When you’re in the middle of it all, you don’t always know as much as you think you do.
Joe McMahon laughs when he says that there were about 30 seconds to go last Saturday when he turned to Feargal Logan and said: "We have it!"
This was as the clock ticked into the 77th minute, which means McMahon was a good 10 minutes behind the rest of us. You had it alright, Joe. You had it a long time at that stage.
“And even then,” McMahon says, “Feargal was going, ‘No, not yet, not yet. It’s not over.’ But it was and when the final whistle went, that outpouring of emotion was something else. The last few days, spending time in each other’s company, that has just been brilliant.
“The good thing for me, as a coach, working with the group of men that you have, is the deep sense of satisfaction you get out of it. Just in terms of, when you look at the obstacles that were in our way through the season – when you’re a player you only really think about yourself but when you’re a coach you worry about the whole group.
“So at the end, the feeling and the joy you get out of it isn’t too different to what it was as a player. You still have the same amount of joy, the same amount of enjoyment of the response of the people. But there’s more relief involved I’d say. it’s privileged position to be in.”
In McMahon and Collie Holmes, the Tyrone management went for a backroom team that linked to the generation who came up behind them. Not only was McMahon central to the 2005 and 2008 All-Irelands, he only retired from inter-county football in 2017.
Holmes is one of the original made men of Tyrone football, there for all three victories before this one. From Logan to Brian Dooher to Holmes to McMahon, they had a chain of unbroken service stretching back to 1990. They knew who they were, they knew where they were going.
McMahon was working with Fermanagh when the call came last December. He’d been coaching under Ryan McMenamin, cutting his teeth in a tough environment but enjoying it for all that. Everyone understood that an invitation from Tyrone to slide back across the county line could hardly be ignored and so it came to pass.
His familiarity with the current squad was crucial and couldn’t be overstated. Logan and Dooher knew some of them from underage days but McMahon had been there with them even more recently, had seen them grow into their early 20s and had bonds in place that could be picked up again easily. This was especially helpful given all complications of the new reality. Team meetings held by Zoom, Covid stalking the land, everything done at a remove through that winter and spring.
“I had experienced it a bit with Fermanagh so that probably helped,” McMahon says. “You were always in contact with the players but it put a lot of emphasis on them to do stuff on their own and it means that it was always going to be challenging when you did step in and get on the training pitch with them. The whole season felt like you were cramming for an exam.
“And then with what happened with the Covid outbreak, it was a tribute to the players that they were able to come through it. It came down to the work they did away from the playing field. We were so careful with all the protocols – no dressing rooms, taking lateral flow tests, cleaning the footballs on a regular basis. When the numbers went through the roof in Tyrone, we couldn’t keep it out.”
Whatever anyone in the outside world thinks of the outbreak, the least everyone can agree on is that it was an unprecedented obstacle for Tyrone to jump mid-championship.
Now that the dust has settled, McMahon is able to look back and reflect that it was the group at large that carried them through. In victory, the winners always hail the wider panel. That rings truer this year more than ever.
“It makes it all the more sweeter, to be honest,” he says.
“The build-up to the Monaghan match, when there were players dropping out here and there, you were really going, ‘This is going to be some test of the panel.’ And the fact of it is that it was players on the periphery of the squad who were the ones who were carrying the thing in those weeks.
“When we were getting ready for the Kerry match, you had boys coming back in and at all times, player welfare was first and foremost. So you would have had sessions and drills where players would step out for a few minutes and go and chat to the medical staff who were watching everything very closely.
“That was what we were stressing with them over and over. If any man needs to step out of a session, there is no pressure to keep going. We left it to the players and the medical staff all the way through. That’s when the whole panel really kicked into effect because you can’t really imagine what it must have been like for those players coming back from Covid. It was some effort from everyone to get back to a place where we could compete.”
Not just compete but win an All-Ireland for the ages. They beat the last three Ulster champions and followed it up with wins over Kerry and Mayo. The days since have been everything they wanted. McMahon is no bucking young lad anymore and was back in school by Tuesday. Sensible is as sensible does.
“You wouldn’t have been saying that if you’d seen me on Monday!” he laughs. “But look, it’s their time. The accumulation of everything they did over the season led to it. They deserve it.”