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.
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.
“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.”
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 of 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.”
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.”
The biggest challenge I had was convincing people they were good enough
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.
If Tyrone are different, then that's their glory; that is their ingenuity
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.