'There was quite a bit of aggro in the crowd, punches were thrown' - The intense rivalry between Tyrone and Donegal
Living so close, Donegal and Tyrone people can be the best of friends and the best of enemies
On Thursday the former Donegal footballer Donal Reid realised he had been left with two surplus tickets for the Ulster final. Needing to offload, his first call was across the border, to Aghyaran in Tyrone. He dialled an uncle of the former county player Martin Penrose. Reid spent five years there as a manager, the most westerly of the Tyrone clubs, only ten minutes from where Reid calls home.
"He's fierce Tyrone," says Reid of the intended recipient. "As Tyrone as you would get. We have plenty of arguments but at least we have the sense to leave it there."
Cross-border trade is nothing new. Brian McEniff's mother came from Carrickmore, Tyrone's most successful club, and he had two spells there managing the football team. Reid had three stints managing Tyrone clubs, starting out with Clann na nGael and also spending time in Gortin. It has given him a warmer appreciation of the nature of the people there and what makes them tick.
"I met a fella on the street in Derry and he asked if I was Donal Reid. He'd heard I'd managed the Donegal under- 21 team (in 1995) and asked if I'd be interested in going to Aughabrack, they later amalgamated with Dunamanagh to form Clan na nGael. I was up there for four years. That's how it happened."
His own club, Red Hughs in Killygordon, was managed for a time by Martin Penrose's father, John, who is now looking after Robert Emmett's in Castlefin. When Reid joined Clann na nGael, Stephen O'Neill was a county minor and Brian Dooher their most famous county player. Coming from where he does, a few minutes' drive from the county boundary, he grew up with the rivalry in his veins.
Donal Reid, Donegal team physiotherapist
"It's serious," he says. "See, people here in the east of the county, we would feel it more than people in the west, they don't really understand what it is like because we are encountering these (Tyrone) people every day. I am a physical therapist and I treat a lot of Tyrone people and I actually go and watch games there.
"The last time we played Tyrone in an Ulster final was in '89. That went to a replay. That was two very hot days. Even from minor level, Tyrone were arch- enemies, we have a love-hate relationship with them.
"They would come over when the sterling was strong. But there are a lot of marriages over across the border. Aghyaran is exactly 12 minutes from here driving."
Donegal and Tyrone isn't an ancient rivalry. Today's Ulster final will be their 21st championship meeting, with both counties relatively new arrivals in the context of the province's long history. Tyrone only began winning Ulster titles in the 1950s, and Donegal had to wait until 1972 for their first, when they defeated Tyrone in the final.
The following year's meeting in the first round in Ballybofey is a storied reference point in the rivalry, one of the more acrimonious flashpoints. Tyrone won but the atmosphere was tense and Neilly Gallagher, one of Donegal's in-form players, was stretchered off early in the match after being struck in the face.
Reid was there as an 11-year-old with his father. "I will tell you, I was afraid. I saw it and it scared me. I remember an ambulance going on the field, Neilly Gallagher, from Gweedore, was stretchered off, and there was a massive crowd there. There a terrible aggravation between the supporters in that game. That still goes on. I was at the match last year, the preliminary game in Ballybofey, and there was quite a bit of aggro in the crowd."
Verbals? "Verbals, but punches were thrown. It doesn't always go that far."
Reid played in the last Ulster final between the counties, in 1989, when Tyrone had the biggest championship win, 2-13 to 0-7, between the pair in a replay.
From the 1989 meeting, Reid remembers leading by a point going into injury-time when Stephen Conway levelled with a close-in free. "We trained twice before the replay and Tyrone didn't train at all. I met Ciaran McGarvey later, he was their full-back that time, and he said they just had a meeting on the Wednesday night, and they hammered us. We were tired, we didn't seem to learn anything from the drawn game. I remember it was very deflating."
Eoin Liston, Kerry, in action against Ciaran McGarvey and Harry McClure, (9), Tyrone
McGarvey, who played in the All- Ireland final against Kerry 30 years ago, would later claim the first match against Donegal in '89 was the hottest day he ever experienced playing football. He and Reid became friends later and played against each other in the 1989 Ulster club final. Reid took over McGarvey's club, Aghyaran, in 1999.
Speaking before the 2013 Ulster Championship meeting in Ballybofey, Brian McEniff said there had be no "real enmity" between the counties before the early '70s that he was aware of. "I think the Troubles might have had something to do with it, there was a lot going on at the time and it caused a lot of aggravation and contention between players on opposite sides of the border. Some of the more senior players would call you a Free State bastard, it was sad what was said on reflection."
The following year, 1974, Donegal were facing Tyrone in Omagh, and togged in Jackson's Hotel in Ballybofey before travelling by coach to the ground and heading straight back in the coach afterwards. Donegal won the match and went on to claim another Ulster title.
That period had some of the worst violence and highest fatalities of the Troubles, and Tyrone was frequently mired in conflict. Years later when managing clubs there Donal Reid could see the different reality to the life he lived just a few miles away.
"Their perception of Gaelic football is different to ours. Because they see Gaelic football as a sense of identity, we take it more as a pastime. We take it for granted. I knew from the clubs over there, their fellas never miss training, there is a fierce edge in the championship games between clubs, totally different from football in the south.
