Much-maligned Tyrone still a force to be reckoned with
They may not be the most popular team but Mickey Harte’s men still possess the hauteur and class of former champions
Brian McGuigan knew what he was doing. This was maybe an hour after Tyrone had won the All-Ireland championship for the third time in six years. Croke Park was already shadowed, the litter half collected and autumn had pounced on the capital, as it always does when the last September whistle sounds.
The Ardboe man, who had come in to not so much participate as orchestrate the closing symphony of the 2008 final was ushered into the press room to give his thoughts. He addressed the contentious debate of the day without even being asked. “Tyrone are the team of the decade,” he said flatly. “There. That’s it.”
He was grinning mischievously when he said it. He was just doing it to annoy them. Shaking a bit of salt.
“Them” means the vague, shifting coalition which Tyrone football people believe has never been happy with them since they had the audacity to start winning All-Irelands. It goes back that infamous remark. “Puke football.” When Pat Spillane said it, shortly after watching a Tyrone team harangue and hassle gilded Kerry men in a furious All-Ireland football semi-final, (which, it could be argued, changed the direction of Gaelic football), it was out of frustration more than malice.
The Kerry great was nothing if not vexed after that game a decade ago.
But it wasn’t what was said that mattered as much as the fact that he was the person saying it. This was Spillane!
Didn’t he understand what it was to live in Ballygawley, in Cookstown, in Carrickmore during those decades when the bombs went off without warning and the wet country lanes were treacherous and to watch on television the sensational way Kerry played the game? Didn’t he ever consider how much they used to marvel at the ease with which all of them – Spillane, Sheehy, Egan – kicked a ball?
So when the day came when Tyrone finally strode the stage with the masters and won, it hurt that one of the gods of the Kerry machine had dismissed their achievement. It has never stopped hurting.
Flash forward a decade. Much has since happened to and for Tyrone. Their emergence has been defined by a well-documented trail of sorrow, from the deaths of Tyrone minor Paul McGirr in 1997, the success of the 1998 minor team in the wake of the Omagh bombing, the death of Cormac McAnallen in the winter after Tyrone’s first All-Ireland success and most recently, the death of Michaela Harte. Theirs has been a hard -earned glory. It has been about mental resilience and faith as much as the dash and irrepressible form with which they played.
It is half forgotten now that when they met their neighbours Armagh – then the reigning champions – in the All-Ireland final of 2003, the purists didn’t bother hiding their dismay at the prospect of an all-Ulster big day out. The final from hell!
As it happened, it was gripping until the last seconds: after both counties struggled for provincial gold, it took them just 12 months to match each other on the national stage. Armagh were unlucky not to win another All-Ireland.
But Tyrone were only just beginning. Within two years, they had perfected a new brand of football, with a drifting defence pouncing on hesitant play, intuitively attacking wing backs, a marauding midfield and a brilliant set of forwards.
They were the exception to the sporting cliché that you can’t turn form on like a light switch. Tyrone could. So often they seemed to respond to some interior hidden signal and just turn the big stadium incandescent with the quality of their play.
At their best, their play has been scintillating. They have abrasive characters. They have defenders who like to like to get in the ear of their opponents, who niggle, get under your skin. They have players of undiluted class.
They have been involved in some brilliant and some ugly games down the years. They have players who live on the edge. The animosity experienced by the Donegal players when they played Tyrone in the league this year set them up for their opening championship game this summer. But the effort that they expended in beating Tyrone may have killed Donegal’s summer.
Tyrone looked shambolic by the end of that match in May, their winter’s work and best ambitions blown apart and out of the Ulster championship. But the Red Hand did what they do; they knuckled down and started winning qualifying games in their understated fashion. Nobody, remember, paid them too much attention until they met Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter final of 2008. Then, that light switch.
Now, they find themselves back in the last four of the All-Ireland at odds with the world. Seán Cavanagh, the best player of his generation, was, indirectly and otherwise, labelled a cheat for his tackle late in the quarter-final against Monaghan. One thing that was never mentioned about that tackle was how safely it was executed.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness was accused of gamesmanship for articulating his annoyance at a challenge which left one of his players unable to remember anything about the game. Cavanagh’s tackle was deliberate and methodical but it was one of the least dangerous challenges of the season. And he was pilloried.
Mickey Harte still isn’t speaking with RTÉ in a stand-off going back several years now. People who wonder when Harte might end his silence might recall how long he spent in isolation from his own club over a small but vital matter of principle. “Never” is a good bet. Tyrone football people believe that media pundits in RTÉ and elsewhere feel empowered to level any accusation at their team. Sure it’s only ‘Throne’. If you stand where they stand, it is hard to disagree with them. Just because you’re paranoid and all that.....
Tyrone do not have the same quality as the side which won its last All-Ireland in such shimmering fashion. They have lost the genius of McGuigan for a start. So much is gone, from the workaholic brilliance that Brian Dooher provided to the punkish excitement which Owen Mulligan brought to the attack. And yet, here they are. Ten years later. They haven’t gone away and they have lost none of the edge. Harte is, unquestionably, one of the greatest football coaches the game has known. And there is a strong argument to be made that constructing yet another team capable of making it this far in the All-Ireland championship must rank as one of his finest achievements.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Tyrone will run onto the field tomorrow with a sprinkling of proven All-Ireland winners at all grades. They possess the hauteur of former champions. A decade after their emergence, they are still outside the establishment and will never be national darlings. But when they turn it on, watch out.