“And it was Conor Gormley who denied Steven McDonnell a levelling goal… They will build a statue in Carrickmore for him,” screamed Ger Canning on RTE as Gormley threw himself across the boot of Armagh ace McDonnell as he was about to shoot in the closing stages of the 2003 All-Ireland Final. Well, we are still waiting on that statue, but who needs it? We will never forget that key moment in our first Sam Maguire success.
The Carrickmore clubman who captained the Tyrone masters to the 2022 All-Ireland title was one of the quietest players in the 2003 squad. “Hard to get a word out of him,” confirmed the corps of local and national journalists who wanted a word or two through that historic year with him and his teammates.
Things have changed, and Conor, as he matured on the pitch, became one of the best players from that squad and era to touch base with. Now an accomplished coach with Tyrone’s back-to-back Ulster-winning minors, he has three All-Irelands of his own. But that journey that included that deadly block wasn’t all plain sailing, as he revealed when we talked during lockdown.
“We had lost to Sligo in the All-Ireland in 2002 having lost too to Armagh as they went on to the All-Ireland, and of course, Mickey came in at the end of that year. From the start, we knew this would be different. He said to us, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we do it?’ I suppose we had to change the mindset knowing we had a good enough squad,” he confirms as we look back at those early years.
Tyrone defended the national league title but lost to Monaghan in the Dr. McKenna Cup, and that loss in May 2003 was a moment of realization.
“A few of us knew what to expect from Mickey Harte when he came in. We had him at the Under 21s, and he continued to put it into us that we could win the All-Ireland, and that feeling or belief, if you want to call it that, was instilled into us from day one. Losing to Monaghan was annoying, to say the least.”
Conor was inspired by Tyrone in the 1995 final at Croke Park, a couple of short years later, he was in the squad with many of that side around him. It had been a big step, but one he embraced, and by the summer of ‘03, he was well placed to take the next step.
“Paddy Tally, yes, he played a big part for us all in that squad. He had us thinking quicker, he was a massive influence in us winning that title, and I suppose when I look back at the early part of that year, we only trained with Tyrone one night. We stepped it up at Youth Sport then later. Some changes nowadays.”
Tyrone and Conor had claimed the Ulster title. As the All-Ireland series progressed, the Red Hands signalled their intentions, and it all came to a head against Kerry.
“We were written off going in to play Kerry. There were those who said they were the big team, and they would beat the northerners and go through to the final no bother to them. But Mickey had us primed. We were in good form. We certainly weren’t scared of playing in Croke Park or of Kerry. We were there to win. We all remember the intensity of the day,” smiled the Carmen man. “It was hard work, but our quality came to the fore, and we were fit to pick Kerry off.”
And so, twenty years ago, it was Armagh in the all-Ulster All-Ireland. What a day, what a build-up following on from what was a feisty enough league game here at Omagh with a Tyrone win.
“That was a big one for us,” admitted Gormley as he reflected on the final. “I did enjoy the build-up, gear, tickets, the big press and fans night up here on the pitch (Pairc Colmcille). There was some buzz. There was some craic too with the boys in the squad. Serious good fun. Socks cut, keys going missing, aye and the odd dodgy radio request after training. Mickey kept us well on the ground though, and we were ready for the final.”
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments of that 2003 final was Conor’s block. He took time to give me his own memories of what is firmly lodged in the folklore of Tyrone and the GAA.
“We were three points up with a couple of minutes left. Armagh threw everything at us and then Barry O’Hagan, I think it was, who found Tony McEntee, and it was through to Steven. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I saw him line up the shot, and I got my hands down. The ball came off my right hand, lucky enough I suppose, anywhere else I’d have missed it, but aye it was great to get the block in.”
A moment in history, but Conor, while proud of his contribution to that win, is modest about it. “I was part of a great squad,” he smiles. Conor went on to two more titles, played club football up until last year, and of course, captained the Masters… there’s more to come from ‘The Block from the Rock’.
by Paddy HunterBy Rory Cox Thu 28th Sep