McMenamin: I played on the edge to win
Published 13/11/2012 | 05:00
How will they remember you Ryan? He knows the question has to come and senses the rhetoric that may be attached to it. He knows it concerns something beyond the three All-Ireland medals, the All Star or his status as the player who revolutionised corner-back play – with his propensity to attack – and was just about the most audacious No 2 of the modern era.
He knows it's essentially about the other Ryan McMenamin, the man who wore a different game-face for 12 years from the one who is sitting across the table now, reflecting on that part of his life. The Ryan McMenamin he knew he had to be to extract the optimum out of himself.
He had long since reconciled that without that game-face, that edge, that streak that so easily wound opponents up, he just wasn't the same footballer.
So he appreciates that any citation now may reflect the misdemeanours more than the obvious achievements as a defender often portrayed as the heartbeat of Mickey Harte's Tyrone.
He says he is "comfortable" with that. Ideally, it's not what he wants but he knows that it's impossible now to fight the tide.
"I'd accept that. I know a lot of people would have written about me, about the negative side of the game," he says.
"I'd say they probably will (remember me for that) with justification but I'm not going to lose sleep over it.
"I know that's what I've got in the media and that's probably what's out there. If you look at any of those GAA discussions boards I'm sure I don't get a good send-off. But I'm content with what I gave to football, if I did my very best for Tyrone, I'm happy enough."
"No one is going to go through their whole life perfect. My football career will be remembered more for the off-the-ball stuff. At the end of the day I don't really care. I played county football to win and that's all I did. I just loved winning. It drove me too far sometimes."
In his defence, he claims that there were "five or six different players from different counties that were at the same, just not getting the same level of spotlight".
The game-face was the most important piece of his armoury in a career that dates back to 2000. It brought him to a different place, made him say and do things that were at odds with the street-face as Tyrone ditched convention and rejected reputations throughout a glorious decade.
The conscientious husband and civil servant with the Department of Agriculture, renowned for his good company and dry wit, would never approve of some of the incidents he got immersed in.
"I know a lot of people think the way I act on the field is the way I act in life. If I did that, jaysus I'd be in Maghaberry! I'd be in jail. I couldn't do that," he laughs.
He's tried to do it differently, he's tried to be nice and conventional. But to little avail. "I tried it many times before, not getting myself up, not getting myself ready for it.
"It just didn't work. I knew myself that I always play better when I am on the edge. At the end of the day I was getting no thanks when we were getting beat and I didn't have that game-face on."
Some of the incidents that brought him notoriety he regrets. Dropping his knees into John McEntee's chest in that ill-tempered 2005 Ulster final replay made him wonder about himself afterwards. "It was one of those things you look back at and say to yourself, 'what were you thinking of'. I rang John after that. He was happy with that, for it to be left on the field. He didn't want it to carry on."
It led to a landmark case in the Disputes Resolution Authority's fledgling days when they rescinded his retrospective four-week suspension prior to the All-Ireland quarter-final with Dublin on the grounds that the referee Michael Collins had already dealt with the incident by giving him a yellow card.
Grabbing Paul Galvin in the groin area during a 2009 league match in Omagh brought further notoriety and eventually a six-week ban but he insists that there was more humour than malice attached to that.
"That was the spur of the moment. I don't even know why I did it. It wasn't an actual punch. I was kind of half laughing when I did it. I was watching it back on TG4 and even the commentators were laughing. Och, I shouldn't have done it. Right enough I had good craic at the appeals committee with it. It was good craic listening to them on it.
"I know the wife (Maura), she shakes her head now. I think maybe after the Galvin incident she says 'enough's enough'.
"I chatted to Mickey (Harte) too and he says 'if you do it again I can't back you'. I said, 'I know, I know.' He said I'd have to channel that aggression some other way. When I was retiring we agreed that he was going to have less disciplinary problems, less trips to Dublin!"
There were other times when he was less willing to cop the flak. He knows reputation alone invited a charge after the infamous league match in Omagh against Dublin in 2006.
"I wasn't involved in any of the fights. It confirmed to me that I was a marked man, that I was being picked out in the media and that they were just looking for something to spear me with.
"If I didn't take that well I wouldn't have lasted in the game," he figures.
He has always maintained innocence too for the incident that derailed Colm Cooper for a critical spell during the first half of the 2005 All-Ireland final. No Tyrone player was punished but 'Gooch' was still floored in the Canal End goalmouth.
"Me and big Packie (McConnell) debate this all the time. When I turned around, he (Cooper) was on the ground. I absolved myself but I knew rightly I was going to get the blame.
