Dif­fer­ent but no less spe­cial

Sur­rounded by close foot­ball ri­vals, the county re­mains unloved – north and south

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL FINAL PREVIEW - Keith Dug­gan

TYR-ONE, Tyrone: is any­one deep-down sur­prised that it falls to the Red Hand to make a fierce last stand against a Dublin team that has been de­clared un­stop­pable?

Has any foot­ball county been more ob­sti­nate or sin­gle-minded? Has any GAA-land ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like the breadth of tragedy and bril­liance and de­fi­ance as Tyrone has?

“We didn’t like them and they didn’t like us,” summed up Dublin’s Alan Bro­gan of his team’s at­ti­tude to­wards Mickey Harte’s team af­ter they be­gan gate-crash­ing ev­ery­body’s Septem­bers.

“Squawk­ing like birds on a wall,” Colm Cooper re­called of a mo­ment when he was felled dur­ing the All-Ire­land fi­nal of 2005 and the white shirts con­verged, call­ing him for div­ing.

Na­tional stage

And that was just on the na­tional stage. Try ex­plain­ing the depth of ha­tred for Tyrone in south Derry or the bit­ter-keen ri­valry in Done­gal, in Ar­magh. Wan­der through Mon­aghan this weather and ask what they think of Tyrone. They are ev­ery­one’s dark dream; the team the oth­ers want to beat.

“Peo­ple for­get that Tyrone is the one in the mid­dle,” coun­sels Patsy Forbes, who kicked ball for the county for two decades. “We are stuck in the mid­dle of Ul­ster. Every county around the Bor­der wants to bate Tyrone. Why would they not?”

And it’s true. There it stands, the bull’s-eye of Ire­land. What­ever colour Tyrone is, it’s not vanilla. Even be­fore par­ti­tion, Tyrone had a tal­ent for mak­ing life awk­ward, bam­boo­zling the com­bined in­tel­lects of Lloyd Ge­orge and Car­son and Bonar Law dur­ing the doomed 1914 sum­mer Home Rule con­fer­ence by seem­ing to be­long nowhere other than in­side its own crooked bor­ders.

“We sat this morning for an hour-and-a-half dis­cussing maps and fig­ures,” Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Her­bert Asquith re­counted, “and al­ways get­ting back to that most damnable cre­ation of the per­verted in­ge­nu­ity of man – the county of Tyrone.”

Asquith could have made it big on The Sunday Game. Ever since Pat Spil­lane coined the “puke foot­ball” phrase af­ter watch­ing Kerry get torn asun­der by pure Tyrone de­sire, the Ul­ster county has been fire­fight­ing on the pub­lic re­la­tions front. Ac­knowl­edge­ment of their maiden All-Ire­land se­nior suc­cess in 2003 was cur­mud­geonly at best; the flying-col­umn ge­nius of the ’05 and ’08 teams meant that their ex­cel­lence – their great­ness – be­came im­pos­si­ble to deny.

Those tri­umphs were set against the well-versed litany of sins – the ugly brawl with the Dubs in Omagh; the ac­cu­sa­tions of sledg­ing; that Seán Ca­vanagh tackle; those quiffs; that in-your-face Tyrone-ness.

But those trans­gres­sions, in turn, seemed ut­terly in­con­se­quen­tial when set against the se­ries of ter­ri­ble hu­man tragedies and sad­ness that were re­cently chron­i­cled in Ea­monn Mal­lie’s fine doc­u­men­tary, The Un­break­able Bond. All of it means that defin­ing Tyrone is not an easy thing. Get­ting a han­dle on the county is a slip­pery propo­si­tion.

Play on the edge

“Foot­ball al­ways meant more in Tyrone when I was grow­ing up. They play on the edge, Tyrone. Al­ways did and, I sup­pose, al­ways will,” says Brian McEniff, the for­mer Done­gal man­ager.

The Red Hand flags are flying out­side both of the McEniff ho­tels in Bun­do­ran this week. His mother El­iz­a­beth was born and raised in Car­rick­more be­fore she made the move to the seaside town.

“My mother’s fam­ily were a big fam­ily of Be­g­leys and they al­ways came up to Bun­do­ran for hol­i­days. My mother al­ways said about her busi­ness – a small cafe when she opened first – [that] Tyrone put her on her feet.”

