Father of Donnelly brothers rejects notion of dark arts or cynicism in Tyrone ethos
Damian Lawlor hears that criticism of Tyrone is unfair to a great manager and the new team he has built
It is not uncommon in this business to set off to interview someone with some preconceived ideas about where you want it to go. Last week was one of those times.
The idea seemed simple: a chat with Liam Donnelly leading to a homely, sibling-themed, behind-the-scenes feature piece. So, having exchanged pleasantries it is straight in to find out more about Tyrone's landmark of having five sets of brothers in their squad. But Donnelly - whose sons Mattie and Richie are part of that grouping - really doesn't find that topic too interesting at all.
"It's just a coincidence, there's no magic formula behind it," he says. "The Brennans, the McCanns, the McMahons, the Cavanaghs and my own two lads. You'd see it a lot at club level but not at this volume at county level. It probably galvanises the lads and tightens the whole thing but it's just a coincidence that they are all in at the same time. Nothing more."
Which turns out to be just as well - there is other stuff to talk about. If you stop anywhere around the country these days and the chat turns to the championship, mention of Tyrone, or their culture of football, will be a hot topic. They are on the verge of what would be an unexpected All-Ireland final appearance, with a new side and a rejuvenated manager, certainly in the last few months at least.
Yet their season has been laced with accusations of trash talking, cynicism, dark arts, play-acting, diving and thuggery, with examples available as evidence to support all such accusations. Mention this, and the fires start burning in Liam Donnelly's eyes.
What about the Centre of Excellence at Garvaghey, a development which is the envy of many counties?
And the three All-Ireland senior titles since 2003?
Or the three under 21 titles since 2000?
What about the four All-Ireland minor titles since 2004?
"Jesus, we're hardly winning these things by coaching teams how not to play," he exclaims.
Donnelly was manager of the winning All-Ireland minor teams in 2001 and 2004 and led the O'Neill County to an Ulster under 21 title in 2006. He knows the work his two sons have invested with the Tyrone seniors in the hope of one day yielding a rich September harvest. And he is perplexed about the reputation his county has garnered. The emotion spills out of him.
"The most upsetting comment of all came on The Sunday Game where one pundit suggested that Tyrone were like a bad smell. That really was upsetting."
Donnelly doesn't name the analyst but he is clearly referring to Sunday Independent columnist Colm O'Rourke and his comments that controversy was following the Tyrone team "like a bad smell".
"These so-called pundits are influencing so many people that it's actually dangerous," he says. "You will actually get some people thinking that today's game against Kerry is a Kings versus Thugs affair. They'll have it labelled that simply. That's fed by a lot of the analysis out there and I would object to that.
"A few weeks ago Joe Brolly referred to how ruthless Kerry were in sniffing out danger to their goal. He singled out a drag-down tackle on a Kildare player and the analysis was almost praiseworthy in highlighting how Kerry will protect their goal at every opportunity. Yet, Sean Cavanagh did the very same thing against Conor McManus and Joe Brolly went to town on him. Questioned his character. But he'll go off then and make a laugh of it a few weeks on. Sure you can't have a debate over this because Joe just moves the goalposts. He's not alone. A lot of these pundits analyse and highlight certain things only when it suits them."
It's put to Donnelly that there can be no defending Cavanagh's pull-down at that time, no matter who else does it, and even if many other inter-county players would have done the same in pursuit of victory. Nor can any positive be taken out of Tiernan McCann's dive against Monaghan when Dessie Hughes ruffled his hair.
"It's done now and there's no defending it," Donnelly accepts on the last point. "But the young lad has also gone through hell on social media - that needs highlighting. I was waiting for the GAA to come out and shout 'stop' at some stage because the abuse he was getting was way over the top. But it still hasn't happened. In this age, we should be very wary of putting our young players under so much pressure.
"Tiernan has been singled out big time but the same stuff is happening all over the country and lads are not put under the same microscope. Tiernan is a good young lad establishing himself on the team, but who are we to know what damage this constant ridiculing and cyber-bullying has done to the chap? And it is cyber-bullying, no point in saying otherwise. The GAA needed to come out sooner to help him but they didn't."
If you were paranoid, the presence of five Irish Sports Council drug testers at training last Tuesday night in Garvaghey wouldn't have helped. Testing is random of course, but Tyrone were also preparing for their Central Competitions Control Committee defence of McCann and felt everything was coming down on them at the same time.
The McCann affair also came on the end of an unwelcome run of the county being in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Tyrone under 21 management were refused entry to the Tipperary dressing room after a highly charged final. Tipperary were perhaps naive in criticising their opponents' time-wasting tactics - and they missed their own chances to win that game - but they were disgusted at the antics of some Tyrone players that evening.
