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Sunday 17 December 2017

McCrory's story from the low of 2011 to the high of tackling Dublin

Tyrone's Aidan McCrory
Tyrone's Aidan McCrory

Aidan McCrory was an unused sub, yet to make his SFC debut, when Tyrone last rocked up to Croker for a summer showdown with the Dubs.

"I was a young cub at that stage!" the 29-year-old defender says, as if only half-remembering a different world.

That was 2011, an All-Ireland quarter-final that produced Dublin's finest performance under Pat Gilroy.

It also signalled a definitive shift in the balance of power between Dublin and their noughties oppressor. At the same last-eight juncture 12 months earlier, the Dubs had surged to victory late on after a far more fraught battle.

This was different: Dublin cruised home by seven and wouldn't have been flattered by a margin double that.

"From then to now, we're a completely different team," McCrory stresses. "Dublin are a completely different team. They were, I suppose, just at the start of their good times and since then we've had a high turnover of players. We've brought a lot of younger players in, so it's a long time for us to not have played them in the championship.

"But I don't think too many Dublin players will be thinking back to that game. And there'll not be too many of ours will really have any attachment to it either."

Mainstay

McCarron would make the first of his 27 (and counting) SFC appearances against Armagh the following June. He's now a corner-back mainstay of Mickey Harte's defence.

But back then, in 2011, the starting team that succumbed to Dublin included Pascal McConnell, the McMahon siblings, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes, two Cavanaghs, Brian McGuigan and Owen Mulligan, with Brian Dooher, Stephen O'Neill and Enda McGinley appearing as subs.

Peter Harte was the new face of Tyrone back then; he is now one of the leaders along with the living legend that is Seán Cavanagh and his brother Colm, while Justin McMahon came off the bench against Armagh this month.

Reflecting on the decorated dressing-room that he joined, McCrory says: "We had players who came in and, just the way things were, we never really hit the heights of the team previous. A lot of them boys (All-Ireland winners) were still about. And, in fairness, a lot of them boys were still very good players and that's what you were competing against.

"We've chopped and changed. Players have come and gone ... we've always been building really. Your goals were always to get back to be Ulster champions again."

They wouldn't get there until 2016. On the question of misfortune in the preceding years, he admits: "I don't think it's fair to argue 'unlucky' … we weren't good enough. If we had been good enough, we would have won.

"We were just a wee bit off. And it wasn't a case that if we went back and did the same thing again. We had to figure out a way to improve ... and that's what's led us to where we are now."

Which happens to be a semi-final date with the hat-trick chasing Dubs. Cue the only question that matters, can Tyrone really beat them?

"Given [recent league] results, we believe we can compete with them. Are they beatable? Every team is beatable," he insists.

"But in order to beat them it will take the best of what we have. We'd have to be at our best for a full 70 minutes. So the challenge for us is: can we maintain such a high standard of playing to get us into the late stages of the game and, when you're tired, can you still make the right decisions?"

Even though Dublin's relentless pace and intensity spell a massive step-up from previous rivals, McCrory has faith in Tyrone's own fitness.

Impact

The impact of Peter Donnelly, former Tyrone player and now strength and conditioning coach, has been key. "He looks after all that; you nearly don't have to think about it. You train what you're told and your fitness takes care of itself," says McCrory.

And overseeing it all Mickey Harte: in his 15th season and still relevant.

His fellow Errigal Ciarán clubman isn't remotely shocked by his longevity.

"Honestly, knowing the character of the man, not really," he remarks. "Knowing the type of man he is - his determination and his dedication. He could be whatever he wants to be, and he'll be very good at whatever he wants to be good in, because he's just that type of person."

Harte has no problem having the craic with the latest generation, which includes "a few lively boys". These "free-living, happy people", McCrory explains, have breathed life into a set-up where - so the outside perception goes - the system is king.

Not that he can make sense of their musical choices. "There's not a lot of words to some of it," he professes.

It was different when he joined the squad. "No one my age would have been that way. Maybe it was because you were coming in and everyone around you had All-Ireland medals and All Stars," he surmises. "But the boys coming in now, they come and express themselves. They're not afraid to make mistakes. They're here to play football. And there's a kind of freedom in them."

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