When Tyrone full back Ronan McNamee picked up a yellow card midway through the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final against Monaghan, he probably knew his number was up.
Locked in a riveting tussle with Conor McManus, the Aghyaran man was in a vulnerable position. Tyrone couldn't afford to lose their consolidating defender to a second booking. Sure enough, with 50 minutes gone, he was replaced by Rory Brennan.
Attempting to see out a hugely tense semi-final without a dedicated, specialist number three was not ideal. But it returned Tyrone and its supporters to familiar ground. Part of Tyrone's All-Ireland story has revolved around the patchwork job Mickey Harte carried out in the heart of the defence.
As McNamee's enforced departure against Monaghan demonstrated, they are better equipped than most in coping
It was a position that had begun to trouble the Tyrone back room even before Harte took over the senior post after the 2002 season. Prior to the 2001 Ulster final against Cavan, then manager Art McRory found himself in the dilemma of hurrying Chris Lawn back to duty or opting to go with young Colin Holmes, one of the promising breed of stars coming through. Holmes could play full back but that was through versatility rather than vocation.
Two years on, the dilemma returned. After the drawn Ulster final of 2003, an injury to both players left Harte with no obvious cover at full back. Lawn had started at number three on a madcap afternoon when Down raced into an unreliable nine-point lead with their summer speciality: goals. Dan Gordon bagged two in a game which finished 1-17 to 4-8. "I'm not happy about conceding 4-8," Harte immediately offered after the match. No one would be happy with that."
It was as if the experience established the blueprint not just for the next game but for the future of Harte’s vision: preventing goals has become an essential part of who Tyrone are.
The replay was scheduled for a week later, during which it emerged that Lawn was injured. A rumour began to circulate that Harte was considering switching Cormac McAnallen to deputise. But the Eglish man's midfield partnership with Seán Cavanagh had already become one of the most eye-catching elements of the Tyrone apparatus. "Cormac is a special player who would see it as a challenge to take over playing full back," Harte said when asked about the notion. "I would have no problem playing him there."
A week later, an unsuspecting public got a first viewing of what Tyrone were about to become. McAnallen lined out on the edge of the square. Kevin Hughes played at midfield alongside Cavanagh, with Seamus Mulgrew coming into the team. It was an annihilation rather than a replay and finished 0-23 to 1-5: Peter Canavan and Owen Mulligan had 0-15 between them.
Few positional switches can have yielded such instant and dramatic results. Just three games later, Tyrone were All-Ireland champions for the first time in their history and the ease with which McAnallen mastered the demands of fullback earned him an All-Star. Lawn, All-Star nominated in 1995, and a terrific servant, couldn’t get back into the side that season. In addition, Tyrone had unveiled a manic intensity in a memorably unvarnished All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
The philosophy, Ryan McMenamin said that day, was simple: “We had to be psychos for the ball.” McAnallen was the ultra-composed lynchpin around which Tyrone’s rampaging defenders moved. Tyrone now had an accomplished number three in Lawn and, in McAnallen, it seemed, a ready-made fullback for the next decade.
The tragic death of McAnallen rendered football irrelevant in the country throughout the following year: team and supporters were simply too dumbstruck and heavy-hearted to care. For the record, Conor Gormley played fullback on the day they were beaten by Donegal in 2004. Joe McMahon, an imposing, athletic wing-back pitched in with a point that hinted at his potential to thrive in the forward division.
But when Tyrone popped up in the All-Ireland final a year later, McMahon was their new fullback. Again, it was one of the out-of-the-blue switches that nobody saw coming. Although Chris Lawn had given a full decade of championships to Tyrone by then, he remained the best out-and-out fullback in the county. In retrospect, Tyrone's ascension to that year's All-Ireland was an exercise in stealth: all of the summer focus was on Armagh and Kerry. Lawn used all his guile in holding Ronan Clarke to a point in the drawn Ulster final in Croke Park.
He was the resident fullback for the replay, which Tyrone narrowly lost and for the All-Ireland quarter final draw against Dublin- a game in which Joe McMahon made another appearance, this time for Gavin Devlin. The replay is remembered for Owen Mulligan’s luminous display and that audacity of his goal. But of quieter significance were the machinations in the full-back line. McMahon was listed to start that replay at midfield, wearing number 24. It wasn’t long before Harte had sent him into full-forward in order to liberate Peter Canavan to a freer role. But at the other end, all three of his full back line would pick up yellow cards over the day. Lawn was booked after just 20 minutes. Four minutes later, he was substituted.
By the second half, McMahon had been dispatched from the front line to fullback. Whatever Harte saw in that half hour was enough to convince him. McMahon started the All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh at fullback, wearing #3. Lawn came in from the substitutes late in the second half for Philip Jordan. In arguably the defining game of the magnificent arm-wrestle between the neighbours, Tyrone won by 1-13 to 1-12.
On September 25th, McMahon started just his second championship game at fullback facing a Kerry front line of Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and Dara O'Cinnéide. If it seemed extremely tough on a great servant like Lawn, who for the second All-Ireland winning season lost his place to circumstance rather than form, it highlighted Tyrone's capacity for lightning thought and adjustment.
As it turned out, Harte sent Lawn in to replace McMahon after 48 minutes so his final, crucial minutes at fullback were as part of an All-Ireland winning Tyrone team. As if to further advertise the team’s versatility, Colin Holmes replaced Peter Canavan in the forward line that day; Holmes would end up starting in Tyrone’s next All-Ireland final team- at midfield.
Tyrone started that 2008 summer in customary style: injury plagued; seemingly in decline; overlooked. Justin McMahon, taller and rangier than his brother, was in at fullback: Joe was bouncing around the full forward lines. It wasn’t until the rampaging 3-14 to 1-8 quarter final win over Dublin- to which Joe McMahon contributed 1-1- that people realised that Tyrone were in Oops I Did It Again mindset.
By then it was too late. When Tyrone again swept Kerry in that year’s All-Ireland final, Joe McMahon was restored to the full backline alongside his brother Justin, both bearded and difficult to distinguish apart from their overall influence. For a third time, Harte had won a senior All-Ireland while cutting and pasting in the crucial defensive position.
In the years to come, both McMahons would play in the evolving sweeper's role and Justin, in particular, specialised in close man-marking while Colm Cavanagh has also clocked up hours there. Tyrone's rise to prominence since reclaiming Ulster in 2016 has featured Ronan McNamee at fullback. That constancy is a luxury that they haven't always had but as McNamee's enforced departure against Monaghan demonstrated, they are better equipped than most in coping.
They simply adapt.