McMenamin admits 'definite edge' helped spice up Tyrone's rivalry with Kingdom
Published 17/05/2013 | 05:00
LAST April, Ryan McMenamin was posting his highest-ever scores for the 'bleep' fitness test that sends shivers down the spines of inter-county athletes.
In his thirties, he was satisfied with how his body had stood the test of time. A dedication to stretching, core exercises and putting his body through the mangle of the foam roller had left him supple, while Mickey Harte had begun to use him sparingly.
At the bottom of it all, though, he knew it was over. "Every player knows when the time comes," he explains. "I knew at the start of last season that I wasn't going to come back.
"Fitness-wise, I was beating some of the younger boys, so I was happy enough, but I knew myself when it came down to the game and the pace of games, (what you do) inside a gym is a completely different story."
During the quiet months, once he wrapped up club duties with Dromore, he slipped away from his previous life as 'Ricey,' the complete footballer, heartbeat of the best Tyrone side ever and one of the keenest competitors to ever play county football.
It may come as a surprise, but he doesn't miss it. "I don't. People ask me, but I only really miss the craic and the banter in the changing rooms. I thought that when I was watching the league final, I might miss it, but I didn't find that," he says.
"I had 13 good years and you have to close the chapter at some time."
His last game was a bad day for Tyrone, hammered by a Kerry side that were hurting from a decade under the thumb of their northern rivals.
The jubilant scenes at the end caused equal measures of mirth and resentment in Tyrone when the dust settled, with Brian McGuigan lacing into Declan O'Sullivan in his newspaper column, accusing him of feigning injury to get him a red card.
"What annoyed him more," explains McMenamin (pictured right), "was that if it was Brian doing that to Declan O'Sullivan, there would have been more of an uproar about it around the press and around the country.
"The fact that it was Declan O'Sullivan and, according to some of the press, that Kerry don't engage in negative tactics – it's only Donegal, Tyrone, teams from the north – I think was what probably angered Brian."
Others may deny it, but McMenamin admits there was poison between those teams. "There was definitely an edge to the games. The two sets of players respected each other, but it didn't mean they had to like each other. All good rivalries are played with an edge and that's what makes great games. A lot of people lose sight of that."
McMenamin has allowed a certain distance to develop between him and Tyrone since retiring. But he has kept a close eye on them. Throughout the league he worked as a radio pundit, riding shotgun alongside his former Dromore manager Noel McGinn.
Since jumping the fence, he has found it remarkable how many journalists have been surprised at his normal, affable demeanour. Perhaps they felt he was going to mark them in the press box, like he would have marked Stevie McDonnell or the Gooch.
"The first thing they will say is: 'God, I didn't know you were like that,'" he marvels. "I can see now how certain boys would have judged you on the field."
His only worry for Tyrone is will they have enough men prepared to stand their ground when the volume is turned to 11? "In championship, you can't rely on pretty football. It just doesn't work. There are going to be games that you just have to grind it out, hope the young boys are going to be able."
It used to be him that set that example and, even yet, he sees the difference Conor Gormley makes when he is on the pitch. "In Conor's first challenge against Kerry, he sailed into a boy. The purists won't want to hear it, but, at the end of the day, you are a defender," he says. "People forget how defending is an art."
On Sunday week, Tyrone will hop across the border to take on neighbours Donegal, aiming to come back with their scalp. It will be the first time since 2001 and a game against Armagh that McMenamin will not be involved with a Tyrone team in championship football.
"They denied it, but it probably had an effect in the league. It won't matter now, though. Coming out and defending Patrick McBrearty is the start of it.
"When a player sees his manager going to lengths to do this, it helps. The Donegal team probably feel they are being picked on, so it's them against the world."
Just like Tyrone and McMenamin were, 13 seasons ago.