Thursday 24 January 2019

'There was a stage when the whole relationship wasn't healthy - it was so, so nasty and toxic'

McGee and McMahon recall spitefulness of Donegal-Tyrone rivalry ahead of crunch Ballybofey clash

McGee: "They were a means of testing ourselves and it fed into the narrative that Jim was telling us. And we bought it. And we thought, they were a shower." Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

God knows what was going through the mind of the person who spat on Karl Lacey, Donegal's injured defender who was walking back to the Healy Park dressing-room during a league defeat to Tyrone in 2013.

It was a vile act towards the reigning Player of the Year, on an afternoon that had a desperate edge to it.

Afterwards, Mickey Harte went to apologise to Lacey on behalf of Tyrone GAA, but that wasn't what Donegal manager Jim McGuinness took away from that brief talk.

Instead, it was a line from Harte recounted in McGuinness' autobiography, when they shook hands and the Tyrone manager said, "Youse were great All-Ireland champions."

The implication of the word 'were' drove McGuinness mad.

If you thought that was the low point and things couldn't get any worse between these two counties, then you were badly wrong. Back to that in a minute.

The two sides face off tomorrow in the final group stages of the 'Super 8s'. They have met as far into the championship. Clubs cannot match the demand for tickets. It is, simply, the biggest game Ballybofey has hosted, coming against their bitterest rivals.

Some might trace the enmity back to the infamous 'Battle of Ballybofey' in 1973, when Donegal's star of the time, Neilly Gallagher, almost lost an eye, with reports of stones and bottles being flung at the dugouts.

McGuinness was determined to change the relationship from his playing career, which was of Tyrone supremacy.

Prior to the first challenge match he had as manager of the county U-21s, he told the story of the time he played for the U-21s at full-forward against Tyrone in Castlederg. His marker beat him to the ball and put his boot into his face in the process, laughing heartily when the referee did nothing about it.

"The point was that we held Tyrone and teams like that in the height of respect and they regarded us as players to be toyed with, to mash down with the soles of their shoes," he recounted.

"Tyrone and Armagh had been driving me demented for years… But they weren't gods. They were not superhuman. People in Donegal thought they were. We elevated them in our minds and they regarded us as a joke. They knew we would always buckle in the minutes that mattered. The inference was there: you haven't got it; you are soft.'

In 2011, Donegal met Tyrone in the Ulster Championship. The night before in a meeting room in the Slieve Russell Hotel, McGuinness spent two hours dissecting Tyrone. Right down to the type of sledging they would try, and a method to not get drawn into it, by just replying, "not today."

In that Ulster semi-final win, the relationship flipped. Tyrone misread the signs. When they met again in 2012, Harte's message to his players was not to respect their opponents, but to ask, "What have they done in the game?"

Another defeat, on the way to Donegal's All-Ireland title, drove Tyrone mad.

"They were a means of testing ourselves and it fed into the narrative that Jim was telling us. And we bought it. And we thought, they were a shower. They looked down their nose at us," recounts Donegal defender Eamonn McGee now.

"It wasn't a case that they actually did look down their noses at us, we were never on their radar. But it was the way that Jim sold it to us. We were eager to take it all on board and believe it.

"The main thing with Jim was that they had looked down their nose at us in the previous ten years and that was his big, big point. How they treated us and how they were not nice people."

Onto 2013. After the league defeat, McGuinness kept a couple of ploys from sight in Healy Park.

Tyrone's young goalkeeper Niall Morgan starred that day, saving a penalty from Michael Murphy, and also hitting two frees and a '45'.

Tyrone had to go to Ballybofey for the Ulster Championship after an unsuccessful attempt to have the game moved to Clones. When Morgan stepped up to kick his frees, he found himself faced by four strapping men, all with their arms upright, encroaching on his space, giving him load of verbals. He crumbled.

"It was one of the things we targeted, was to get at Niall Morgan," says McGee

As bad as things were in 2013 - and they were deeply unpleasant - the 2015 meeting was a mess. Foul-mouthed sledging went on throughout and a melee at half-time at the narrow tunnel going underneath the stand made the whole thing so, so ugly.

"Right from the get-go, when you arrive there, that small, poky changing room, it's far from the luxury of Croke Park or Healy Park where it is nice and open," says Joe McMahon, who started on the bench that day.

"You are on top of each other and with the size of the panel, the backroom team, you are just itching to get out on the pitch.

"It was difficult to control the psyche at time. Stepping out into that pitch was a cauldron. The atmosphere was almost different than I had ever felt.

"Because they were on top of you, it was so personal. You could hear everything said to you by the opposition supporters."

His brother Justin was marking Murphy on that day. The ball wasn't much of a concern to Justin, and the locals didn't take kindly to their chieftain being restrained on his own premises.

"They were shouting at him, calling him a dirty b*stard and a thug," recalls Joe.

It was the lowest point. At half-time, Donegal manager Rory Gallagher went to make a point to the referee. McMahon stepped in and had his say.

"And the next thing you know," recalls McGee, "me and Gavin Devlin are shouting at each other.

"There was a stage where that whole relationship wasn't healthy, in terms of a sporting context. It wasn't healthy.

"You shouldn't… I wouldn't say 'hate', because I never hated a team, but it was only a small level below hate. It was so, so toxic and nasty."

Two years out of county football now, and the Gaoth Dobhair man feels differently about it all.

"Then you get old a bit wiser and you start to think, 'Why were you at this?' It's only when you come to the end of your career that you start to realise all these things."

McMahon adds: "Looking from the outside in, we would have been aware they enjoyed themselves a bit more than a county team should. We probably fed off that.

"Not that we didn't respect them, we just had the belief, the confidence that we would go out and beat them and if the game was in the melting pot we could take it on."

So much has changed in the last decade. Tyrone have won the last two encounters. But Donegal have been unbeaten in Ballybofey since 2010.

Something has to give. It always does.

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