"Playing southern teams, coming up against teams from the 26 counties, they have extra motivation. They see Donegal as one of the 26 and you have the banter on the pitch. There would be different names thrown out there which could be quite unsavoury. We are seen as a 26 county, a southern county, rather than Ulster, even still.
"There's stuff said I suppose going back into politics, they would be a bit sore about being left behind, when Ulster was formed. I mean that is there, you can't help it. I admire them. When I was managing, the British army would be there, and the army would come in and take away some of the players, just to create intimidation. So they have been through a lot for our games, more so than we have; we have been kind of spoilt.
"Ulster football and Tyrone especially, gets a lot of bad press, and I don't think it is warranted. You need to have lived there and felt the tension. When I used to go training, even though I was ten minutes away, I was often stopped twice by the British army and what was then the UDR, they knew you were going to Gaelic football training and they would question you.
"And these young fellas (playing now), people see them and feel they don't understand any of that, but they have heard it all from their parents. Those things don't just get resolved over one generation."
The environment has changed fundamentally. The rivalry has altered too, become more edgy, with Donegal's power surge in recent years involving four successive championship victories over Tyrone in just five years. Tyrone were never short of rivals to choose from but Donegal pushed themselves right to the top of the queue.
Michael Hegarty, Donegal, in action against Philip Jordan, Tyrone in 2011
It began with Donegal's Ulster semi-final victory over Tyrone in 2011, Philip Jordan's final Ulster Championship match for his county. "We played them in 2004, they turned us over in an Ulster semi-final," says Jordan (pictured). "In '07 it was role reversed, we were seen as being written off a little bit, Donegal won the league and we ended up hammering them off the pitch. Then in 2011, the underdog probably won that match as well."
Of the first match in the recent sequence five years ago, Jordan recalls Tyrone enjoying a great start which petered out. "We had Donegal on the rack. It was a key moment for them, to beat Tyrone, we were in a bit of decline but considered the top team in Ulster.
"Every team has one game where once they get that victory under the belt they can move on. I think this one for Tyrone is crucial as they need to get the Donegal monkey off their back - it is beyond winning an Ulster title. If they lose to Donegal again it will be hugely tough mentally for them to push on and achieve anything this year. And I think it would have huge knock-on effects in the years ahead as well."
Donegal modelled much of their transformation on Tyrone. "I suppose they saw us as willing to do whatever we needed to win," says Jordan. "People saw a ruthlessness and mental strength in you that you would not accept defeat. That you can mentally beat a team. That was something that Donegal copied. They would give off this impression that they believed they were good enough to beat you and they were going to beat you.
Fergal McNulty has an even more intimate grasp of the rivalry. A player-manager with St Columba's from Urney in Tyrone, in 2010 he was part of John Joe Doherty's Donegal squad. The Doneyloop parish crosses the divide, with the local church in Donegal and the GAA club in Tyrone. In his juvenile playing days, an Ulster Council ruling found that the parish boundary ruled over county and he was entitled to play with Urney.
"It's not ideal. You would be better playing your club football in a county you are playing for, so you have more exposure, say, to managers and coaches. I was lucky enough. I was able to play for Donegal."
The opportunity came when he was playing college football in Letterkenny and a contact recommended him for county under 21 trials. He made the squad and was later elevated to the senior panel. Jonathan Lafferty, an Urney team-mate, was on the Tyrone panel at the same time. Three of the current Urney team are from Donegal. The rest are staunch Tyrone.
Today McNulty will be part of a group of players from the club of mixed county allegiance heading together to the Ulster final. Tomorrow night, irrespective of the outcome in Clones, they will be playing a challenge match preparing for Dungannon in the league on Sunday next. They've learned to cope.
McNulty feels Donegal will win by a few points. But were Donegal to go out of the championship, would he switch his support to Tyrone? "I'll say nothing there."
John Lynch played for Tyrone and his native Castlederg but married a Killygordon woman and played out his final years with Red Hughs, lining out alongside Donal Reid in the county final of 1991 when they were beaten by Killybegs. "He lives in Castlederg but we see him all the time. Unfortunately," jokes Reid.
In Lynch's time as a county player, the 1980s, Donegal didn't feature much on their radar, the notable exception being the '89 Ulster final. "Around this part of the world where I live nobody is talking about anything else but the match," he says. "I think they (Tyrone) can win it. It is not going to be an easy game for us."
Lynch was also at the infamous 1973 match in Ballybofey as a boy. His father would regularly go to Ballybofey to watch Finn Harps but that day they decided to do something different. It was Lynch's first Gaelic football match, though he remembers little. "I don't remember the incident, though I have heard plenty about it. Football was tough then, it has calmed down now."
He sees where Reid is coming from on the influences that shaped Tyrone's outlook on life and football.
"Through the Troubles there was more pride in what we were doing. They weren't easy times. You were constantly being harassed and getting stopped. But it did make us more competitive, everyone was backing each other up. When I played in Donegal it was a totally different style as well. Tyrone football was tough and hard. They (Donegal) played more possession football and the clubs were the same. Tyrone was different. It was catch and kick and getting stuck into each other. It was a rude awakening a lot of the time for a young lad coming into senior football."
You don't have to live along the border between Donegal and Tyrone to appreciate the importance of today's Ulster final. But if you do live there, then you appreciate it a good deal more.
Sunday Indo Sport