"Big Packie says to this day 'no, no it wasn't me, it was you'. But I was standing in front of him. Big Packie says no it was me. I think he blamed me one time. I knew rightly I was going to get the blame here."
Nor does McMenamin accept that he said half the things to opponents that were attributed to him on the field.
"It wasn't like that. I wasn't chatting the whole game. There have been a lot of times I would talk in the game. Putting players right. You would see boys tell you 'ah shut the f*** up'. You would always give a comment back.
"But there was nothing ever wild, nothing personal. I think it has become more urban myth. I have heard more stories and you're left wondering 'did I really do that'. It was more chatting."
Early on, however, he appreciated how verbals could work and tells a story of some advice he got from a former Tyrone player.
"He told me to target this particular player. 'If he misses the first free, get you straight into him,' he said. Of course the player missed the first free and I was straight into him telling him about that.
"He missed three or four points and we won the game by three or four points. I got crucified but at the end of the day the player missed the frees and maybe I got him thinking about that.
"People may say it's unsporting or whatever but I'd watch a lot of American sports and I think it's accepted. It's part of the psychology.
"There are a lot more players who are worse than me but weren't getting the same spotlight as me, maybe because Tyrone are successful. I knew there were a lot of other players, plenty of our forwards were coming off saying 'jaysus he is a total tramp, he was onto me about everything'."
In his book 'The Gambler', Oisin McConville vividly recalled some of the dialogue he claimed McMenamin had engaged in. McMenamin held his counsel and is adamant that he remains on good terms with McConville.
"There was stuff in his book that I had a problem with, Conor Gormley had a problem with too. I know Oisin has beaten his own demons and made a great comeback but there is stuff in the book I could have made an issue about.
"I'd have a thick skin. I let it go over my head. To me, it wasn't right. What's done on the field is done on the field. It affected different ones. People in my club took it worse. It wasn't exactly as he put it, I felt. There were some bits I felt were mixed up."
Firming up a decision about retirement wasn't difficult. It was on his landscape from the beginning of the season. Somewhat aptly, it ended for him in Kerry in July, that thumping qualifier defeat in sun-drenched Killarney drawing a line under it all.
"It was great to play in that atmosphere in your last game. The scoreline didn't reflect it, the result didn't reflect it but at the end of the day going down among the Kerry people afterwards, they were telling you not to retire because they had no one to hate. A few of them said that to me! I enjoyed that and I enjoyed the banter."
The relationship with Kerry has been uneasy, he acknowledges, the legacy of winning all three Croke Park encounters that spanned the rivalry.
"We just loved playing Kerry. When they won the All-Ireland in 2004, their chairman at the time (Sean Walsh) said the natural order had been restored. There is no natural order.
"I thought the players didn't take it badly, maybe the officials, some supporters, maybe some of the coaching staff took it badly but none of the players ... I know Tomas O Se well, he was texting me since I retired... they never took it that bad. For a while they didn't like us but they respected us. Tomas never once cried about the style of play or what we did but at the same time, after we beat them, we felt we weren't being respected."
He says he never saw the fallout from the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final coming and picked up the Monday morning newspapers in Dublin expecting a different experience. "I was staying down in my wife's aunt's place. I went to read the back pages of some of the morning newspapers expecting to read about 'fantastic Tyrone' saying this will be great.
"We had got to an All-Ireland final and I couldn't wait to see what the papers were saying. Needless to say I didn't see any of those headlines. I didn't hear the famous 'puke football' jibe but it was on one of the back pages. What we got was total negativity.
"You have to look at where Tyrone were coming from. We were coming as a team to make our name. All we wanted to do was go and tear the whole pitch up. A lot of that was about Peter Canavan too. We were told we could never win without Peter. Everyone lifted their game once they realised they could beat Kerry without Peter (he went off injured). We threw away the inferiority complex we had."
The environment created by Harte where any internecine club bitterness was left at the door was something special. "If there was a club match and we bate the hell out of each other on a Sunday, once we went into the changing room there was no mention about it. All there was was a bit of slagging, a bit of craic. Boys didn't even have to shake hands. They just nodded and agreed. 'The oul' club's competitive isn't it!'"
Harte, he insists, is the right man to lead Tyrone forward for some time yet. In Killarney, when his own thoughts were turning to retirement, he sensed a renewed enthusiasm, even then, in the few words spoken.
Lately it's Mickey making the calls to invite players to trials again. But for 'Ricey' it's all over. The game-face has been put away for good.