One of McEniff’s clear­est boy­hood foot­ball me­mories is of tak­ing the train from Car­rick­more to see Tyrone play and lose to Gal­way in the 1956 All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal. He reels off the first 15 as if read­ing it from a pro­gramme and re­mem­bers tears of dis­ap­point­ment on the way back. Tyrone gave him some­thing to as­pire to be­fore his na­tive county could. His All-Ire­land win­ning side of 1992 was ef­fec­tively bro­ken up by a loss to Tyrone two years later. As it turned out, his last big scalp as an in­ter­county man­ager was the vic­tory in 2004 over Tyrone in the Ul­ster semi-fi­nal.

“There was a McKenna Cup fi­nal ear­lier that year – in MacCumhaill Park. They beat us by over 20 points. And I re­mem­ber hav­ing my heart and mind set on beat­ing them in the cham­pi­onship. It wasn’t helped by my god­son, Niall McCready, get­ting the line in the game. But we were well up for that game be­cause of the trim­ming they had given us.”

When McEniff was player-man­ager for Done­gal’s first ever Ul­ster ti­tle in 1972, it was Tyrone that stood in their way.

“They had been quiet since ’56 but there they were,” he laughs. A year later, the coun­ties en­gaged in a vi­o­lent and in­fa­mous cham­pi­onship match in Bally­bofey. There was, McEniff con­cedes, a ter­ri­ble at­mos­phere about the place, some­thing that he puts down to the spi­ralling ten­sions of the Trou­bles.

“The North­ern Ire­land is­sue just made things very, very dif­fi­cult. Like, in 1968, Down won the All-Ire­land. Tyrone won the ju­nior All-Ire­land. Ul­ster won the Rail­way Cup. and I think Derry won the U-21. Then the Trou­bles came in Au­gust ’69. And there was a lot of slip­page through­out the province. Antrim had won the U-21 All-Ire­land in 1969. And that team was dec­i­mated.

“So there was a lot of . . . peo­ple came in here from West Tyrone and you’d be play­ing foot­ball and you’d be called a Free State b ***** d. And that didn’t sit well with me be­cause I had a lot of Tyrone blood in me, a na­tion­al­ist fam­ily, and that’s the way it was. I found that very hard to cope with in the years of the Trou­bles. But some of that would have spilled on to the foot­ball field and I would put what hap­pened in ’73 down to the Trou­bles and not Tyrone per se.”

Derby games

Patsy Forbes has lived in Magher­afelt, in Derry, for 45 years. He de­buted for Ard­boe se­niors at 16 and played a full decade for Tyrone. For him, the GAA mat­tered as much for keep­ing young­sters off the streets dur­ing the Trou­bles as it did in terms of cham­pi­onships won.

“Peo­ple stuck to­gether and wanted to do well. I think the GAA were fan­tas­tic through the Trou­bles to keep go­ing. You had to live through it – go­ing from pitch to pitch and held up on the road. It didn’t stop us from get­ting on with the game. It would make you more de­ter­mined to do well for the GAA. We were al­ways very proud of the GAA in Tyrone. And you will al­ways get knock­ers along the way.”

For years, Forbes has trav­elled with Derry friends to derby games and agrees the ri­valry is in­tense when the two coun­ties meet.

“But then it would be the same with Ar­magh over by Moy. You want to beat your neigh­bour. But what­ever county wins, you’d sup­port them then.”

Lo­cal pas­sions

As Forbes sees it, lo­cal pas­sions are trans­fer­able. He al­ways re­mem­bers a par­tic­u­lar cham­pi­onship game be­tween Cook­stown and Er­ri­gal Ciarán. Peter Cana­van was in his pomp and a sec­tion of the Cook­stown crowd didn’t like it one bit. “They were shout­ing as much abuse as they could at him.”

A few weeks later, he saw the same crowd at a Tyrone cham­pi­onship match. It was as if Cana­van was god.

“Your club is your club. You get stuck in. And you go out four weeks later and play with that fella, you will fight for him.”

Tales of the frac­tious­ness within the Tyrone foot­ball scene have led to plenty of tut-tut­ting down the years. It never pre­vented Red Hand teams from achiev­ing unity when rep­re­sent­ing the county. What was miss­ing, through their neck­lace of All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal ap­pear­ances, was a feel­ing they were en­ti­tled to go and gen­uinely take on the mar­quee names and colours from the South.

“We used to go to Croke Park to do well,” says Forbes. “That was a suc­cess.”

It was an el­e­ment of the Tyrone psy­che that both­ered Art McRory, as far back as 1980 when he took charge of the se­nior team.

“I think the big­gest chal­lenge I had was con­vinc­ing peo­ple they were good enough,” he said when in­ter­viewed for the GAA’s oral his­tory project.

