THROUGH good times and bad, a band of brothers stuck together, and the bond grew stronger, the trust deeper and the impossible began to seem possible.
Mattie Donnelly has been to dark places and experienced many highs during a lengthy career as a Tyrone player, but this season was like no other.
Written off following a League campaign that failed to inspire and ended in despair, the Red Hands were far from the leading pundits’ thoughts when it came to considering the line-up of All-Ireland contenders.
But the boys from this football-mad county love to gate-crash a party, and they threw some chaos into this year’s Championship, shaking things up in spectacular fashion on their way to a glorious triumph.
“When you were after hard losses and down in the dumps and things look bleak, you remember the conversations and the things that stick out, and the moments that boys dug in and stuck together.
“That’s why this is just unbelievable,” said Donnelly.
“You always believed now and you just can’t put it into words.
“You see them after the game, boys you have been through so much with. Never lose faith.”
Donnelly was team captain when Tyrone lost the All-Ireland final three years ago, and felt that his chance may not come around again.
“You don’t often get big chances at the big one and this was a second chance for a lot of us.
“First chance for some but you just never know when they come around. We were determined to grasp it and we did.
“The scary thing is, that team probably isn’t operating at optimum levels yet.
“We haven’t reached our ceiling yet, so we have to look at that, and that makes the future exciting as well.”
The first season in charge for new managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher has been a stunning success.
With an All-Ireland title at the first attempt, it can’t get any better than that, and the pair will take their place in Tyrone GAA legend.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact too that they really carried on the basis that was laid there by the previous management,” Donnelly said.
“Those two, just the energy and the passion that they have for Tyrone, just gave us that real jolt through this year.
“Again, it wasn’t smooth sailing from start to finish, but the intentions were always good and the inventions were pure and that came to the fore today.”
And the Trillick man insisted that there was no way the team was going to suffer another loss at the weekend.
“Feargal has been there in ‘95, and a lot of that team was there in 2018.
“If we weren’t going to do it today, when were we going to do it? We have all won All-Irelands at minor, under-21s, but you are remembered for the senior ones really.
“The team in general, when were we going to do it, we were determined to do it.”
With major success under their belts, the players will carry some authority into future challenges and perform with enhanced confidence.
“It is the same in any place. I felt it with the club as well, when you are coming from a place with a tradition of winning you are always seeking that validation to dine at that top table almost.
“Whether it’s right or wrong, you are always going to be compared to that benchmark. We have our medal today, and we have a lot to improve on, a lot more room to improve.
“Perhaps the medal today will help us dip into that and tap into that. This team is a very exciting squad to be part of and I think the next few years there is a lot there for us if we really apply ourselves well.”
Along with Peter Harte and Ronan McNamee, Donnelly provides experience, but he feels the blend is ideal, with exciting new talent joining graduates of the 2015 All-Ireland U21 winning cohort.
“It’s important but the blend there just made the squad, with the young boys coming in, so everyone respected each other from top to bottom.
“The core group, the likes of Hampsey, McGeary and them boys are just unbelievable players and characters and we pass on our experience, and it is vital within a team setting to have that, but we are only as important as the next man beside us.
“The perfect storm there from young to old really.”
A porous defence conceded six goals to Kerry in the League semi-final, but just one has been leaked in the entire Championship campaign, evidence of the remedial work that has been carried out.
“Obviously go back to Killarney when we shipped six, we did have to review our defensive set-up, our collective work rate and we have done that in abundance throughout the Championship.
“It’s been the foundation for our season. Probably weren’t as functional in the top third in a lot of games this year so when we start addressing that and keep the back door the way it is, that’s an exciting prospect.”
And it all ended up with an unforgettable afternoon at Croke Park, where the final whistle confirmed Tyrone’s fourth coming, and the emotions flowed.
“I think the moments on the pitch afterwards just caught you by surprise, when you see your brother, your club mates, the boys that you have been in the doldrums with for 10, 12 years now.
“Even Petey Harte, been on the go with that man since he was 15/16 and just to share the day and validate all the work we have done. It was just emotional and it just makes it all worthwhile.”
And Donnelly has satisfied himself that all the sacrifices have been worthwhile, such is the value of the reward.
“Since we laced the boots up that’s what I said to the boys. This isn’t a thing since last October, it’s since we all laced our boots up.
“It’s all come together and it’s cultivated in this.
“Even when I started out in the senior squad, you are looking in front of you, looking behind you, to see what’s coming, and you just knew when them boys were coming, you know, everyone that was meant to be there was in that changing room today.
“Just the perfect blend, the perfect mix, just the perfect team and the perfect result.”
And thoughts turned to old friends, former colleagues who could well have been part of this had circumstances been different.
“Ah look, I saw Collie Cavanagh after today and was delighted to see him. Obviously you wish you could share that moment, because he deserves it as much as any of us.
“Even I think of the likes of Harry Loughran, Mickey O’Neill, they have been part of this, they have been in the doldrums with us, but again, everyone who has put the shoulder to the wheel knows how much it means and they deserve as much as we do like.”