Sunday 25 February 2018

Ballybofey will be first real trumpet line of the summer

Ballybofey will be awash with colour tomorrow (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)
Ballybofey will be awash with colour tomorrow (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Alarming news from Ballybofey - they won't be handing out hard hats and protective goggles at the turnstiles tomorrow.

Is this wise? Given the high jinks some seem to be anticipating between Donegal and Tyrone, the wonder is there hasn't been some kind of parental guidance clause stitched into ticketing arrangements. After all, if Tyrone are the original daddies of blanket defence, Donegal are the boys who put it to their own music.

So how exactly do you counter-punch against a counter-puncher? And will they remember a pot of strong coffee for the chap who works the scoreboard?

Caricature props up our prejudice in these matters. It is far easier to employ adjectives like 'hard', 'flinty', 'unscrupulous' to Ulster football than make any serious effort at untangling the complex tactical web that smart people like Mickey Harte and Jim McGuinness have managed to weave across the years.

When Tipperary's U-21s blocked Feargal Logan's entry to their dressing-room after the recent All-Ireland final at Parnell Park, it rekindled the sense that, for all the political miles travelled, there is still a profound lack of understanding between GAA minds north and south.


A lot of the coverage supporting Tipp's stance came across as aloof and faintly precious, a lot of that on Tyrone's side one-eyed and defensive.

Neither persuasion seemed open to the other's indignation. It was like two blind men arguing over a colour scheme.

This column was once angrily confronted by a former Down footballer for referring to his county as "northerners" in a match report. He took from the description an imagined slight that was invisible to me. Where, I asked him, would be the insult then in - say - calling Galway or Mayo "westerners". His expression suggested that I might have the IQ of a beetroot.

I didn't get it then and I still don't get it now.

Still, imagine a summer without that faint scent of difference? Before a ball is kicked, Tyrone-Donegal already packs such independent energy into this first real weekend of championship competition, you just sense it could light up the Barnesmore Gap in the dead of night.

Harte, so wily, mysterious and calm, arms folded, eyes piercing under that baseball cap, is still there plotting Tyrone's future after 13 seasons. McGuinness has been replaced by his former assistant, Rory Gallagher, someone described by Mark McHugh this week as the most intelligent man he has known in football. For all the lazy prophesies of lawlessness then, the game has a cerebral context.

And it is on weekends like this one, the whole summer opening up before us with its myriad of possibilities, that you come to appreciate Patrick Kavanagh's view that Ireland without the GAA would be a markedly greyer, more humdrum place.

Some years ago this column drew down a tsunami of southern hemisphere ire for suggesting that the All Blacks represented a pretty one-dimensional success story for New Zealand sport compared to the disparate glories we mine here from a similar population.

It was clear from a lot of the, em, correspondence that our references to the GAA were interpreted as silly trumpeting of some kind of medieval parish ritual.

But maybe nothing defines us better as people than the GAA because nothing in our lives celebrates such a broad panoply of human loyalties. Those loyalties aren't the pick-out-of-a-brochure variety. They represent who we are, where we come from.

Some of our biggest heroes would struggle, away from the playing field, to be heard above the discreet cough of a priest in a confessional. But in the white heat of championship, they morph into different people.

So that sound of tectonic shifting by the south bank of the River Finn tomorrow will, for all the aesthetic quibbles sure to percolate afterwards on 'The Sunday Game', represent the first real trumpet line of summer.

And even if most smart money is on Dublin and Kerry for Sam Maguire, just as it was in the late 1970s and early '80s when Ulster football seemed a kind of dreary and hopelessly inward-looking exercise, don't for a second believe that Harte and Gallagher don't have their own September ambitions.

The beauty is that they will harvest what they have, not what a county board can afford. They will build their plans on local young men who find their ferocity in the simple beauty of playing for family and friends.

The great race is up and running then. Hallelujah!

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