BRIAN McEniff's late mother hailed from Carrickmore, where they boast more county senior football championships than any other club in Tyrone and have never relinquished senior status. McEniff describes his mother as having been "a feisty Carrickmore lady who never left her roots". They were Begleys. A brother, John, played for club and county in the 1940s. He knows Tyrone well. Has good time for Tyrone.
His father was from Monaghan, of a more gentle nature, and his parents were settled in Donegal when Tyrone came to Ballybofey to play an Ulster championship tie 40 years ago. There was no obvious reason why it should turn into the acrimonious and poisonous dispute it did. The Donegal Democrat recalled the match in its coverage of today's long-awaited championship encounter at the same venue, highlighting calls at the time for Donegal to leave Ulster and relocate to Connacht.
The proposition came from secretary of the Donegal board Frank Muldoon and was in direct response to the scenes he had witnessed in Ballybofey when Tyrone dethroned the Ulster champions in June 1973. Neily Gallagher of Donegal ended up in Letterkenny hospital after being struck in the face, others were injured, and Tyrone had Seamus Donaghy sent off (undeservedly, according to McEniff). The atmosphere was bitter and hostile and players recalled bottles and cans raining down from the terraces.
According to the Donegal Democrat at the time, the trouble outside the pitch lines came from a section of the Tyrone supporters which led to local publicans shutting their doors after the match. Muldoon told the paper he had contacted the Ulster secretary to put forward his proposal for a change of scenery on the Monday after the game. An investigation was called for and later a suspension was handed down to the Tyrone player Mickey Joe Forbes who took out Gallagher. The Donegal forward had started well, scoring three points, when he went down after 15 minutes.
Gallagher ended up with several stitches and concussion, spending the night in hospital. His popularity with the Donegal fans added to the tension within the ground when they saw him carted off with no player being held accountable. McEniff remembers the day well but is at a loss to explain why it was so febrile.
"Neily Gallagher had started very well and scored a few points. I do remember the atmosphere being really unpleasant," says McEniff. "Gallagher, some years earlier, was about to take a penalty in a National League semi-final against Galway in 1967 when the ball blew off the spot and the referee gave a free out. The atmosphere was unreal in Ballybofey. It was the sort of atmosphere you could cut with a knife and that had never prevailed before with Donegal and Tyrone. There had never been any enmity.
"I think the Troubles might have had something to do with it, there was a lot going on at the time and it caused a lot of aggravation and contention between players on opposite sides of the border. Some of the more senior players would call you a Free State bastard, it was sad what was said on reflection.
"The following year we were playing Tyrone in Omagh, we just got togged in Jackson's Hotel in Ballybofey and went by coach to the ground and went straight back in the coach afterwards. Michael Lafferty was our midfielder and his father drove the bus."
Tyrone had won two Ulster titles in the 1950s and Donegal their first in 1972, defeating Tyrone in the final at Clones. A Tyrone-Donegal final had never occurred previously. There was no long tradition of rivalry in place before Ballybofey '73. In the '72 decider, Frank McGuigan came on as a sub having lined out in the minor against Cavan, which Tyrone won, with Mickey Harte also playing and scoring a goal. Donegal held off spirited Tyrone resistance to win the senior title by five points.
The match is remembered as being tough and at times it strayed beyond the law. With seven minutes left, the Tyrone goalkeeper Kieran Harte made an error which gifted Donegal the lead for the first time since the opening half. Seamus Bonner's high ball dropped through the goalkeeper's fingers. McEniff, playing wing-back, chipped in with two points. Brendan Dolan scored 1-4 from the Tyrone midfield. He died later that year in a car accident.
The draw for the following year pitched the two into battle in the first round at Ballybofey. "We figured," says McEniff, "that with home advantage we'd be okay but the pitch was smaller in Ballybofey than it is now. And Frank McGuigan, who was a young man who had come on in the Ulster final the previous year when a minor, gave an exhibition at midfield. We were awful disappointed, there was no such thing as the back door. The following morning I was still devastated, I was a young player-manager and I decided to head to Cork where my wife is from."
They loaded into the car and headed for Ballyhea, near Charleville, with the kids. From there he remembers heading east and looking for directions near Doneraile. The signpost was down.
"And I saw a farmer on a bicycle and a cap on him and flagged him down, I asked him for the road to Doneraile, just to be sure, and the first words he said to me were: 'You didn't do so well yesterday'. I didn't say anything very classy back to him. How he knew me I don't know."
McEniff would have recalled that day on Friday night last when he and Declan Bonner were guests at St Enda's GAA club in Omagh for a question-and-answer session ahead of today's opener. The Ballybofey game of '73 ended 1-7 to 0-12 and Tyrone went on to win Ulster later in the year. He says relations between the counties have traditionally been cordial with close ties along the border areas near Lifford and Strabane.
"The sad thing is I don't know where it came out of. Thankfully it was only a short space of time that the acrimony lasted. It kind of came and went in a short space of time."
Before his mother died, over five years ago, he remembers being in Clones watching Donegal get dismembered by a clinical Tyrone performance in the 2007 Ulster semi-final and directing his son to go to the car so they could get out ahead of the crowd.
"I couldn't be seen to go out having been hammered, so I had the car out of the back of the stand to get away early and I sent him off. He got to the top of the the hill and was stopped by the Gardaí because of crowd safety; they didn't want them driving through the crowds. So me and Pauric McShea (who played for Donegal in '73), whose mother is from Tyrone, we were in the middle of these supporters and the crack would have been 90, no bitterness, just banter. Both of us got a good bit of slagging."
Afterwards, he went to see his mother, who was quite ill. "She was bed-ridden. And she had a nurse there who was wearing a Willie John Dolan Tshirt from '03 (former Tyrone sponsor) and the mother had a red and white flag and she was feeble and I mean very feeble; she was 97. They were waiting for me."
Donegal went to Omagh in 1974 and won and went on to reclaim Ulster. Now, decades on, McEniff is expecting stiff resistance from Tyrone today but he believes Donegal can handle what comes their way.
"Tyrone have improved from last year and have a stronger panel of players. We set out our stall two years ago with Jim (McGuinness) and we showed we could defend and added the extra dimension last year and went on to win an All-Ireland. He has got their heads right. They weren't going to over-extend themselves in the league. He has been focused on the 26th, that's all he has been talking about all year."
Twice McEniff helped out Carrickmore, first in 1983 and again in '86 when they were in relegation bother. His uncle Johnny called one day seeking help. "I would have spent a lot of my childhood in the farmhouse up there and the first time I went to Croke Park was to support Tyrone in the '57 All-Ireland semi-final against Louth," says McEniff. "An uncle of Art McRory, Colm Toal, looked after me that day. We took the train from Carrickmore."
McEniff was chairman of the appointments committee that brought McGuinness in as under-21 manager after he had been overlooked initially for the senior post. "I don't expect it to be an outstanding game to watch but it will be intense. The venue is great to play a match in, great atmosphere. People are under the impression it's small pitch. It just looks like the crowd is in on top of you.
As for today, all these years later, he sees little in it. "I think Donegal will win what is going to be a very close tough game; it'll be a game of tactics. Close and tight and tense. Unless something unforeseen happens."
But not like what happened 40 years ago. He doesn't expect anything like that.