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28th Sep 2023

Five things you maybe didn’t know about Tyrone’s historic 2003 All-Ireland win

Lee Costello

Tyrone 2003

“Start kicking it boys! We’ll f*****g go through her!”

20 years ago today Peter Canavan climbed the steps of the Hogan stand and lifted the Sam Maguire for the very first time in Tyrone’s history.

The Tyrone captain had come close before back in 1995 only to be pipped to the post by a Jason Sherlock-led Dublin team, and as he entered his 30s, the flying forward was running out of time to achieve that dream.

Then along came Mickey Harte and a golden generation of players that had already won All-Irelands at u21 and minor levels, and they were ready to hoist Canavan up those steps, and reach his highest of hopes.

The Red Hands beat the reigning champions Armagh on that fateful day, and although there has been dozens of stories, books and documentaries about the achievement, here are five things you maybe didn’t know:

It was the first ever ‘all-Ulster’ All-Ireland final

Armagh and Tyrone’s date with history back in ’03 was the first ever All-Ireland final to be contested by two teams from the Ulster province.

Amazingly, 20 years on, this remains the only time that this has ever happened, despite Tyrone’s continuous success over the next decade, Armagh’s golden generation, and the rise of Jim McGuinness’ Donegal team.

Stephen O’Neill didn’t actually start the match

When you think of this era in Tyrone football, you instantly think of the incredible forwards that they had at their disposal. Canavan, Owen Mulligan, Brian McGuigan, Ryan Mellon, Brian Dooher, Enda McGinley and of course Stephen O’Neill.

Although the sharp shooter would go on to win the Player of the Year award in Tyrone’s 2005 conquest, he actually didn’t make it onto the starting 15 that day in ’03.

McGinley, Canavan and Mulligan were the inside forwards who got the initial nod, and hardly a bad trio to have, but O’Neill did have his say in the match, coming off the bench to kick two brilliant points.

Mickey Harte substituted two players, and brought them back on later in the game

It’s famously known that Canavan was carrying an injury going into the game, so Harte decided to start him, take him off at half-time and then reintroduce him in the last 10 minutes to help see the team over the line.

Due to the enormity of this decision, and gambling on the fitness of the county’s greatest ever player on their greatest ever match, people tend to forget that Harte did the same thing with McGuigan.

The Ardboe native was sick in the lead-up to the final, so they decided to start him, take him off around the 25-minute mark to give him extra time to recover before half time, and then spring him back into action in the second half.

The diving controversy

Tyrone 2003

Armagh’s full forward Diarmaid Marsden was sent off in the second half for an off-the-ball incident with Tyrone defender Philip Jordan.

However, after the match the Orchard county manager Joe Kernan was livid with the decision and was adamant that Jordan dived.

This added fuel to the already raging fire of hatred between the two counties, and was often brought up during their meetings in years to come.

Kicking down Heaven’s door

Always the innovator, a bonding technique that Harte decided to implement that season was getting each player to pick their favourite song, then burn it onto a collective CD and play it on the bus journeys to matches.

Tyrone 2003

A random enough choice was by Owen Mulligan, who picked Avril Lavigne’s cover of Guns ‘N Roses’ ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’.

According to Harte’s book Kicking Down Heaven’s Door, at half time during the game with Armagh, Canavan referenced this song in the dressing room saying: “We’ve been knocking on Heaven’s Door for 35 minutes boys, and she’s opening. Now keep knocking and inside will be Heaven.”

At this point Dooher stood up and said: “We’ll not be f****g knocking it, start kicking it boys! We’ll f*****g go through her!”

It’s fair to say that they did exactly that, and now 20 years later, that door is still swinging by its hinges as we remember the great team of 2003.

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