McAnallen's spirit bonded to Tyrone

Keith Duggan Sideline Cut In a gym early last Tuesday morning, talk inevitably turned to Cormac McAnallen

Keith Duggan Sideline CutIn a gym early last Tuesday morning, talk inevitably turned to Cormac McAnallen. The suddenness and sadness of his death jolted this country in a deep and pure way that one might have thought not possible any more. It actually forced a a general pause for thought, a coming up for air. For an instant, Ireland became a smaller, better country again.

A friend confessed that when the news, implausible and confusing, was broadcast on the early-morning bulletins, he hardly felt like getting out of bed, let alone summoning the energy to spend an hour in a gym. And he mused if he felt like that, having never even met the young Tyrone man, how must the team, the All-Ireland champions Cormac McAnallen now leaves in his wake feel about sport and life?

The philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Sport is the bloom and glow of perfect health." That is why the Tyrone captain's untimely leave-taking has been impossible for his close friends and comrades and the general GAA community to understand.

McAnallen's GAA life had that phosphorescent quality to it. The more you read the bare, unadorned details of his achievements, his tally of personal and team victories at the age of 24, the more preternatural they seem. There was no distant summit left to scale; he had marvelled at all the worldly views his sport had to offer. Another friend, considering all of this, said perhaps Cormac McAnallen had died from perfection. Hers seemed as sensible and lucid a theory as any other.


It was naturally observed that McAnallen's passing, in one of those curious quirks of fate, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the death of Christy Ring, the legendary Cork hurler. I asked Paddy Downey, former GAA correspondent with this newspaper, if the emotion and tributes of this week were reminiscent of the days after Ring's sudden passing. He said of course it was, except that because this week's sadness involved such a young man with a glimmering future, there was an added poignancy. Ring, of course, hurled stoically and untouchable for decades. McAnallen squeezed it all into a few frantic and wonderful years.

One of Ring's great heroes, Paddy Downey said, was the celebrated Manchester United soccer player Duncan Edwards, struck down in his prime by the Munich air disaster of 1958. And I am sure the image of Edwards came into the minds of many people as they considered McAnallen's distinguished presence in the country parish of Eglish and across the Gaelic fields of Ireland.

Even today, Edwards's achievements burn at the epicentre of what the famous English club ideally represents: clear-eyed and Brylcreemed and bursting with strength in the plain, V-necked jerseys of the day, he embodies the early-post-war traits of honesty and skill and humility. Because Edwards went so young and still in full possession of his lordly gifts on a playing field, he is remembered as something more beyond a mortal soccer player: an ideal whose like could never come again.

A member of the McAnallen family has said he is uncomfortable remembering his brother in terms of immortality. It probably struck him as too grandiose for someone who was also the guy he wrestled for the best seat in the living-room, shared ice-cream cones with or kicked on the ankle at Sunday Mass.

Understandably, there have been many tributes to the fine qualities McAnallen possessed. This eagerness to praise can also lead to the portrayal of a kind of everyday saint.

To most of us, Cormac McAnallen was a tremendous footballer with exceptional poise and leadership. But of course, he was also a son and brother and boyfriend - and a teacher to young kids. And although I did not know him at all well, I will bet he was no saint. The chances are that he had a devilish streak of humour, could drive those close to him up the walls at times, could be stubborn, and did things he might have later regretted. And that he brought great fun into rooms for reasons that had nothing to do with his ability as a footballer. That he was, to put it simply, a normal and happy-go-lucky young man. Please God, the memories of those incidental moments will make it easier for his loved ones to accept his absence.

For those of us at a distance, though, Cormac McAnallen will remain an absent footballer. And from that perspective, one wonders where now for Tyrone? It is not, I believe, too soon to ponder that. Mickey Harte has already said publicly his team, favourites to retain the All-Ireland championship, will pull together even more unbreakable now and will do honour to their captain's memory by playing as strongly and ambitiously as he would have expected.

What is clear is that Harte and the senior players have, in the past few days, responded to the immediate shock with a sense of grace and poise that reflects that of Cormac McAnallen.

Hard as it is to imagine at this time, the Tyrone footballers will play again and very soon. They will go through the same rituals in the dressing-room, they will clash at training and they will be glad when a warm current fills the air in April and May. They will hear the raw greeting of Clones and the fact is they will celebrate again.

The decision not to wear the number three jersey of Cormac McAnallen again is a perfect, visible symbol of carrying the memory of the player through the rest of this season. Of course, though, his presence among the team will be of a spiritual nature. That spirit will not leave this, or any, season.

The tidy view is that this tragedy will elevate the Tyrone team to new standards of excellence and a defence of the All-Ireland would be a rightful tribute. But sport does not always work like that. Sport is random and tough and unsentimental - all reasons why it attracts athletes and general high-achievers like Cormac McAnallen.

Aside from the difficulty of gathering themselves after this shock, the Tyrone team and management have to come to terms with the fact they have lost arguably their key player. They will have to play on without a man whose presence on the field is, as many testified, irreplaceable. Because of that, Tyrone are a weakened team.

Tyrone can, and probably will, win more All-Ireland championships. But emotional and highly public as this year's season will be, they may be forced to take a step backwards before moving forward again. One thing is certain. All-Ireland seasons are becoming leaner and more elusive and the days of one-county domination are permanently over. Because of that, nothing is ever as sweet as that first victory.

Tyrone's maiden All-Ireland of 2003, after 100 years of asking, will be inextricably bonded to the memory of Cormac McAnallen. Years down the line, when the this Tyrone team are grey, smiling men in the stands, whatever later heroics they may have achieved will be celebrated in terms of their absent full back. Peter Canavan's lone torch has been passed, although not in a direction anyone could have expected. From here in, this generation of Tyrone's players will be known as Cormac McAnallen's team.

And that is how is should be.