AFTER THE TYRONE fans had spilled on to St Tiernach’s Park on 17 July last, Cathal McCarron took a moment to absorb the occasion.
A first Ulster title in six years was deeply appreciated, halting that run of games where they could not quite get the better of Donegal in the heat of a championship battle.
McCarron savoured the sense of triumph after a harrowing and turbulent personal journey as he battled a gambling addiction.
And he was grateful for the man steering the tiller of Tyrone football, who brought the 28 year-old back to the fold.
Before this season Mickey Harte already had five Ulster senior titles to his credit as a manager yet the struggle to add a sixth had become tough to take, a source of discomfort for the players who worked under him.
Harte became a provincial champion again in 2016 and yet come the autumn his request to extend his reign until the close of 2018 was turned down by the Tyrone county board.
His current term is due to expire at the end of 2017 yet McCarron’s admiration and support are unwavering for the Errigal Ciarán man.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the man and just not because he’s helped me an awful lot. People don’t see the good he does out there, helping people when they’re not well and they’re down.
“He’s an extraordinary man, a gifted human being. I think the work he does – there’s a lot of negative stuff goes on about him in the paper – people should be writing about.
“There’ll only be one Mickey Harte and he’ll not be replaced. The day Tyrone GAA loses Mickey Harte is a sad day for Tyrone football because he’s an exceptional manager.
“He’s just a special man, the way he talks and the work he does. He always seems to be ahead of the game.
“Look it, he’s a great character I have the utmost respect for him. There’s no questions about my loyalty when it comes to Mickey where it lies.”
Mickey Harte watches Cathal McCarron warm up before a 2015 Dr McKenna Cup game
Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO
In 2010, McCarron won his first Ulster senior medal as a starting defender for Tyrone. Corner-back on a day when Tyrone handed off Monaghan by eight points.
Retaining their Ulster crown and claiming their third in four years was a signal of their provincial heavyweight status.
Yet watching Monaghan and Donegal rule the roost thereafter jarred with those in Tyrone football circles. Given the turmoil that also existed in those intervening years in McCarron’s own life, it’s natural how contrasting his post-match demeanour was in 2010 and 2016.
“I remember winning Ulster in 2010 and playing in the final that day and coming into the changing room that day after and we were all sitting around and we’d just come used to Ulsters’, who cares?
“It was my first Ulster final and I’d have liked more celebrations. A lot of emotions were running through my head this year.
“I took a moment to myself to look around and say to myself, ‘Just wow, what a journey to go from where I went to, to now’. I pinched myself and thought this is unbelievable.
“It was for everybody that helped me in my journey. That goes from the recovering drug addict that probably doesn’t know I’m speaking about him to Martin Sludden, who I couldn’t speak highly enough of as well.
“It was for them but it was also for me, it was such a huge thing for me. To pat myself on the back and say, ‘Jesus you’ve done well here’. I’d probably be my own worst critic at times but it was nice to take a moment to myself.”
Cathal McCarron celebrates the victory over Donegal
It took some magical points from distance by the likes of Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and Kieran McGeary to enable Tyrone to finally break their Donegal hoodoo.
“They’d become pests, we couldn’t get the better of them,” says McCarron.
“Typical when we did get the better of them, it almost reminded me of when they got the better of us when we were going for three-in-a-row.
“Kevin Cassidy had a wonder point that day and things were going for them. It reminded me of when they broke the tide, it was going to take something dramatic for us to do the same.
“Look it if we’re not at ourselves next year, they’ll come back and beat us. They’re far from finished with the good youth coming through there. I appreciate this one more and I look around me but you never know where you’re going to be this time next year.
“You never know might you be playing next year, might you win next year. It could be your last one and I really, really soaked it in. It was a great day, a fantastic day.”
A win to savour for Niall Morgan and Cathal McCarron
Source: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
It proved to be Tyrone’s final day in the sun in 2016. Their next outing saw them enter the All-Ireland series with high ambitions that the Ulster win would be a springboard.
Instead Mayo got the job done by a point in the quarter-final, condemning Tyrone to their solitary competitive defeat in 2016.
Cathal McCarron and Seamus O’Shea in opposition in Croke Park
Source: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
Next year they aim to go higher.
“(We’re) probably disappointed that we didn’t go further and lift the All-Ireland,” says McCarron.
“If we can start next year with the same mindset, there’s a great young team there.
“You only have to look at Niall Sludden, club mate of my own and a friend of mine, look at the impact he had. We always knew the star he was, he broke his leg and it set him back a bit but he’s an extraordinary player.
“We’ve another year at it next year and hopefully we’ll get that step closer. That’s our aim but there’s a few other teams I’d say thinking the same.
“We’re looking for what Dublin’s got and they’re a hell of a team and they’re going to take some beating.”
Out Of Control: How My Addiction Almost Killed Me is by Cathal McCarron and Christy O’Connor, details available here.
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