This is a difficult week to be a Tyrone fan in Dublin

All supporters of Northern teams know that GAA is a very pure manifestation of Irishness

Anxious Tyrone fans watch their team hang on against Monaghan. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Anxious Tyrone fans watch their team hang on against Monaghan. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Being a Tyrone fan in Dublin can be difficult, especially in weeks like this, as the glorious lure of Sam Maguire breathes down our necks. Aware of the “esteem” in which we’re held, we’re forced to develop coping mechanisms to make you all realise we’re not monsters, or paranoid. Or both.

We should probably start with pronunciation, and our important role to correct yours. Yes, I’m looking at you, Pat Spillane, with your TIE-rone this and TIE-rone that. It’s almost as annoying as those “puke football” accusations. The start of my county’s name is pronounced in the same way as the start of the word “ticket”, or “typical”, not “tyrant” or “tiny”. All clear? Of course not. Don’t think we don’t realise those of you who engage in this heinous practice do it to annoy us, even if perhaps you don’t realise it yourselves. The battle continues.

On top of this, we work hard to prove that we’re actually nice people, just as nice as people from other counties in fact. I struggle to forget the time my Dubliner son, then barely in primary school, was participating in a mini-tournament with our (excellent) local club in the city, where each team of small boys took the name of a prominent GAA county: Dublin, Kerry and the rest. All the teams were cheered when the time came to award medals, apart from “Tyrone”, which attracted an (admittedly jokey) boo. I now often send the poor child to training in his mother’s county’s shirt, like a little goodwill ambassador for the rest of us. He only refuses sometimes, keeping a Dublin shirt in reserve for strategic reasons.

And on the subject of clothing strategies, the run-up to our semi-final against lovable, fluffy Monaghan, with all of its anticipatory romance on the opposing side, was enough to make me buy my first ever Tyrone shirt in the sports shop downstairs at Croke Park before the match. Incidentally, and in true Northerner style, I continue to congratulate myself for escaping the VAT by squeezing into an age 13. #lifegoals

For the record, Ulster solidarity would actually have left me cheering for Monaghan in different circumstances, even though I doubt very much that the reverse could ever be true, at least not now that we have won Sam Maguire a whole three times. For scale, Kerry has 37 titles while on Sunday, we take on a county that has lifted Sam Maguire 27 times and is heading for four in a row. And yet, nobody seems to want the underdog, the team that hasn’t appeared in a final for a decade and has won so few titles, to win.

I remember clearly what it was like to come from a GAA-mad county that had never got its hands on the Sam Maguire and what it was like to travel for hours to Croke Park (via long delays at Border checkpoints) in wild hope rather than anything approaching expectation. Everybody seemed to like us better then, when beating Kerry or Dublin was laughably out of our reach, but that’s just how sport works, or at least that’s how it seems to work in our case. Luckily, there are more important things at play than what other people think, notably what GAA allows us to believe of ourselves.

All supporters of Northern teams know very clearly that GAA is a very pure manifestation of Irishness, the kind of undiluted Irishness that doesn’t go without saying in the North, but cannot be questioned on the pitch.

I recall as a child attending January football matches with my father at Healy Park in Omagh where frost was still on the ground and the shadow of the British army barracks could be felt behind us as the National Anthem played and it was powerful stuff.

Of course that is the business of anthems, to stir a country’s people into remembering the good parts of what a place is about and that they are part of it. In the North of my youth, this translated into being part of it despite our geographical or political circumstances, a rawness of feeling that, when matched with sporting magic, became and remains addictive.

It will fill Croke Park on this Sunday too, whether we win or not, and we know the odds, before you mention them. If the ticket stars align, I’ll be there too, in an already too-small shirt that hopefully hasn’t shrunk in the wash.

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