Years ago, around the time of some other Tyrone outrage, it came time to talk to Ryan McMenamin. For all that he was the onfield embodiment of everything people profess to hate about Tyrone football, you couldn’t spend time in Ricey’s company without having a few of the edges of your distaste shaved off. He was, in Darragh Ó Sé’s magnificent phrase, “a monstrous little weasel” on the pitch.
He was also one of the people the big Kerryman met in football whose company he most enjoyed off it.
This dichotomy has always been interesting when it comes to Tyrone. You could call McMenamin the footballer whatever name came into your head and he wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. He was often a gurrier in a Tyrone jersey, no sense arguing otherwise. In real life though, he’s a mild-mannered, witty, thoughtful civil servant with neither a tail nor a cloven hoof to be seen.
A disparity between playing persona and daily-bread personality isn’t a new thing in sport and it surely wasn’t invented in the raggedy hills around Dromore. But it’s worth exploring all the same. Certainly more so than the endless braying back and forth over Tiernan McCann’s dive and the orgy of whataboutery that followed.
Some of the commentary about Tyrone last week went beyond general sports chatter and veered mightily close to less comfortable territory, some of it borderline xenophobic. Tyrone are not other, they are not ogres, they are not somehow lesser members of society than the rest of us. Indeed, they are not even they. They are we. Irish people. GAA people. Sports people.
But they do have a problem and it is one they have no real interest in solving. They genuinely believe that they get singled out by a GAA public and hierarchy that takes greater interest in their transgressions than in those of others.
And when they see a situation where McCann has to answer a charge that not only hasn't been faced by other divers in the championship but wasn't levied at Monaghan's Rory Beggan for a blatant dive in the same game, it's hard to convince them otherwise.
McMenamin told a story about one time he was up in front of the beaks in Croke Park trying to overturn a suspension after the Battle of Omagh. “What they were taking me up for was something ridiculous,” he said. “It was nothing to do with the fight at all. And they made a point of saying that they weren’t influenced by the media.
A bit hypocritical
“But even just as they were saying it, they had the papers sitting in front of them on the table! I just thought this was kind of funny, like. But come on, it’s a bit hypocritical too. Why would they even have them there?”
Arguing the toss over whether they’re right or wrong to feel victimised is pointless. What’s undeniable is that the sentiment is real. It’s been real ever since “puke” football. They look at the national keening for a Mayo All-Ireland and remember no such love, affection or even welcome for their breakthrough. Instead, they see begrudgery and hostility which they are more than happy to meet full-on.
Nobody denies that there has been sledging in plenty of games in this year’s championship yet it only became a national issue after Tyrone v Donegal. Nor do we fool ourselves that there’s been any shortage of diving, yet only Tyrone v Monaghan has drawn the hue and cry (and only the Tyrone diving at that). A Tyrone player was stamped on in the qualifier against Tipperary last month without a word of comment; this won’t be the case if a Kerry player is stamped on next Sunday.
Nor should it, of course. But neither is it reasonable to decide that one county is inherently more base than all the rest. All that does is perpetuate the situation. No group of people in history has responded well to being singled out for special treatment.
Struggle to play
“People in the south probably didn’t realise what a struggle it was for us to just get playing GAA on the same level as them,” said McMenamin a couple of years ago. “Part of us would have been thinking that we fought just to get playing Gaelic games and then when we arrived down to the south, the people who were meant to be the same as us didn’t seem to understand what we were about.
“It wasn’t as though we were expecting a welcome mat laid out for us but it was strange to feel as though we were different in some way. After a while, you just go, ‘Right, if that’s the way they see us, fair enough.’ There wasn’t outright hostility but I suppose the more competitive the football got, the more hostile the whole scene got in a way.”
Away back as far as 1953, then GAA general secretary Pádraig O’Keeffe was using his report to Congress to warn against the dangers of the growing practice of feigning injury. At the 1955 Congress, a motion was passed limiting the number of substitutions to three per team on account of the amount of injury-feigning that was going on.
Tyrone did not invent this – and you only have to watch the Tiernan McCann clip again to see they haven’t perfected it. But they are the bogeymen now. They are the villains, here and from here on. And at this point, they couldn’t care less what you think of them.
However we got to this point, it’s not a pretty place to be.