In case you missed it: it’s Mayo’s year, again.
They deserve it, after all, having toiled away as the nation’s GAA sweethearts for so long without just reward. And sure who would begrudge it to them? I’m fairly sure that if you asked a Mongolian herder a few hundred miles outside Ulan Bator this week who he would like to win on Saturday, he’d go for the Connacht champions. The answer is especially clear this year as they line out against everybody’s favourite GAA baddies: Tyrone.
For us Tyrone fans, there is a familiarity to this, just as Mayo fans must be bored with the timeworn “deserving” narrative. We know 31 counties plus New York and London and the rest of the universe are against us in our endeavours, but hey, that’s okay.
While the topics change, we are used to dealing with the idea that our team never quite plays the game the way the rest of the country would like them to. There is often a sense that our wins are only half-wins, that they are victories with the shadow of something not quite right lurking behind them. Very often, the players and management are considered to be just that wee bit too cute to be gain full entry to polite GAA society.
What made us such enemies of the people? GAA is as woven into family histories and awarded exactly the same romantic respect in Tyrone as it is in other counties, if not more. In a place where identity and belonging is not quite as automatic or straightforward as it might be elsewhere in the country, sport can take on an added significance. In large parts of Tyrone, following GAA falls somewhere between breathing and eating in the natural way of things.
If we’re to boil it down, the biggest problem with us seems to be in winning, which we didn’t do that much in Dublin until the 2000s. My now deceased father, my brothers and I grew used to making the long trip to Dublin, through lengthy army checkpoints both ways, to see our plucky team being beaten. It was acceptable then to achieve wins in Ulster but not to go further, at least not more than once.
When we did, people didn’t like us as much and then very quickly started to dislike us a lot. We’ve now reached a point where if Tyrone’s top players burst on to the field made up like Batman’s Joker and proceeded to hold up the stadium, some commentators would shrug and think, yeah, typical Tyrone.
You might say we’re very easily annoyed, and this is possibly true. Alas, this is how things develop when you’re the common enemy. Dublin have had a taste of this in recent years too and, believe it or not, it could in time even happen to those lovely fellows in Mayo.
In Tyrone, we even manage to get cross at how people pronounce the name of our county. Imagine! For the record, it’s not TIE-rone, in the same way it’s not Kerr-EYE. The only occasion on which this rule might not apply is in match chants - Tih-rone doesn’t make for a great one. But only we get to decide on that, not you.
Speaking of Kerry, it’s now nearly two weeks since we beat them or, rather, since they lost to us, since an awful lot of commentary seemed to suggest that is what actually happened. Why did Kerry, the truest GAA county of all, lose to the northerners who were meant to have been carelessly weakened by illness? There was nearly a sense that if the Tyrone players had been a shade more lethargic on the field on the weekend before last, or shown up looking a little green, some people might have been happier.
As it happened, the match turned out to be just that: a meeting of teams that were more or less able for each other. Without the much-criticised two-week delay to the semi-final, this near equality presumably would not have been delivered. It was hard to work out what some would have preferred in the end - were a diminished Tyrone supposed to come down from “up there” to be justly beaten and head home again? Perhaps.
But don’t get me wrong, while the widespread designation of Tyrone as the evildoers of the modern game can be irritating and utterly infuriating when it comes with a soupçon of bias, it can also be welcome, and is particularly so this week, as we stare down the barrel of a match with Mayo’s matinee idols.
I’m no sportswoman, but I’m told nothing steels a team more than other people really wanting you to lose or believing you deserve to do so. Tyrone printers have been busy churning out T-shirts bearing Kieran McGeary’s defiant and baiting words from the win against Kerry: “They said we wouldn’t, they said we couldn’t, I’ll tell you what, we did.” As inspirational quotes go, it’s not quite JFK, but for Tyrone fans, it might as well be. Here’s hoping he has another one ready to unleash on Saturday.