It was the summer of 2005. I was walking through the tunnel beneath Croke Park, past the dressing rooms and out through the coach exit, exhilarated by what I had just seen, when there he was, standing big in the evening sun, bleached blond hair, looking left and right.
It was Owen Mulligan and the big man was standing alone. Restless. He saw me and came over. "You were great today," I said to him. He said "Never worry about that. Is there anywhere we can go for a quiet pint?" "Owen," I said, "you look like Sid Vicious, you've just scored the greatest goal ever seen at Croke Park. Your days of quiet pints are over." Quiet pint maybe. Not pints.
Owen used to, as he put it "go on the beer" every now and again, and one of his go-to excuses on those occasions was that his grandmother had died. From the bar one night, he rang Mickey Harte. "Mickey, I can't make training tonight, my granny has died." There was silence. Mickey said "I thought she died last year." Owen said "That was my other granny."
On another occasion, he rang his clubmate Raymond Mulgrew, a superstar minor with Tyrone who was just breaking into the senior team and said: "I'm on the beer here Raymond. I won't make training. I'm half cut. Tell Mickey my granny has died."
"Jesus Christ Mugsy I'm not saying that."
"Just tell him that and say I'm very cut up about it."
"Jesus Owen, you're a terrible man."
Owen heard next day that Raymond (who always travelled with him to Tyrone training) was togging out when Harte came over and asked him where Mulligan was. "He told me to tell you that his granny has died." At which point the boys all burst out laughing.
Wind forward four years and Mugsy is sitting in the house in the front room at his grandmother's wake, when Mickey comes in, shakes his hand and sits down beside him. "I'm sorry for your loss Owen."
They sit in silence for a minute. Then Mickey nudges him gently with his elbow and says "So . . . she's finally dead."
To be fair, old Mrs Mulligan is not the first Irish granny to have died on several different occasions.
We chatted during the week for a retrospective eir Sport are televising on the great Tyrone team of the noughties, including their emphatic All-Ireland final victories over Kerry. In those games, Tyrone were clearly a level above Kerry, as they had been in their breakthrough year of 2003.
A team of servants to a cause, with terrific communication and drive, led by a modest and driven captain in Peter Canavan, followed by a similarly modest and driven captain, Brian Dooher, whose commitment to the group and will to win was absolute. Mulligan told me a story about their 2003 quarter-final match against Fermanagh that says a lot about Canavan.
"We were stuffing them Joe (the final scoreline was 1-21 to 0-5). There were a couple of minutes to go and it was embarrassing. I was thinking of them poor critters going back up the road to Fermanagh. I went by my man and was through on goal. We had a two v one with wee Peter on the far post waiting to palm her into the net.
I didn't want to rub it in any more and fisted it over the bar. Peter said nothing, just turned and ran back out to centre-forward. Afterwards, we were very relaxed, chatting and joking and looking forward to going on the beer that night.
I had just sat down in the dressing room when wee Peter came over and stood over me. 'What the f**k are you playing at?' He said. I was shocked. I said 'What do you mean?' 'What the f**k are you playing at?' he said again. I just said 'what?' He was raging. He said 'We were through for a goal and you took a point.' I said 'We were 18 points up Peter.' 'Don't do it again, I'm warning you. We're here to play, not f**k around.'"
Owen said to me "I never did it again."
Another feature of the game then was the balance between football and life. As Mulligan put it: "Every Monday morning after a Tyrone match, my mother's kitchen was filled with Tyrone kitbags. We lived opposite the Glenavon and the team always went on the beer after the games. That woman cooked some fries for hungover Tyrone men."
That was lost with the advent of the super manager and the destruction of club football and the Super 8. Last week, Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly asked me to do a favour for a GAA fanatic who turned 90 this week. The thought struck me that Mattie has never known the life or death feel of knockout football, the matchless excitement, the possibility for upset.
The Derry v Down 1994 first round game was shown recently (Mícheál ó Muircheartaigh describes it as one of the greatest games ever played). It still enrages me when I see it, after all these years. The game was played in a frenzy of passion and excitement with Down winning it at the death via a killer goal.
Nowadays, it would be played at three quarters of that pace, with the winner not having much to celebrate and the loser getting the kick up the backside that would get them back on track. Derry, a more consistent team who could handle Down, would have come back into the qualifiers in a highly dangerous, 'back down to earth' frame of mind and I have little doubt we would have been meeting each other again in Croke Park in autumn for the real game.
What the modern system has done is to contribute strongly to the new method of playing which I call 'going through the motions football.'
The underdog wants 'a decent run in the qualifiers' or to get into the Super 8 where they will be humiliated (what was sadder last year than Roscommon gloomily labouring to their doom week in week out?). The favourite plays steadily knowing it is a long season. Meaningless games, a long, dull, drawn out championship and the best players all over the country sacrificing their lives, and often well-being, to an amateur sport. For what?
The GPA strongly encourages this dysfunction since it benefits so strongly from it, to the tune of around €7 million per year including their own sponsorship and fundraising. Their well-being initiatives are the opposite of well-being, the sort of phoney life guru stuff that has made so many people's lives miserable.
As Oisín McConville has frequently pointed out, there has been an explosion in problem gambling in the last decade due to the demands put on players. Their friends are leading a normal life, going out at the weekend, socialising, building lives off the field. Meanwhile, they are training constantly and sitting in. It is a life of unusual pressure and anxiety. The lure of online gambling often becomes irresistible.
The GPA boasts that county players will get state of the art rehab and so they do. Their funded knee reconstructions will be performed at the best private hospitals by the most renowned surgeons. They offer tutorials in filling out CVs and looking for employment. Players wouldn't need this if they had a healthy sport/life balance. They offer life gurus. Being the best version you can be is a superficially attractive message.
The notion that county players have a superior hidden potential for other walks of life that the GPA's expertise can help them to tap into is a fantasy. County players are not superior humans. They are just like the rest of us. They are not somehow beyond society and able to shape themselves into something wealthy and gorgeous and perfect.
This philosophy is as real as a get rich quick book. The only person who ever got rich quick from one of those was the author. The GPA has jumped on this bandwagon partly because they don't know any better, but mainly because it takes the focus away from the real problem. They point to player welfare programs and addiction services as great successes. But these are not promoting well-being. They are merely treating the symptoms caused by an absence of well-being.
The effective solution for the real problem would mean the GPA losing a load of money since real well-being will only come from a drastically shortened intercounty season. This is a truth universally known. It is why county players are so excited about this year's format.
When Mattie Donnelly came back to me about his friend's birthday, I made the point that this is the first time he will feel the true greatness of championship football. After 70 minutes, he will be out of the championship or blazing on after an epic win over one of the favourites. Shit or bust.
We have a whole generation of young supporters who have never experienced what championship is. The underdog winning by two points against the hot favourite with five minutes to go and everything on the line. The home crowd going mental. Can the favourite hold his nerve? Will he panic and go under?
What that format ensured was that each game was a battle to the death. The next game was irrelevant. Now, everything has settled into a long, dull inevitability. We should return to a short knockout format with a vibrant second tier knockout run off together. Maximum four-month intercounty season. Give the players back their lives, restore the vibrancy of the clubs and stop the insanity. Real well-being, for the entire GAA community.
I texted Mattie Donnelly: "Your first knockout championship. Very exciting and brings back the raw nerves and passion we used to have. Your first taste of real Ulster football. Hard to believe you've never experienced it." He texted back: "I can't wait."
For the first time in a very long time, neither can I.
Sunday Indo Sport