Wednesday 22 November 2017

Dick Clerkin: Tyrone's aura of old returns in time for final reckoning

Eoghan Bán Gallagher of Donegal has little time to manoeuvre as Peter Harte (No 7), Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden (right) lead the charge for Tyrone Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Eoghan Bán Gallagher of Donegal has little time to manoeuvre as Peter Harte (No 7), Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden (right) lead the charge for Tyrone Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

En route to Dublin yesterday to do a bit of radio work with Today FM ahead of the big game in Clones, I listened to a great podcast discussion featuring Tyrone's Joe McMahon and Brian McGuigan.

Recounting their own experiences of what had become one of the most embittered rivalries in recent times, Joe and Brian gave fascinating insight into what went on behind the scenes as Tyrone battled, and ultimately failed, to quell the Donegal resurgence that effectively finished off their respective careers. Defeats in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 had firmly put Tyrone in their place as to what role they played in the relationship.

Sean Cavanagh's last quarter heroics in last year's Ulster Final finally ended Tyrone's unprecedented run of defeats to Donegal.

Going into yesterday's game every pundit in the land wouldn't have put more than the kick of a ball between the two teams. Indeed I pointed towards a narrow Donegal victory when prompted on air! It just goes to show how fickle the punditry game is.

Tyrone's dominance after an even opening quarter made it a largely one-sided encounter, with both teams heading away from Clones on very different trajectories than they had entered.

After a thoroughly impressive performance in the Clones heat yesterday, all the talk will now be of Tyrone. Ever since their maiden All-Ireland victory in 2003, they have largely set the agenda in Ulster football. Rival teams over the past fifteen seasons or so have been consumed with them.

Armagh, Derry, Down, Monaghan and Donegal could all recount their eventful showdowns with a similarly bitter commentary. Even in their barren years between 2011 to 2015 -when they failed to contest an Ulster final - they were still seen as the benchmark team who held an air of superiority about them in victory and defeat.

By all accounts, Jim McGuinness obsessed about them and saw them as the standard to which his team had to rise before contemplating All-Ireland success. You only have to look back at the vicious intensity his teams brought to those earlier battles to see how Jim's intent manifested itself in his players. Regrettably for Rory Gallagher, that same intent from Donegal was nowhere to be seen yesterday.

As reigning Ulster champions in 2014, Monaghan played Tyrone in the first round of the Championship in Clones. Up until then, Tyrone had heaped nothing but misery on Monaghan football for over a decade. Defeats at minor, U-21, McKenna Cup and in Ulster finals, along with All-Ireland quarter-finals, helped create an envious disdain towards our Northern neighbours.

It is fair to say my CV, and those of my former team-mates, would be a whole lot more impressive had it not been for Mickey Harte, Sean Cavanagh and Co.

In what now will be defined as a transitional period for Tyrone, we were the better team on the day, and held out for the narrowest of victories. When the final whistle went, I celebrated almost as much as I did after any of our Ulster final wins.

A picture went around afterwards of myself and Paul Finlay embracing at the final whistle that clearly illustrated what it meant to finally break the Tyrone hoodoo.

Similar scenes would have been evident back in 2011 when Jim McGuinness's Donegal set off on their journey with an embittered victory over Tyrone at the same venue. They were, and continue to be, the team everyone in Ulster wants to beat.

There is no escaping the sour taste that was left after Monaghan's All-Ireland quarter-final defeats to Tyrone following the provincial successes in 2013 and 2015.

At one stage Joe made a remark that indicated that, in his mind, Monaghan were always content with an Ulster title, and when both teams squared off in Croke Park, only one team truly believed they could go on and win an All-Ireland. It is a difficult charge to both stomach and argue against, until the evidence starts to suggests otherwise.

What struck me most about the open and flowing exchanges between Joe and Brian was the irreverent attitude towards Monaghan in the whole discussion about provincial superiority. It both frustrated and enlightened me in equal measure.

For all that Monaghan have achieved at provincial level, our lack of impression on the All-Ireland series thereafter will continue to keep us in the margins. Having retired prior to 2014, I would say Brian McGuigan never lost a game to Monaghan in his whole career.

Joe and Brian still talk in a narrative that seduces the minds of the Tyrone supporters that an All-Ireland is always in their grasp. In their mind Mickey Harte is preparing a team, not just to win an Ulster Championship, but to win an Ulster Championship en route to challenging for an All-Ireland. There is no limit to ambition in Tyrone, only a relentless expectation embedded in their psyche by the great successes of the noughties.

I won't be thanked for possibly jinxing a likely Ulster final encounter between Tyrone and Monaghan ahead of our semi-final with Down next weekend.

Tyrone have forever thrived in the white heat of their bitter rivalries, and with one possibly put to bed for a few years yesterday in Clones, another one looms large on the horizon.

I can feel the tension building already!

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