Wednesday 13 December 2017

'We never made a crusade of it and neither did Mickey Harte'

In this extract from his book on the Ulster championship, Declan Bogue revisits a hard season for Tyrone

WITHIN the Tyrone squad they call it 'The Talk.' It normally comes just before you take the field for a Thursday night training session, when Mickey Harte approaches and requests a quiet word.

It wasn't wholly unexpected for Ryan McMenamin in the lead up to the All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin. He had been taken off in the previous two games against Armagh and Roscommon.

"When you've been around as long as I have, you sense these things. It wasn't too big a shock when he told me. He apologised, he said he didn't want to do it, but he had to do it for the good of the team."

Harte patiently explained that with the height of the Dublin attack, he felt he needed the presence of Justin McMahon at the edge of the square. McMenamin responded, saying he understood where Harte was coming from. This would be Harte's 55th championship game in charge of Tyrone and McMenamin had been virtually ever-present. Such a demotion could put a player off through the session that would follow but not McMenamin.

"It was Mickey's call and I have nothing but the utmost of respect for him. Of course you're annoyed you're not starting, but I'm a firm believer that the manager is the boss. If I started questioning why he was dropping me, it could have had a ripple effect through the squad.

"I was thinking of the bigger picture. I could have thrown the head and not done the training after he'd told me, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to question Mickey Harte. If I got dropped for Dromore or taken off for Dromore, I wouldn't question Paul McIver [Dromore manager]. Training wasn't the place to question him either. Mickey's open enough that you can give him a call and he would always tell you where you're going wrong or right."

One of McMenamin's greatest qualities has been his unflinching desire to play for Tyrone. Now that his starting jersey was taken away, he also displayed admirable maturity and loyalty to Harte.

His house is being built but more than once his father John and cousin Kevin Donnelly have chased him off the site and away to training. Then there's the upcoming wedding to Maura in December in Ballybofey. There are other places he could be and other things he could be doing but McMenamin is happy to make the sacrifice for the sake of Tyrone and their manager.

"If I was dropped and started throwing the head, then you're throwing away all the loyalty that Mickey showed to me. You have to weigh up the two things -- he's been loyal to me so I have to be loyal back to him."

Others weren't so patient or as content. During the league, Philip Jordan skipped a night's training. He wasn't enjoying it and wanted some time out, but it broke in the newspapers and became a story. After a talk with the manager, Jordan came back into the fold.

During the championship then, Owen Mulligan took a spell away. There was an attempt to cover up the situation but the perils of social media caught up with him when a photograph of him partying hard mid-championship in a local nightclub was posted on a Facebook page.

He too was coaxed back. When he returned, McMenamin tore him to bits in the dressing room banter stakes. "I reckon it was a call for help and I said I would get him back on the straight and narrow. Hub [Kevin Hughes] reckoned that he had no steady girlfriend and he needed to settle down, so he's going to come in and live with me for a while."

After contemplating the situation, Joe McMahon began comparing the possible scenario with the film You, Me and Dupree, where Owen Wilson plays a gooseberry friend of Matt Dillon who spoils the glow of newly-married life with his wife, played by Kate Hudson. With Mulligan growing his hair out and keeping it dyed a Californian blond, it was the perfect fit. For a few weeks he became known as nothing but Dupree.

Frustrated by his lack of opportunity, young Niall McKenna also quit before returning. The older hands ribbed him about not milking it like Dupree had.

With all the temporary retirements, it became a topic of fun rather than something to fret about. "It's been eventful with all the boys coming and leaving, it's given us plenty of crack. We're actually taking bets on who's leaving this week, and if Mickey Moynagh [team logistics man] left, you get all bets refunded, like a Paddy Power special."

And yet, for all that, they were convinced they were on the right path. The Thursday night before they played Armagh, they performed a familiar handpassing drill devised by trainer Fergal McCann. The most passes they had managed in the allotted time was around the mid-40s; this time they broke the 50 mark. The prospect of Armagh coming to town had electrified them. After an initial spell of discomfort, they slapped Armagh to the ground and kept a knee on their backs.

The show rolled on towards Croke Park and they stayed overnight in familiar haunt, Carton House. Tom Herron is a new addition to the backroom team this year whose main role is encouraging new breathing techniques through the nose, but he's also become a fulcrum of joviality. When he vacated his room before the Roscommon game, some unnamed players crept in with a pair of scissors and made ribbons out of his jacket. He was left with not much more than a body warmer.

