For a second on Saturday night, Feargal Logan looked as if he was going to fish out his phone and start reading from it.
One of the questions we asked him was , given that he had had such a grim experience in the one All-Ireland final he played in – 1995, the Dubs, the last-gasp disallowed point, etc – whether or not this meant more to him than it did to his co-manager Brian Dooher.
Dooher was sitting beside him, by the way. And judging by the half-harrumph, half-smirk he gave when he heard the question, we were all lucky that Tyrone had actually won the thing. You take your life in your hands when you suggest that winning an All-Ireland means more to anybody than it does to Brian Dooher.
Logan is, above and beyond everything else, however, his own man. And rather than bat the question away, his bearing visibly sagged ever so slightly as he began to answer. That 1995 final could have been the greatest day of his life and only the tiniest margin – a referee seeing a ball picked up off the ground when it had in fact bounced up – ruined it on him.
And now, 26 years later, even the glow of finally getting up the Hogan steps, even then he couldn't be blithe about what that defeat had meant. Not just for him but for the Tyrone team around him that day. Some of them, as Peter Canavan outlined in these pages on Saturday, got to slay the demons in the 2000s. But most of them didn't. Tiny margins, big consequences.
“In the immortal words of Páidí Ó Sé, a grain of rice tips the balance,” Logan said. “That’s what you live or die by in football. You can be very sore as a manager when you go home and that grain of rice tips against you. It was small margins today but probably the goals set us up. Goals win matches and we were lucky to get them. They worked and our midfield were outstanding.
“It probably does [mean more to me], in truth. There’s no getting away from the fact that 1995 was a very, very painful day for Tyrone. And in particular for the lads, the ’95 lads who I ran with back in the day and still would run with. I took all their names in my phone here and I’d love to give them all a shout out.
“I’d love to see them printed tomorrow to say, ‘Listen lads, that’s one that got away.’ We partly redeemed it here. We didn’t redeem it as players but in my mind anyway this is somewhat of a redemption.”
He did go rummaging in his pocket for a second but didn't actually take out his phone and start listing off names. So what the hell, let's do it for him anyway. Finbar McConnell. Paul Devlin. Fay Devlin. Ronan McGarrity. Séamus McCallan. Seán McLaughlin. Jody Gormley. Ciarán Corr. Pascal Canavan. Ciarán Loughran. Ciarán McBride. Stephen Lawn. Mattie McGleenan. Brian Gormley. Paul Donnelly. Chris Lawn and Peter Canavan were there too but they got their medals eventually.
Logan was talking about the others, members of that small circle of GAA players from down the decades who got their one shot at glory and didn’t take it. Most players never get to a final. Half that do go home as made men for life. The other half carry with them heads filled with regrets. For some it dissipates. For others, it’s that small shadow on the X-ray of their life. Always there, always black, never benign.
That much was clear from the way Logan spoke on Saturday night. A lost final can pick away at you. Ten of the players Tyrone used against Mayo had been beaten out the gate by Dublin in 2018. Back then, it looked like Jim Gavin was building a forever empire and the idea that Tyrone – risk-averse, massed defence, one-man-up Tyrone – would be the ones to finally bring the Dubs' All-Ireland streak to an end would have seemed preposterous.
But they did it.
They found their way back and won an outlandish All-Ireland. Cathal McShane had a terrible final in 2018, scoring two points from five shots. Since then, he has been an All Star, been the leading scorer in the championship, been the subject of a tug-of-war between the AFL and Tyrone GAA and suffered a brutal long-term injury. And now he has come off the bench in an All-Ireland semi-final and final and scored a game-changing goal both times.
The second Dublin goal in 2018 came from a breaking ball under the Hogan Stand that Johnny Cooper was going down on, begging to be fouled. Not only did Conor Meyler give him what he wanted, he turned and started jawing at the referee while Cooper bounced up and took a quick free to Niall Scully. Eleven seconds and a one-two with Con O'Callaghan later, Scully was batting into an empty net.
On Saturday night, Meyler was one of Tyrone’s best players for the fifth game out of five in this year’s championship. He got his second chance at an All-Ireland final and now he’s in the running for Footballer of the Year. (He’d be this column’s choice for what it’s worth, which is the square root of nothing.)
In winning this All-Ireland, Tyrone have handed out a lesson to everyone else in how to keep going. The wheels should have come off at various junctures – Donegal fluffed their chance, Monaghan didn’t have the composure when it mattered, Kerry blew bubbles into a windmill and were somehow surprised when they exploded. Over it all hung the Covid cloud – and Tyrone dealt with that too, in their way.
No, it wasn’t the best championship the game has ever seen. But Tyrone won an epic championship in 2005 and it counts for exactly the same amount of places on the roll of honour as this one does. And, as Feargal Logan expressed so eloquently on Saturday night, it counts for so much more when you’ve seen it from the other side.
You keep going. You keep trying. If you’re lucky enough, redemption might find you when you least expect it.