Tyrone’s brothers-in-arms ready to march on HQ
Aidan McCrory believes integration of fresh talent has made for a potent Red Hand mix
Aidan McCrory: “Every team is beatable. But in order to beat them it will take the best of what we have.” Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho
On first approach the Tyrone GAA complex at Garvaghey resembles a sort of fortified military compound.
The vast 43-acre site is heavily ring-fenced and seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, the perfect hideaway for practising their on-field combat, and whatever else comes with it.
It’s easy to imagine Mickey Harte patrolling the training ground like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, or Eminem pumping out over one of the five floodlight pitches or from inside one of the 10 dressing rooms. Opened four years ago, at a cost €7.8 million, it’s no place for messing about.
Then Aidan McCrory sits down inside the 200-seater auditorium and begins to describe exactly what goes on here. At 29, and the cornerstone of the Tyrone defence, McCrory looks like a player of considerable discipline but Garvaghey is clearly no Full Metal Jacket.
“I suppose it’s the culture now of a younger generation,” he says, “of expressing yourself. They’re always coming in with smiles on their faces and they’re fairly free-living and happy people. And they’re happy to be training...”
So what, are they half-stoned?
“Nah, we get drug-tested, so they’re not like that.”
It’s a light-hearted moment yet captures the essence of this Tyrone team, helps explain why they’re back in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final, primed to take on two-time defending champions Dublin.
McCrory was on the Tyrone team that last played (and lost) to Dublin in the 2011 championship and now, six years on, the constant evolution of the team, especially the injection of younger players, has been paramount in getting them back to this stage.
“There really has been a change of culture, in that when I was getting involved in the squad, no one my age would have probably been that way. Maybe it was because you were coming in and everyone around you had All-Ireland medals and All Stars.
“But the boys coming in now, they come and express themselves. And the same in training; they’re not afraid to make mistakes. They’re here to play football. And there’s a kind of freedom in them.
“I was a young cub at that stage [in 2011]. Now I’m the opposite. And realistically, from then to now, we’re a completely different team; Dublin are a completely different team. They were, I suppose, just at the start of their good time, and since then we’ve had a high turnover of players. But I don’t think too many Dublin players will be thinking back to that game. And there’ll not be too many of ours will really have any attachment to it either.”
That bond, that fusion, hasn’t happened by accident. Mickey Harte has also said one of his main challenges, in this his 15th season as Tyrone manager, has been evolving at the same pace as his team (especially when it came to keeping up with their taste in music).
It helps that there are five sets of brothers on the Tyrone panel – the Cavanaghs, McCanns, McGearys, Brennans and Donnellys – and for McCrory, there is a certainly the sense this is the strongest Tyrone team since his involvement with the county squad.
“There have been players involved and we’ve chopped and changed. But I don’t think it’s fair to argue we were ‘unlucky’... we weren’t good enough. If we had been good enough, we would have won the games and that’s the way we look at it. We had to figure out a way to improve, and thankfully we’ve done that in between times, and that’s what’s led us to where we are now.
“Then in the last couple of years, just the characters we have seem to have gelled really well. A lot of the players complement each other. You can be in the middle of a tough drill in training, and some of the boys might come out with something and everyone bursts out laughing. It does bring a wee bit of craic to training.”
“There’s a couple of boys there, Michael Cassidy, would be funny at times. They’re just good lads and they’re here to improve themselves and to really express themselves.
“Even Mickey lately with the younger boys that have come in – we’ve a few lively, younger boys in there and even Mickey at times gets involved in that. Where the younger boys – and even some of the older boys – are messing about and Mickey would be in taking the hand out of some of them.
“Some of the younger boys that have come in have really brought life into the squad and all the players – and into the management.”
It’s not all messing about though. One of the overtly successful elements to Tyrone’s recent evolution is their ability to score – they have posted 6-77 in four championship games to date.
“Part of the way Mickey trains, we all train to learn how to shoot. We all train to learn how to tackle. It’s not a thing of ‘you’re a defender, you should be learning how to defend’ and ‘you’re a forward, you should be learning how to score’. A lot of Mickey’s philosophy is when we have the ball, we have to do whatever we can to give us the best opportunity to get a score out of it.”
Dublin, naturally, present their greatest challenge to date. Are they beatable?
“Every team is beatable. But in order to beat them it will take the best of what we have. Dublin are capable of doing anything. They can play a long ball, they can play a running game. They have the players there to play whatever they want. And, realistically, we can’t say what they’re going to do. We can only prepare for everything.”