Sideline Cut: Clones cauldron beckons as Donegal and Tyrone get ready to rumble

No matter what the result, things will have changed between these rivals by the end of the day

Tyrone’s Aidan McCory is tackled by Frank McGylnn and David Walsh of Donegal during the Ulster SFC semi-final at Clones in 2012. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Tyrone’s Aidan McCory is tackled by Frank McGylnn and David Walsh of Donegal during the Ulster SFC semi-final at Clones in 2012. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Two worlds collided, as Michael Hutchence put it, when “rare footage” of the Donegal-Tyrone Ulster final in 1972 made its social media debut during the week.

It’s yet to get t’auld retweet from Katie Perry. But still, there it is: a glorious festival of sideburns and Ulstermen, as if that final was contested by the Horslips Appreciation Society. Better still, it was shot in moody, filtered black and white, with clean lines and shadows, like some kind of Ulster Council homage to The Last Picture Show.

Old Gaelic footage is relatively rare for two reasons: in the 1970s and ’80s, the GAA hierarchy felt about live television much the way Donald Trump feels about immigrants. And even when RTÉ was allowed to film matches, the same tape was often reused to capture the dark, twisted fantasies of Judge and Forty Coats on Wanderly Wagon a few days later.

So whenever surviving film pops up, it is obligatory for accompanying howls of indignation and much finger-pointing at incidents and examples that prove how old football was, in fact, rubbish after all.

That view is just as reductive as claiming that everything about the current game is wrong.

There’s plenty to enjoy and be impressed by in the short clip, not least the jinking sidesteps by Seamie Granaghan; Patsy Hetherington’s nifty solo running; the clear and irrefutable evidence that Brian McEniff was as imperturbable on the field of play as on the sidelines; and the fact that Paddy Park had the chops to show up in white boots. In Ulster! In 1972!

As well, when you watch the trajectory of every high kick, it is apparent that teams of that era were tasked with kicking and catching something that weighed about the same as a Napoleonic-era cannonball.

Small, angry meteorite

You can blame the Tyrone defence or point out that the damn thing returned to earth with the velocity of a small, angry meteorite. There was smoke in the air for a full minute afterwards.

And there’s no way to avoid the huge graffiti sign behind the Tyrone goal, the spray-painted GENTS or the fact that nobody wore replica jerseys to matches back then. Most of the men wore shirts, ties and jackets, as if they’d come straight from mass.

Was Mickey Harte a face in the crowd that day in Clones? Tyrone were going for their first Ulster title since 1957 and Donegal were chasing their first one ever.

It’s all circular: you can bet that a fair number of the players from that day will be in back in the same ground on Sunday.

The emergence of the 1972 highlights, posted by RTÉ, inadvertently reinforces the sense of history and repetition and ritual about this Ulster final. It’s not so much a match as the defining moment of a very long collision course. For both Donegal and Tyrone, Sunday’s occasion seems absolutely loaded with emotion, consequence and importance.

Harte is a vivid example of the truth that the championship is such a persuasive element of Irish summer life because of the people involved. Even if Harte quit right now, he would go down as one of the three greatest managers in the history of Gaelic football. Someone in Queens or UUJ is probably right now working on a thesis about his influence, oblique or otherwise, on the way other managers have coached Gaelic games.

Harte on the sideline for Tyrone in the rush and tumult of a championship game has become a symbol of summer. And he is never lost in the emotion of the game, like the rest of us, but rather observe it with the studious regard of Sotheby’s auctioneer overseeing bidding for a Brueghel.

Wasn’t Harte the one who brought an end to the posturing on the sideline? Wasn’t he the one who showed managers that the only way to cope with the rush and madness of a charged championship day was to think and plot through it?

That Harte stands on the verge of creating another Ulster – and, potentially, All-Ireland – dynasty is just one of the many elements that will mingle in the air around Clones from 11am tomorrow.

The reinvention of Tyrone under Harte into a force of irrepressible All-Ireland- winning impudence has made the Red Hand public impatient. Other counties could hate Tyrone, but they could never deny their brilliance.

The revolutionary turnaround achieved by Donegal under Jim McGuinness had the inadvertent effect of disorienting everything Tyrone football people had taken for granted. In 2011, 2012 and 2014, they watched Donegal celebrate Ulster final days and wondered: Isn’t that supposed to be us? Even in 2013 and 2015, when Donegal fell to Monaghan in the Ulster showpiece, they still managed to take Tyrone out first.

Seething dislike

Ballybofey

Tomorrow is different.

As in 1972, this is an Ulster final. 1972 and 1989 are the only years when these counties have met on Ulster final day. Tomorrow marks the third meeting.

Donegal supporters might travel up the road wondering just how long they can keep this run going against a team of Tyrone’s calibre; there are only so many ways to kill a man and all that.

But they also know that their experienced team knows how to win.

The task for Tyrone’s brigade of younger players is to learn how to do that even as the match deepens. You will hear and read the same words fizzing about in the previews: tension, sledging, last 10 minutes, sweepers, runners, Murphy, Cavanagh, Harte, Gallagher, substitutes, respect, hatred, pride, desperation – and that old reliable: down to the wire.

Down to the wire.

Clones on Sunday at noon will be no town for happy Pokémon-go hunters. It will be crowded, tense and pulsing with nervous excitement. No matter what the result, things will have changed between these rivals by the end of the day.

And one thing is certain: everyone from Donegal and Tyrone will share the same rush in that instant when it’s still not 2pm, but the parade is over and the anthem has been sung and there is no turning back and the referee is setting his watch: win this and everything is possible.

Win this and we could live for a thousand years.

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