in fairness they all attended and even some of the players did readings and all. I think that made Mickey happy.”

“Some players enjoyed it and some players bought into it and other ones went along with it.”

Tyrone would later sign off from the 2003 campaign with a first senior All-Ireland title for the county, and Sam Maguire would take two more trips to Tyrone in 2005 and 2008.

Incidentally, they also faced Down in the Ulster championship during those two seasons, with the ’08 encounter also requiring a replay. Down were the ones to clinch the win on that occasion after extra-time.

It just so happens that McMenamin will be able to travel to Clones for today’s Ulster showpiece between Tyrone and Down [Throw-in 2pm, RTE].

He was holidaying in the south of Spain for the last while, but managed to get his flight back home on the eve of the big game.

Down's Kevin McKernan and Vinny Corey of Monaghan Source: Presseye/Philip Magowan/INPHO

He was in the Athletic Grounds for Down’s surprise win over Monaghan in the semi-final, and was suitably impressed with what he saw from a side that were finding Ulster championship wins hard to come by in recent years.

He was also happy to find characteristics in Down’s style of play that mirror what he sees in Tyrone.

“I was impressed with them, they looked far hungrier from the word go and the thing that surprised was probably their physicality off the ball. I think they bullied Monaghan.

“Now whether they’ll get away with the same with Tyrone, I think Tyrone should be well aware for that. I was surprised that they were going to be that physical against Monaghan.

“They’re very similar to Tyrone. They’ve bundles of pace, especially in the half-back line. They had a poor league and everyone probably thought that they weren’t going to come out but that win over Monaghan will give them confidence.”

Unsurprisingly, McMenamin is backing his home county for the win, and will be hoping that the Tyrone players will know what to do if there’s any premature back-slapping in the Down dressing-room today.

“If Down get a lead on Tyrone, Tyrone could struggle but they had maybe 12 different scorers the last day (semi-final against Donegal), you’d kind of hope for the same return again, that we’re not relying on one forward maybe.

“I would still fancy Tyrone to come out on top.”

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