Irish sport is mourning the loss of Tyrone senior football captain Cormac McAnallen, who died suddenly at his home in the village of Eglish, near Dungannon, in the early hours of yesterday  morning.

McAnallen was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the country, however, it was his conversion to full-back that proved so crucial in Tyrone's historic All-Ireland-winning campaign last year. The Eglish clubman went on to claim a Vodafone All Star award for his performances in the position, having scooped the Young Player of the Year accolade in 2001.

McAnallen was this year given the daunting task of replacing the legendary Peter Canavan as Tyrone captain. However, remarkably, at just 24 years of age, he eased into the role, leading the All-Ireland and National League champions to an emphatic Dr McKenna Cup victory over Donegal last month.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One's 'Morning Ireland' programme,  devastated Tyrone manager Mickey Harte said: "There's no words we can say here to do justice to the person that Cormac McAnallen was. "He'll be so much missed...it's just unbelievable, he was a real friend and a gentleman. "People talk about role models and they misuse the word. If you're looking for a real role model, then you look no further then Cormac McAnallen.

Harte continuted: "At 24 years of age, he'd achieved everything that you could achieve in football. It's not even his football prowess, which was obviously of a top quality, but just the good guy that he was and the dedication that he put into everything that he did. I've been quoted at many times as saying a training session with Cormac McAnallen at it was always a better training session.

"He was just a gentleman and such a dedicated guy. My total sympathy goes out to Brendan and Bridget, his mum and dad, and Donal and Fergus, his brothers. It's a bad day for football, for sport."

GAA President Seán Kelly said he was deeply shocked and saddened by the news. Kelly said it was difficult to comprehend that "such a complete sportsman, team-man and gentleman should die so suddenly and so young."  He continued that McAnallen "exemplified everything that was good in a Gaelic footballer and human being."

The GAA's Director General, Liam Mulvihill, added that the young star's loss as a family-man, sportsman and teacher was "inestimatable".

Sunday's Allianz National Football League Division 1A fixture between Tyrone and Cork, originally scheduled for Omagh, has been postponed and a minute's silence will be observed at all GAA games and functions nationwide.

The Gaelic Players' Association also paid tribute to McAnallen. A statement read: "A cherished and respected member of the GAA and sporting community throughout Ireland, Cormac's exemplary achievements on the field of play were complemented by an incomparable level of sportsmanship, humanity and integrity."

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, extended his sympathy to the McAnallen family. In a statement, Mr Ahern said he had met the footballer recently and described him as a wonderful young man, who will be deeply missed by his family, country and his sport.

Apart from playing a vital part in the Red Hand County's double-winning heroics last year, McAnallen won every other major honour in the game.  A former pupil at St Patrick's College in Armagh, he captained the Tyrone minors to an All-Ireland runner-ups spot in 1997, going one step further the following year by winning the title.

He claimed Sigerson Cup honours with Queen's University, Belfast, in 2000 before again captaining his county to the All-Ireland title Under-21 in 2000 and 2001. His stature as one of football's emerging stars was later confirmed when he was voted the Vodafone GAA All Stars Young Player of the Year.

He also represented Ireland against Australia in the International Rules Series for the last three years.

A teacher of History and Politics at St Catherine's College in Armagh, McAnallen was due to get married later this year.

Filed by James Boylan