Donnelly is asked about that criticism and whether it lit the fuse for much of what has come their way since. In other words, is there a cynical mindset ebbing throughout the underage squads in the county and manifesting itself at senior level? He is scathing in his rejection of that suggestion and shakes his head at the perception of what is meant to happen behind the scenes at Garvaghey.
"Do people think we practise cynicism? Because all I can see is honesty, ball-work and skills whenever I go to look. If you're asking me is this our culture, I would be disgusted with the suggestion and would firmly say no. Tipp had as many chances to win the under 21 final as we did. A certain amount of sledging would have gone on, but from both sides.
"I would feel it's an insult to Mickey Harte and the people of Tyrone that labels like these are sticking to us. When I was manager of the minors, we often played end to end, went 15 on 15 and won two All-Ireland titles in the process. People are overlooking that this new team of Mickey's are tailor-made for Croke Park. A few months ago we were relegated in the league but now here we are in an All-Ireland semi-final and I'm not sure Kerry will be all that fond of having to play us.
"Our lads are singled out for using a blanket defence but most of the country plays like that now. And we have scored 0-18, 0-21 and 0-19 in our last three games - that is some shooting for a negative team.
"For anyone to suggest that Mickey Harte is an architect of dark arts and cynical play, they are off the wall. They obviously never came up against the man. He is honest and open in his approach to the game. Kerry played defensively against Donegal to win an All-Ireland title and Eamonn Fitzmaurice was hailed as a tactical genius. We do it and we're negative.
"While all this criticism is ongoing, we have a great manager building his third Tyrone team and featuring about 12 lads aged in their early to mid-20s. Apart from the McMahons and the Cavanaghs this is more or less a new team, and that's a huge achievement. But that is overlooked. As is our underage record. And we're called cynical. I can tell you the people of Tyrone are rightly pissed off with that."
At times, though, Tyrone haven't helped themselves. They certainly did waste time in the All-Ireland under 21 final, to such an extent that they were running down the clock from seven minutes out. It was nearly 10 minutes out against Monaghan in the senior quarter-final, and the seven minutes additional time made for tough viewing. While none of this is illegal, it's hard to watch.
As for the speculation on Harte's future, well earlier in the league the Tyrone people themselves were questioning his remaining time in the hot-seat. They were well beaten by Monaghan in the spring, later relegated; Harte didn't have another year left on his term and it seemed like change was imminent.
Donnelly agrees there was pressure rising on the manager but says it's impressive what he has done in the interim.
"Mickey was under pressure, he would have known that himself but I don't think it would have bothered him. I think he knew there was another good bunch of lads coming through the system and he would fully have expected them to get to the business end of the championship in a year or two.
"He has got us there a lot earlier than expected. In 2013, we reached the last four but a lot of those players were nearing the end of their careers. So it's great to see how many new players have come into the set-up to get us back to the last four again. I think people have overlooked that. This is Tyrone 3.0 and it's looking good."
That it is. This is a fine young team, blessed with pace and ready-made for Croke Park. There is a certainty about the new breed and an obvious tightness among the squad too, with the number of brothers on the panel.
We bring the conversation back to Donnelly's own sons, especially Mattie who is central to the team's rebuilding process. Mattie never made a Tyrone development squad until he was 17 but slotted into the county minor set-up in his last year. This is his fourth year on the senior squad and by far his best.
He was confident enough in his own belief to turn down an initial request to join the squad and instead went off to build himself up in the gym to get ready for senior intercounty life.
In the process he transformed himself from a light young fringe player to a physically imposing and established centre-forward. Along the way Mattie identified that he was focusing too much on gym work and neglecting his ball skills.
"In fairness to him he rectified that, or found a balance at least," says his dad. "I think he went back to ball-work and skills in a big way. And he wouldn't have been on his own. What these lads have done to get ready for inter-county football is phenomenal and Mattie is no different to the others in what he does in terms of lifestyle, weights, skills.
"Not that he would tell you anything. When he comes home from training I might enquire how he went and 'grand' would be the only response I get. If I asked did he play at wing-back he would say 'yeah'. If I asked did he play at wing-forward he would say 'yeah' too. You get nothing out of him. Even after Tiernan's incident, I don't think it was mentioned. They are just completely focused on Kerry.
"It's the rest of us in the county that are getting hot and bothered about what people outside of Tyrone think of us. I don't think the players bat an eyelid - they are just focused on winning."
If they do win, there's a fair chance success might be accompanied by controversy or brickbats.
But they're used to that.
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