WHEN word filtered through that Stephen O’Neill wasn’t fit to line out in the 2013 league final against Dublin, Tyrone fans must surely have feared the worst.
Just a fortnight prior, the wizard from Clann na nGael scored four outstanding points as Tyrone finished strongly to overcome Kildare in the Division One semi-final.
Two of those points in particular have entered GAA folklore (just check the view count on Youtube), and while he was in the twilight of his intercounty career, he was still comfortably Tyrone’s best player throughout the entire league campaign.
Cometh the hour, cometh Connor McAliskey, who was in his first year in the set-up. He was informed minutes before throw-in that he was taking O’Neill’s place, which to an uninformed observer sounded like a rank-and-file Amazon employee having to fill in for Jeff Bezos for a day.
While the game ended in a one-point defeat for Tyrone, it was the start of McAliskey making a name for himself as one of the most accurate marksmen in Ulster.
McAliskey is taking a well-earned break from the intercounty game at the moment (“the door isn’t closed on my Tyrone career but for the moment I have to be greedy and put myself first”) but back then he was eager as a beaver and struck three sublime scores that brought him to national attention.
“Getting to play in Croke Park in my first year was brilliant. I was actually named as a sub, but Stevie O’Neill got injured in the warm-up, and I was told in the huddle before the game that I was playing.
“It was a good game and it went well for myself but we still didn’t get the result. I remember Dean Rock kicked two good points to put them two up. Sean Cavanagh brought it back to one but we couldn’t get an equaliser.
“I was just trying to prove myself, I really wanted to get into the first 15 and I remember being disappointed that I wasn’t starting – I’d been going well with my club and my confidence was high. I was glad to take my chance, and I think it stood to me that I played well in my first big game in Croke Park.”
We’ve delved into the record books (or in other words, conducted a few Google searches), and some cursory research reveals that McAliskey has played in six matches against the Dubs since arriving on the scene in 2013.
All of those matches ended in defeat, but a dislocated knee meant he sat out the most traumatic experience of the lot – their All-Ireland semi-final no-show in 2017.
McAliskey watched on from the bench and no doubt winced as his team-mates failed to lay a hand on the Dubs from pretty much start-to-finish.
“I was actually booked into Santry the next day as I’d dislocated my knee. I was back in training so I was on the bench. We got off to a stinker that day and never recovered.
“You can’t allow a team like Dublin to get in front of you. We never got started that day and it was very disappointing as we’d done well in the championship.”
Nevertheless, McAliskey says the Tyrone team never allowed an inferiority complex to fester, and they were determined to prove their worth when they met in the famous ‘Super Eights’ match less than a year later.
“I can only really speak for myself, but the impression I got is that everyone on the team felt we had a point to prove going into the ‘Super Eights’ game.
“We were trying to right a wrong, we didn’t feel we represented ourselves like we should have in that semi-final the previous year.
“At the same time there was no fear of Dublin. We know how good they are, but we always felt as strong and as powerful and as skilful.
“Every year we set out to win the All-Ireland, and we’ve made appearances in semi-finals and the final. I’ve always felt the team has been close and I imagine it’s the same this year.”
From the opening exchanges, it was evident that this was going to be a different sort of match, but a James McCarthy goal (does he ever have a bad game?) gave Dublin the impetus early in the second-half.
Tyrone rallied and finished strongly, but they left it too late and fell to a three-point defeat. McAliskey, whose recollection of these matches is razorsharp, admits they should have had the courage of their convictions from the opening whistle.
“It was a massive game. We were playing in Omagh and the weather was great. The buzz was there and on top of that we were trying to right a wrong.
“We knew we could compete with them and were going out to show that. We didn’t really commit fully from the start, but we were really going for it by the end of the game and I think we ran out of time.”
McAliskey didn’t have to wait long for another attempt at disarming the Dubs.
A seismic victory over Donegal in the bearpit of Ballybofey was a real moment for this Tyrone team, and they edged Monaghan in the last four to qualify for the sixth All-Ireland final in the county’s history.
Tyrone raced into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead against the champions, but the game swung on a five-minute spell midway through the first half when Dublin plundered two quickfire goals – one, an unstoppable Paul Mannion penalty, and the other a palmed effort by Niall Scully after a swift exchange of passes.
Dublin led 2-7 to 0-6 at the half-time whistle, and although Tyrone never threw in the towel, there was always an air of inevitability about the final outcome in what was probably the easiest of Dublin’s recent All-Ireland title successes.
With hindsight, Tyrone should have made more of their early purple patch, but some sketchy efforts on goal left the door ajar, and the Dubs didn’t need to be asked twice.
McAliskey said: “We talked that week about taking the right option in front of goal, We knew we’d need a really good shot conversation rate to compete.
“I remember kicking a point and looking up and we were 0-5 0-2 up, but I said to myself that we’d left a few scores behind us. You really need to make the most of it when you’re in the ascendancy.
“The penalty was a big turning point in the game. We didn’t settle after that and when we conceded another goal it left us a good bit behind.
“But I remember at half-time saying that we’re still not gone. We came out and got a quick point but we needed more and the goals turned out to be the difference.
“Dublin were that good they could control the game. We were working really hard but they were keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
“I do think we had them well-rattled at the start and you look back at some of the chances we missed – nine times out of ten we’d have taken them. If you’re not efficient with the ball in the All-Ireland final, you’ll pay the price, but I think the penalty was a big decision and won the game for them.”
Not many people can say they’ve played in an All-Ireland final, but McAliskey admits he still racks his brains wondering what he and the team could have done differently.
“Getting back into club football helped a bit but I ended up dislocating my ankle so that didn’t go particularly well.
“I haven’t got round to watching the game, it’s on my to-do list, but I have spent a lot of time sitting back thinking on it.
“We were close and it’s something you have to learn from Dublin are a great team but we did make mistakes. I think any player who loses an All-Ireland final will look back and analyse it.
“It’s something you always think about. You won’t let it affect your preparations for your next game but you do think about how close you were and always try to learn from it.”
In case you were wondering, it wasn’t the last time McAliskey lined out against the Dubs. He played in the rather less memorable Super Eight clash in Omagh last year, a dead rubber tie which pootled along without much in the way of incident, and you never know, he might be back in Tyrone colours sooner than you think.