Decent folk on both sides of a great rivalry

AROUND the exit to the dressing rooms they swarmed.

They swarmed around Mikey Harte. Green and gold reaching out to red and white. The Kingdom and the Red Hand coming together.

Kerry gaels wanted to wish this man of great dignity well. They wanted to sympathise for the loss of his daughter. They wanted to show that once the final whistle blew that was that, that we're human beings first and foremost, that football is football and life is life. The enmity that had developed between Kerry had Tyrone seemed to melt away in the July sun. It was a remarkable moment of warmth and mutual respect.

It came just a couple of months after the Battle of O'Moore Park, after the newspaper headlines, after claim and counter claim, after people talking to Joe, after suspensions of players and clubs. Relations between the two counties were at rock bottom. Leaving the rights and the wrongs of that day out of it, both clubs felt harshly treated. Both sides got support from their fellow county men and women. Ranks closed.

After the reception Harte received in Killarney, memories of Derrytresk and Dromid Pearses felt like something from another age. Finally relations between Kerry and Tyrone would be normalised. The desire to win, the desire of each to defeat the other, would in no way be diminished. Just as it is when Kerry face Cork or Kerry face Dublin, the will to win is fierce, it just doesn't have to get nasty, it doesn't have to get so personal.

And when it does get personal it gets personal in the best sense of the word. On St Stephen's Day last year, a group of four or five die hard Tyrone GAA men hopped into their car at the break of dawn and headed due south on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage to Ard an Bothár, a pilgrimage to Páidí Ó Sé's graveside. A quite remarkable act of devotion you'd have to agree. The great man had passed away less than a fortnight beforehand and these men travelled six hours down and six hours back to pay their respects on a day when most of us were taking it handy.

This was before the All Ireland Club Intermediate Football Championship final on February 9. Cookstown versus Finuge. Croke Park. This was before a nasty, tetchy, niggly, cynical game that saw Finuge reduced to thirteen men, that saw Cookstown run out six point winners and saw Cookstown's fans take inordinate joy in cheering and whooping every pass as a ragged Finuge chased shadows humiliatingly around the pitch in the closing stages.

It was rough and tumble, it certainly wasn't pretty, it wasn't always sporting, but hey that's sport in the 21st century. Win at all costs. Do what you can. Finuge are as aware of this as anybody. It wouldn't have come as any great surprise to them that a team would do everything in their power, sometimes stretching the limits of the law and certainly the spirit, to win a championship. Walking out of Croke Park that night the impression was of an ill-tempered game that saw the best team win. As an occasion instantly forgettable.

That's how it proved for the longest time. There were few murmurs here and there about this and that, but as the weeks went on the world moved on. Nobody was talking about Finuge and Cookstown anymore... until that YouTube video emerged. Until Owen Mulligan's ill-considered defence of his team mate, his assertion that what happens on the field should stay on the field and his suggestion that he and his team mates had been victims of "vile and sectarian comments" during the game.

All of which led Paul Galvin to issue the statement in which he claimed that he had in fact been spat on. Cue more headlines. Cue more angry comments on Twitter and Facebook and on various internet forums with people from each side giving their views on how terrible the the other side is and so on and so forth and we're right back where we started. Relations between the two most successful gaelic football counties of the past fifteen year frayed once more.

Or are they really? Are not we simply brushing with the broadest of brushstrokes when we claim that relations between the two counties are in trouble because of the alleged actions of a few and the loudmouth reactions of some others? This isn't to take away from the seriousness of the allegations levelled against both sides, rather simply to make the broader point that most people are honest to goodness decent folk.

The type of people who'll travel twelve hours in a car on St Stephen's Day to pay their respects to a fallen hero, the type of people who'll stand shaking hands and signing autographs for hundreds of people outside a dressing room door. Those are the type of people we want in the GAA. Those are the type of people we hope will turn out for the Kerry v Tyrone match in Omagh in a couple of weeks.


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