Keith Duggan: Tyrone make it matter more – may they never change

Red Hand back in terrain they love today, the dark anti-hero gatecrashing the garden party

Owen Mulligan fires home an unforgettable solo goal against Dublin in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final. When Tyrone are in the mood for football and mischief it is never dull, never predictable. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

Owen Mulligan fires home an unforgettable solo goal against Dublin in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final. When Tyrone are in the mood for football and mischief it is never dull, never predictable. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

 

In the long hot summer of 2005, Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps made its debut in a Brooklyn gallery and was instantly hailed as the most important artistic statement of the year. But that was only because the art crowd never got to see Owen Mulligan’s goal for Tyrone against Dublin.

Remember the day: north and south, style and substance, locked into a slow-burning struggle on a muggy Saturday in late August when Mulligan came barreling out from goal to pick a ball up around the 45.

In aspect, that Tyrone crew were fairly conservative; suited and booted they’d have passed for a prosperous young accountancy firm on the up. Except for Mulligan, who was slightly more peroxide than Eminem that summer.

His goal was one of the very rare sequences in ball sports where those watching – in the crowd, on television – got to appreciate that they were witnessing an all-time moment even as it materialised.

Turning with the deceptive agility that became his calling card, Mulligan moved with intent towards the Canal End leaving his marker for dust. Then he voodoo-ed an approaching Dublin defender (it doesn’t matter who: nobody could have stopped this flow) with a left foot solo and a gorgeous faked hand-pass to a phantom Tyrone player on his left side.

Three seconds later, he fooled another arriving Dublin defender with the exact same deception. The repetition elevated the moment into genius. Suddenly he was through on goal and the crowd responded to the collective dawning that the moment demanded a goal. Mulligan had already reached the same conclusion, ebulliently firing past Stephen Cluxton – but with his right foot, as though conscious of the aesthetics.

He helped himself to 1-7 that day. Over the next few weeks, Tyrone would eclipse their bitter rivals Armagh in a classic semi-final and finish the year by beating Kerry to win the All-Ireland title. It was their second title in three years and, also, ever. The goal seemed to embody everything that Tyrone were about: insolence and the spark of genius and the unasked question hanging in the air: how do you like us now?

Tyrone, Tyrone. One of the incidental aspects of this evening’s All-Ireland final is that it pits two of the most fascinating Gaelic football counties against each other.

If Mayo have found themselves occupying the role of national darlings because of their high-octane assaults on winning the thing, Tyrone claim a more complex place in the national imagination. They’re the team and county that the others love to hate and have no choice but to admire.

Within Ulster, the other counties form a line for the right to be considered Tyrone’s chief antagonists. It’s not that there’s no love lost. There is simply no love. It’s partly an accident of geography: you are in the heart of the heart of Ulster country when you are driving through Tyrone and perpetually rubbing shoulders with Armagh, with Monaghan, with Derry.

Big stage

“Football always meant more in Tyrone when I was growing up,” remarked Brian McEniff, the godfather of Donegal football, whose mother Elizabeth spiritually remained a Carrickmore woman even as she raised a family and started a business in Bundoran.

“Tyrone played on the edge. Always did and, I suppose, always will.”

They arrived on the big stage in just that state; Mickey Harte’s combination of kids and veterans tearing into Kerry in the 2003 semi-final with an abandon that, at the time, seemed shocking and disrespectful.

As they bloomed into a truly great team, official praise was parsimonious – at best. Even as they became part of the establishment counties, they never became part of the club. Somehow, despite becoming one of the brand leaders of contemporary Gaelic football, they’ve retained the aura and healthy paranoia of the outsider. It’s always the old Brando line when it comes to what Tyrone are rebelling against.

“Whaddya got?”

“I don’t even think it’s an Ulster thing,” Aaron Kernan, the former Armagh player and always an interesting voice, said this week of that state of mind.

“It’s a Northern thing where we like to have a chip on our shoulder. We get wound up over stuff, like, that might be in the media. We do see it very much as us and them: the North versus the rest. Definitely gets into the psyche. And you’ll hear people locally whether it was Armagh going well or maybe Cross. And you will see Tyrone using it as well. Something that might seem very simple or an off-the-cuff statement can be taken very differently with ourselves.”

There’s always a different energy in towns and stadiums on days when Tyrone are playing. They arrive in expectation substantiated by a reputation for boldness in big games. On the field, the attitude is spiky. They’ll smile a lot and enjoy chattering away to opponents. They are well-presented.

There’s sometimes a touch of the nightclub about them. They’ve a reputation for producing classicists: Jodie O’Neill, Frank McGuigan, Brian McGuigan, Peter Canavan himself.

Their years of All-Ireland splendour were accompanied by a series of tragedies they absorbed with an incredible grace and dignity which, even more than the on-field pyrotechnics, offered the country a true glimpse of what it means to be from Tyrone; the depth of the place.

And in football, they seem to be able to turn it on like a light switch. When the mood takes hold of a Tyrone team, as it has this summer, then watch out.

Brian Dooher vanished into Tyrone’s veterinary world after bagging his three All-Irelands only to emerge this year with Feargal Logan: still Spartan athletic, still austere, still wry, still meaning every single second of it. Tyrone meant business. The take-us-or-leave-us swagger was back.

Epic fashion

Only Tyrone could make the metamorphosis from the team humiliated by Kerry in the league (6-15 to 1-14: it’s still an eye-watering score) in June to the team that shocked them just nine weeks later.

Only Tyrone would have the nerve and breadth of imagination to regretfully and genuinely state their inability to field a team for that All-Ireland semi-final and then turn up a fortnight later and brazenly win the thing. In the heat and in the sunshine and in epic fashion, with the whole country watching.

There’s a kind of self-reliance and glorious indifference to the court of public opinion about Tyrone that makes the county special.

Yes, they are the diabolical jester dancing through Kerry dreams but don’t imagine for an instant that their close rivals in Ulster – from Monaghan, from Donegal and, through gritted teeth, Armagh – aren’t watching on gripped by the fear that they are now going have to watch their worst nightmares all over again: Tyrone, in Excelsis.

Because Tyrone are back in the terrain they love today, gatecrashing the garden party, buoyed by a sense of internal cause, locked and loaded and utterly comfortable in the guise of the dark anti-hero unexpectedly returned, ready to spoil the perfect ending on the good knight Mayo.

Tyrone-ness may not quite be enough to have the fires burn through O’Neill country on Saturday night. But this summer has been a reminder that an All-Ireland championship when Tyrone are in the mood for football and mischief is never dull, never predictable and always seems to matter that bit more.

May they never change.

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