Saturday 7 December 2019

'Tyrone need to go out and stand up for themselves'

The 2006 'Battle of Omagh' is never far from the mind when Dubs go north – now Harte's men require old fighting spirit, writes Declan Bogue

Dublin and Tyrone players scuffle during their infamous League game in Omagh in 2006 Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE
Dublin and Tyrone players scuffle during their infamous League game in Omagh in 2006 Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

Declan Bogue

EVEN when getting off the team bus in Omagh, the Dublin team were agitated on that fateful Sunday in early February 2006.

Games against Tyrone always had that effect. There was the defiant stance in 1984 of Tyrone going to warm up in front of Hill 16 prior to the All-Ireland semi-final.

Then, the Charlie Redmond incident when he did not leave the field after a second booking in the 1995 All-Ireland final.

Neither county needed encouragement to stockpile petty resentments, but 2006 was on another level.

It had taken a replay for Tyrone to eventually get past Dublin in the previous year's All-Ireland quarter-final and the Dubs felt they were bullied once again by another northern county. So they decided to take a stand.

HONOUR

The first thing they did was to refuse to grant the reigning All-Ireland champions the traditional guard of honour at their first home league game.

There was a number of off-the-ball incidents and a couple of first-half brawls, but it all blew up midway through the second half.

"I was marking Alan Brogan and he caught me with a late tackle," recalls then Tyrone centre-back Ciaran Gourley.

"When you are in the spirit of a game – if I can put it like that – your emotions are running high and sometimes you can lose the run of yourself. But they were very fired up for that game."

Dublin midfielder Ciaran Whelan attempted to haul Gourley's prostrate body off the ground. Alan Brogan was given a red card and as he walked off the pitch, tempers rose on both sides and a punch-up right in front of the stand was the end result.

TG4 were screening the game and recorded viewing figures of 108,000 – four times their average. From that point, a period of reflection began on the direction the game was going in.

That period of football does not compare to now. There will always be isolated incidents, but the game is a much cleaner sport now.

Brian McGuigan was on the bench and shortly after the third melee he was sent on, having recently returned from backpacking around Australia.

"There were people talking about how Dublin weren't able to win away from Croke Park and they might have wanted to set their stall out for the year," says McGuigan.

"They were going to take no s**t no matter where they went to. Maybe there was a bit of that there."

But the reels of on-pitch savagery didn't quite capture the unfamiliar, uncomfortable rawness of the atmosphere.

Referee Paddy Russell wrote extensively about the day he handed out four red cards and 14 yellows, with five further players retrospectively suspended.

On an attached note he handed in along with his referee's report, he had written that it was "the most disappointing and upsetting day of all my years refereeing".

Russell had a policy of always sleeping in his own bed the night before matches. The last time he had slept in a hotel prior to a game was the night before the 1995 All-Ireland final between the same teams, and he took serious flak over mistakes committed the following day.

He reasoned that he made an exception for this game. It was a round trip of over 200 miles and the roads were unpredictable, so he stayed in The Westenra Hotel, owned by former Monaghan manager Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney.

ESCORT

Banty's brother, the referee Pat, was close to Russell and gave him directions from the hotel. "The only thing I forgot to organise for Paddy that weekend was the police escort out of Omagh," says Pat.

Tomorrow the two teams meet again in Healy Park. Now, it is Dublin who are the All-Ireland champions, with two Sams in three years, just like Tyrone had back then.

Tyrone are no longer top of the tree, and are more realistically at the head of the chasing pack, looking to catch the front-runners. The current panel stand accused of not having the same bite and appetite for the more unsavoury stuff that it takes to win titles.

It's a loose expression, but there is a feeling that they could do with their own 'Battle of Omagh', a moment when they refuse to be cowed by the present order of things.

The relationship shifted in 2010 when Dublin defeated Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The year after, they pulverised the last vestiges of the 2003 team at the same stage. That game in particular sent the clear message that Tyrone had to begin again with a new team.

They have shown their promise in flashes, but collapses such as in Ballybofey last summer against Donegal, or Killarney last month in their clash with Kerry, still leave question marks over the new Tyrone.

However, there is optimism in the county.

"I give Tyrone a lot of hope," says McGuigan. "Tyrone's young players are trying to prove themselves. They have come back well from the Kerry defeat.

"You take the Kerry match and the second half, it was unbelievable for a team of Mickey Harte's to go down like that there.

"I think a scuffle 10 or 15 minutes into the second half would have woken them up, got them going.

"But if they did not qualify for the league semi-finals after this campaign it would be an injustice to them because they have been playing well barring that Kerry game."

And if the need to assert themselves, just like Dublin did in '06 should arise, Gourley has his own views.

"What I would expect from any player is to go out and stand up for themselves," he says.

"I would never say that would be something you want to see, but if it does, you want to see them stand up and learn from the experience for the summer ahead."

Game on.

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