Before matchday, they were reminded of their horrific recent past. Tyrone were back in Croke Park, big news again. RTÉ would want to talk to Mickey Harte after the game but he would refuse to do so. The escalation of the dispute was as unseemly as it was avoidable. After his initial protest following the Monaghan game at the perceived treatment the national broadcaster had inflicted upon his personal friend Brian Carthy, the following morning's John Murray Show featured a crass sketch using voice recordings of Harte, and finished up by playing Pretty Little Girl From Omagh. Given the recent personal history of the Harte family, it disturbed many that such crude humour could be passed as fit for broadcast.

Harte spoke to his players before they travelled to Croke Park, explaining his stance and that he would not be speaking to any radio or television from RTÉ and asked his players not to either. That was fine by McMenamin.

"Even with RTE Radio, he asked us not to. We backed him 100 percent. In our eyes it [the Murray Show skit] was tasteless. Once you start going into his life and taking things out of it, especially after the six or seven months that he's had, boys need to take a good look at themselves."

Tyrone beat Roscommon, needing Seán Cavanagh to evoke memories of Jack O'Shea with a powerful run and goal in the first half to keep them at bay.

Senan Kilbride and Donie Shine served notice that Tyrone were porous in defence and Cathal Cregg caused McMenamin enough bother for him to be substituted.

Tyrone though felt they had only a few glitches in the system.

Then along came the Dubs.

* * * * *

Just like that, it was finished. McMenamin had to watch the entire episode unfold as Diarmuid Connolly had a career-defining game and Tyrone were obliterated all over the park. Dublin missed a stream of goal chances in the second half, kicking in towards Hill 16 where the blue hordes were baying for blood. For them, this was payback for 2008 when the scoreboard read Dublin 1-8, Tyrone 3-14.

The end wasn't quite as gruesome for Tyrone as it could have been. Warriors like Conor Gormley, Brian Dooher and Stephen O'Neill kept pushing to the last and kept the scoreline reasonably respectable but it was still a bitter end.

Back in the dressing room there was the realisation that this time, they were nowhere near what was required. They had looked at championship defeats in the last three years against Cork, Dublin and Donegal and placed their tally of wides on the scales against the margin of defeat.

Each time, they came away feeling that if they had shown a little bit more composure they would have tipped the balance. They couldn't wrap themselves in that comfort. Not now.

As they sat in the cool dressing room with steam rising from their bodies, there was also 'that other thing': the unsaid pact between the players and backroom that Mickey Harte had given so much to them and now they wanted to win something back for him. For Michaela. Now that chance was gone.

"It was tough but we never made a crusade of it and Mickey never made a crusade of it that this is what we had to do.

"Just the boys put the head down and once we didn't do it, all the players felt bad. We wanted to do something for him.

"When you get beat in any championship game, you're gutted. With what we wanted to achieve for Mickey, it was ten times worse. There were a lot of sad men in the changing rooms.

"Mickey left us for a while to let it sink in a bit. But then he came in and addressed us, spoke well, saying it wasn't the plan and that you never know what could happen next year. He thanked us for our effort through the year, but at the end of the day we came up short."

For the first time under Mickey Harte, Tyrone had been played off the park in a championship match. For such a proud side, it cut deep. County chairman Ciarán McLaughlin spoke in the dressing room.

He asked anyone considering retirement to give it a lot of thought and to speak to Mickey before making any decisions. They were to do it the right way; as McLaughlin called it, "the Tyrone way".

McMenamin hadn't seen the defeat coming at all.

"Going down, I thought we definitely had a good chance of beating them. I thought it was going to be a close match but in fairness to Dublin their game-plan worked well, they got bodies back into the defence, they had a lot of space for the Brogans and Connolly to cause damage. Everything went right for them on the day."

That evening, McMenamin and Peter Harte exited the stadium together, two members of Tyrone's present but whose careers span different eras. Harte was meeting his family while McMenamin was meeting his soon-to-be wife.

They met up with another couple and went for a few drinks in Gill's before continuing on to McGowan's in Phibsboro. A few Dubs supporters called over to him and he had a bit of crack with them.

"I suppose it's the best thing to do when you're beaten by the better team. You have to be gracious about it. They were real football people."

Now, a rebuilding job awaits Tyrone.

The extract above is from This Is Our Year by Declan Bogue, published by Ballpoint Press and available for €14.99 (£12.99)

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