Saturday 20 July 2019

Red Hands hope to get their retaliation in first ahead of Omagh party

'Super 8s' will call for different strategies to the traditional, writes Declan Bogue

Vinnie Murphy celebrates his goal in Thurles against Kerry in 2001 on a rare occasion that Dublin hit the road in the Championship. Photo Ray McManus Sportsfile
Vinnie Murphy celebrates his goal in Thurles against Kerry in 2001 on a rare occasion that Dublin hit the road in the Championship. Photo Ray McManus Sportsfile

All week long in Tyrone, time has dragged its heels.

If this is what the 'Super 8s' was meant to do - to bring the excitement of real championship football to the provinces - then the objective has been achieved. The closer you go to the Healy Park pitch, the hotter it feels.

The publicans that run the Main Street complex in Omagh have recognised the special status of the game. At 3.30pm today, former Tyrone defender Noel McGinn will host an hour-long discussion about the game, in the company of Ryan McMenamin, and Dublin and St Vincent's star, Mossy Quinn.

This is the first time Dublin have crossed the border to play a championship match. When the bus leaves Monaghan and enters Tyrone by crossing the Moy River and on through Aughnacloy, it will be a novel experience.

Dublin have only ever played five championship matches before now, outside of their province of Leinster; the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Cork, the two-game All-Ireland quarter-final epic against Kerry in 2001, a defeat of Derry in Clones in 2003 and a trip over to Leitrim for a 2004 qualifier.

While the narrative has always been that Dublin would not like to be taken out of their comfort zone, that has never been the case, according to former player Johnny Magee who played in four of those five 'away' fixtures.

fondest He points to his first time on tour, at Thurles in 2001 while Croke Park was being redeveloped, with the fondest of memories. The bus swung into Liberty Square in the town. At the near side was Hayes' Hotel, where the GAA was formed in 1884. The far end led to Semple Stadium, forever known as the home of hurling. And in between was a sea of Dubs fans all in blue, the largest gathering Magee had ever seen in one spot outside of Croke Park.

"And the place erupted," he recalls now. "It was… I'm not joking, there were lads on the bus, including myself, that the hairs were standing on the back of the neck and there were a few tears. There were fellas that were experienced guys on that team bus that never experienced anything like that before."

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The weekend itself has gone down in legend. The Dublin team of that time bore no resemblance to the austere, process-driven group they are now. Being on the road was all new to them.

Other teams used to it had their ways of relieving tension while in camp. At the time, RTÉ had just begun broadcasting Bingo on the television on a Saturday night and it must have been quite the sight for the Thurles locals to see two dozen tracksuited Dublin footballers landing into the shop to purchase bingo cards, before they all crammed into the one room to play 'Telly Bingo', called out by the famous drag queen, Shirley Temple Bar. If the weekend needed an extra lurch into the surreal, it got it the following morning when burly forward Vinny Murphy parted his curtains and could hardly believe that Colm Meaney, star of 'The Commitments' and the Star Trek series, was standing fiddling with car keys.

"Beam me up, Scotty!" roared Murphy, and with Meaney turning to see where the voice came from, got a full view of Murphy's bare behind.

The next time Dublin had to hit the road was a qualifier against Derry in 2003. It was moved to Clones to accommodate the expected crowds and, with the prospect of seeing one of the most famous GAA venues up close during the summer, the Dublin fans took over the town from Matt Fitzpatrick Square to Fermanagh Street before making their unsteady way up to the natural amphitheatre.

Unlike any other county, they enjoy a certain notoriety, singing songs and chanting. If it can get at some players, all the better.

Michael Conlan was the Derry goalkeeper and when he went to take his first kick-out he was met with a serenading of "The Derry 'keeper, the Derry 'keeper, the Derry 'keeper's going bald! The Derry 'keeper's going bald!"

"The targeting of players, it was probably the first time I heard Derry players targeted and verbally abused from sets of supporters singing," says Conleith Gilligan, who came on as a sub that day to mark Magee.

"It was the first time I had heard it at a Gaelic match and to be honest, it was funny because it wasn't aimed at you, but I would imagine it was very difficult for players to deal with that never seen that before. I can remember big Geoffrey (McGonigle) getting grief over his weight at the time."

There is a sense that in Omagh, Tyrone are willing to get their retaliation in first, with the sidelines reportedly moved in tighter to deny Dublin the width they like to attack with.

The two counties have had a fractious relationship, a country-city schism developing between the counties that goes back to a challenge match played in the Toronto Skydome for a St Patrick's Festival in 1990. Wearing chunky tennis shoes and knee and elbow pads, the surface was rock hard and the O'Neill's ball behaved like a ping-pong ball. Referee Micheál Greenan admitted he should have sent six off. Eighteen-year-old Peter Canavan got a punch on the throat. Seán Donnelly went to nail Kieran Duff.

"He went in for the ball and I took a swing with my boot and missed him. Then I took another swing at him and caught him the next time!" recalled Donnelly.

"But when it was over, it was over. I mean, we had good craic after it. I have a photograph of me in the hotel afterwards, examining Kieran Duff's leg."

The hurt from the 1995 All-Ireland, Tyrone devastated with being denied a late equaliser, never really went away. When Tyrone were on top, they let Dublin know all about it.

Erupted

 It has erupted from time to time. In 2006, the two had a scandalous league game - the Battle of Omagh - that featured long periods of out-and-out boxing.

This week, Sky TV came to town. After figuring out the co-ordinates and the direction of the sun, they built a tower at the Killybrack Road end beside the scoreboard, looking down towards the Gortin Road.

In terms of numbers and scale, RTÉ or BBC cannot compare. Sky want anything up to 11 cameras in action, whereas the others require no more than four. They have asked for 60 people to be accredited, up from their rivals who might take 25 at a push. Sky will have five statisticians alone working in the ground.

They will be using a super slow-motion camera that requires extra light, so no matter what the weather, the floodlights will be turned on at half-time.

A total of 17,636 spaces are available for this evening. There won't be enough room to turn a sweet in your mouth. "This is the biggest demand since the Dublin match last year and far superior to any other match. We never would have had a match outside Croke Park like this," says Omagh St Enda's secretary, Conor Salley.

If this is the madness the Super 8s was supposed to create, then bring it on.

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