'When it is Donegal, it does make it extra-special because they knocked Tyrone off their perch' - McNamee
Sentiment won't come into it for Red Hands defender - despite family ties to Ulster final rivals
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
That awkward moment when you really need to stop wearing your Donegal kit to your Tyrone school…
Ronan McNamee had a few of those before the penny dropped. St Eugene's in Castlederg was no place to wear the colours of a county whose border lay only a couple of miles away. So he had to, as he puts it now, 'grow up.'
"I grew up wearing a Donegal shirt. And if you search our house you will still find the odd one about it," the 24-year-old Jordanstown student reveals.
It wasn't Peter Canavan he grew up worshipping, but Adrian Sweeney. 'Eddie' was "the be-all and end-all for me."
His mother Anne Daly was from a little part of the world called Doochary, between Glenties and Dungloe, Brian Friel country.
He adds: "Mammy used to tell me to ask all the other boys in Aghyaran, 'How many All-Irelands have youse?' back when Donegal had one and Tyrone had none.
"Maybe I just jumped ship when Tyrone were going good. But it (tomorrow's Ulster final against Donegal) is extra-special for me."
Close your eyes, and with his accent you might place money that this is a Donegal man sitting in front of you.
His Donegal friends and relations wish him all the best, that he might play well and everything, but as for the result, forget about it.
Those outside of Donegal might struggle with the fact that prior to 2011, Donegal had only five Ulster Championships. They are making hay while the sun is shining.
And in that time, they have faced Tyrone down four times and came out winners. Probably the closest Tyrone came to a result was in 2012, when McNamee's then-Aghyaran clubmate Martin Penrose peeled off a zinging shot that Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan got a big toe on.
The ball bounced off one post, meandered along the goal-line and to safety with Colm Cavanagh just inches from decisive contact.
That day, McNamee (right) watched from the Pat McGrane Stand in Clones.
Three weeks later, he made his inter-county debut. In Killarney of all places. Marking Paul Galvin, of all men, in a game that somehow and implausibly became an unofficial battle for the tag of 'Team of the Decade' for the noughties.
"A baptism of fire, as such!" he laughs about it now. He had been on the panel at the start of the year but stepped off after breaking his ankle. Two weeks after the Donegal game, he was in the squad for the qualifiers win over Roscommon.
Harte sprung him to do a job on Galvin. It didn't work out. McNamee was called ashore for Damian McCaul. Kerry won by ten points.
"It was absolutely crazy. There was a lot of hype about it and it was an absolute cauldron down there, never seen the like of it," recalls McNamee.
"It was a massive rivalry. The media had built it into a 'be all and end all' match, whoever won it was going to be the ones that everyone talked about."
In Tyrone, they still remember the class the Kerry fans showed in victory, waiting behind after to clap Mickey Harte onto the bus, acknowledging him as an opponent, but also what he had been through in his personal life with the loss of his daughter, Michaela.
"The Kerry fans idolised him," he adds.
Since that debut, McNamee has been nominated for an All-Star, but before this season had only one championship win in Ulster (Down 2014) to show for his efforts.
"People say about football passing you by, but that was four years ago," he makes the point.
"We have had a good run this year, pushed to the pin of our collar by Cavan in the first game but we have always been pushing towards getting an Ulster. It has always been top of the list.
"You just have to block out the years before, sometimes that's football, it just doesn't work out for you."
Like the first day against Cavan, marking David Givney who scored two goals. He delivers a line dripping with rural Tyrone humour; "The man's an absolute sow, 6ft 4ins, and probably about 30 stone!"
He might have to contend with Michael Murphy this weekend, although that particular task is more likely to be handled by Justin McMahon, given how closely he marked him in Ballybofey last year.
But having played alongside Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty under Martin McHugh in the Sigerson Cup for Jordanstown, McNamee adds, "They don't need Michael Murphy to do it all for them."
What drives and holds Tyrone back in equal measures is the lack of silverware among the squad.
McNamee lists his honours as a couple of McKenna Cup wins and a National League Division 2 medal from this year.
As an U-21, he was beaten in the Ulster finals of 2011 and 2012, and he doesn't mention the hipster's favourite of the O'Fiaich Cup.
He makes the point: "There are boys there that have won a lot but there are boys that are yet to get their hands on anything worthwhile."
And would it mean any more to win tomorrow by beating Donegal?
"Possibly. It would mean an awful lot to this group of players to win Ulster and any year you go out, it is targeted.
"Don't get me wrong, any game you go out you don't look past it but you have to have targets.
"When it is Donegal, it does make it extra-special because they knocked Tyrone off their perch and were the next team to be on top of the mountain."
'Knocked Tyrone off their perch'. Now, where have we heard an expression like that before?