“If they worked hard enough they were good enough to win things. The play­ers would only go so far; they weren’t pre­pared to go the ex­tra mile. Even­tu­ally in 1984 we won an Ul­ster cham­pi­onship and that con­vinced some of them that they were good enough. And I was sure ’85 was go­ing to be our year.” It might have been, too, had they not faced an away trip to Derry in the first round of the Ul­ster cham­pi­onship. It was back to the draw­ing board.

“I ab­so­lutely slaugh­tered them in train­ing in prepa­ra­tion for the ’86 cham­pi­onship,” McRory re­called. “And it worked.”

The im­por­tance and in­flu­ence of McRory in the emer­gence of Tyrone as an All-Ire­land force has not been given the recog­ni­tion it might. The Dun­gan­non teacher – and, in­ci­den­tally, a first cousin of Brian McEniff’s – played through the leaner years, guided Tyrone to five Ul­ster cham­pi­onships and came fate­fully close to coach­ing one of the most sen­sa­tional All-Ire­land re­sults ever, his Tyrone team seven points up with 30 min­utes left against an ag­ing Kerry team in the fi­nal of 1986.

He was there, too, 11 years later when Tyrone fell short against Dublin in the 1995 fi­nal by a sin­gle point. And McRory was still on the side­line for the 2002 cham­pi­onship, when Tyrone, who had just won the league, were shocked by Sligo and one of the great vir­tu­oso Croke Park per­for­mances from mid­fielder Ea­monn O’Hara.

That de­feat brought the cur­tains down on decades of out­stand­ing ser­vice.

“It broke my heart,” McRory said of a de­par­ture that many feel was badly han­dled. “But I had no op­tions. I sim­ply had no op­tions.”

Still the amount of time and en­ergy which McRory and Eugene McKenna in­vested to help trans­form Tyrone’s am­bi­tion was crit­i­cal. Eleven of the county’s 23 Ul­ster mi­nor cham­pi­onships were won in the years af­ter that ’86 ap­pear­ance, with Harte’s smart lads of 1998 pro­vid­ing the nu­cleus of the group who would, un­der the lat­ter’s peer­less guid­ance, storm to se­nior All-Ire­lands over the next decade.

Per­haps their great­est trick was that they won each of those All-Ire­lands through a com­bi­na­tion of bril­liance and stealth. On each oc­ca­sion, no­body saw them com­ing un­til it was too late.

“Prob­a­bly not on that par­tic­u­lar day,” says Brian McEniff when asked if he would have fore­seen them win­ning two more All-Ire­lands leav­ing Clones in 2004. “But they had a huge amount of tal­ent. We have to re­mem­ber that. Seán Ca­vanagh was a su­per player. Peter Cana­van was a su­per player. [Ryan] Ricey McMe­namin: a tough lit­tle un­com­pro­mis­ing back. [Philip] Jor­dan. Good, good player. [Brian] Dooher up front and [Eoin] Mug­gsy Mul­li­gan: an ex­tro­vert. Young McMe­namin told Malachy Clerkin on these pages in 2013.

“There’s a bit of ev­ery­one that kind of goes: ‘Well no one likes us. They think of us as dif­fer­ent’.”

Their progress to this year’s All-Ire­land was marked by a none-too-dis­creet con­ver­sa­tion about whether Harte was still the right man for the job. Yet af­ter ev­ery­thing, here they are.

Writ­ten off in the league, beaten in Ul­ster, rank out­siders, per­haps, and miles re­moved from the na­tional-dar­ling sta­tus that Mayo have enjoyed, but up for the bat­tle – and ut­terly of them­selves.

If Tyrone are dif­fer­ent, then that’s their glory; that is their in­ge­nu­ity.

Foot­ball al­ways meant more in Tyrone when I was grow­ing up. They play on the edge, Tyrone. Al­ways did and, I sup­pose, al­ways will – For­mer Done­gal man­ager Brian McEniff

Tyrone cel­e­brate Niall Slud­den’s late goal against Mon­aghan in the semi-fi­nal; for­mer Tyrone man­ager Art McRory with then Ca­van man­ager Val An­drews be­fore the 2001 Ul­ster fi­nal; Tyrone line up be­fore the 2005 fi­nal vic­tory over Kerry; Mickey Harte and Done­gal man­ager Brian McEniff dur­ing the Ul­ster semi-fi­nal clash in 2004.

Out­stand­ing ser­vice

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