I speak from experience. As a native of Derry, I never had any great affection for Tyrone. That’s only natural. I’m only human.
But sports journalism can do strange things to a man. And on many occasions in recent years, I have found myself actively rooting for the Red Hands.
Why? Shamefully, the answer is as above: pride and ego. I’ll let you into a secret. Journalists have a soft spot for the managers and teams that don’t make them look stupid.
There’s nothing worse than writing a 1,000 word preview explaining in detail why a particular county will win. When that team goes out the next day and completely cows, you tend to feel ever so slightly stupid. It’s also hard not to feel pangs of resentment. (Maybe that’s just me).
The opposite also applies. When you fill the back two pages of the newspaper, and everything goes precisely to your pre-ordained script, you feel like the wisest man ever born.
Even if the county is Tyrone, you also tend to develop an affection for the teams that make your previews read like match reports.
On Saturday, I had one of those days.
In the build-up to the All-Ireland quarter-final between Tyrone and Monaghan, a friend and All-Ireland medallist, who knows a lot more about football than me, was surprised when I told him I expected Tyrone to win.
Like most pundits, he fancied Monaghan. But I was convinced and refused to be swayed. My reasoning was simple. In the Ulster final, when Donegal stopped shooting from long range and ran at Monaghan, they caused them severe problems.
Having watched the seismic improvement in Tyrone’s support play, and realising they would run at Monaghan from start to finish, I was confident Mickey Harte’s side would outscore the Oriel County.
Ignoring the general consensus, my preview in Saturday’s newspaper outlined why Tyrone were going to beat Monaghan. And this brings me back to my original point.
Because of my pride and ego, and despite my natural urges, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tyrone’s display in Croke Park.
The highly organised defensive system, the incredible speed and endurance of the midfield runners, and the sharp-shooting of Darren McCurry. Everything went according to the prediction I had made.
Unfortunately for Tyrone, the series of incidents towards the end of the game have totally overshadowed what was their most accomplished performance of the season.
Tiernan McCann’s dive was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Perhaps eager to show they weren’t creating a huge controversy over an isolated incident, The Sunday Game compiled a montage of Tyrone players hitting the deck. McCann. Conor Meyler. Connor McAliskey. Sean Cavanagh.
We, the television audience, were shown Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C and Exhibit D, and the evidence was overwhelming. If it was a trial, there is only one way Tyrone would have escaped the chair. All 12 jury members would need to have been selected from the bushes.
The Sunday Game panellists eschewed the diplomatic route. Colm O’Rourke revealed he previously had misgivings about the furore surrounding Tyrone. O’Rourke is no longer in any doubt. The Meath man said Tyrone had brought the game “to new lows”.
Ciarán Whelan, whose analysis of the match was excellent, called for Tiernan McCann to make a public apology. O’Rourke went further. He called for the GAA to suspend players who try to dupe referees by feigning injury.
The reaction from Tyrone has been somewhat predictable. They’ve circled the wagons. The messages on social media conveyed three main themes: whataboutery (what about Ciarán Whelan hitting…?), the bias of the southern media and mild insanity.
One reader called to “confront the southern media and challenge its hypocrisy, bias and sickening self-righteousness”.
Another claimed: “The Sunday Game agenda was as balanced as the chip on Whelan’s shoulder.” ‘Tyrone Pat’ took a detour. He wrote: “Well, it is no wonder Ulster Protestants fear being treated as equals in an Ireland ruled from Dublin. I am truly saddened.” And on it went.
In the past, there were occasions when Tyrone were singled out for unfair treatment. But for this latest episode, the rebukes were entirely justified. In many ways, the third panellist on The Sunday Game provided the most damning criticism of all. Pete McGrath’s silence spoke volumes.
First and foremost, McGrath’s love of football transcends boundaries. His primary obsession is the game. But if Pete felt O’Rourke and Whelan were being unfair, he would have voiced his opposition.
Pete said nothing of the sort. Instead, he said inter-county players need to remember that, as role models, they have a responsibility and “a mandate in terms of the image which they project about the game”.
Tyrone should take heed. Of course the Red Hands are perfectly entitled to continue playing the game as they see fit. If they feel that the ends justify the means, then so be it.
But if Tyrone have grander aspirations, and if they are interested in a legacy which extends beyond games won and lost, then a change is required.
For the vast majority of last Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, Tyrone executed their gameplan to perfection. Sean Cavanagh’s work-rate was astounding. He embodied all the qualities of the honest, hard-working leader. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Tiernan McCann ran themselves into the ground. There was so much to admire about Tyrone’s performance.
Mickey Harte has done a fantastic job. When trounced by Donegal in this year’s league, his team’s link-play was awful. Donegal gave Tyrone a lesson on how angled runs can cut through a blanket defence.
A few months later and Donegal will be studying how Tyrone managed to kick 0-18 against Monaghan. Donegal managed just 0-10 in the Ulster final. Harte deserves huge credit. The Tyrone players deserve huge credit.
But, if Tyrone keep sullying their performances with such poor sportsmanship, then they will never get the acclaim which their football l deserves. When Pete McGrath was asked about Sean Quigley’s dubious goal against Dublin, he replied. “All goals look the same on the scoreboard,” said the man who led Down to All-Ireland glory in 1991 and 1994.
That’s true. But we also remember how the goals are scored. Think of Mugsy in Croke Park in 2005 and we still marvel at the memory.
Victories are the same. There are no dark shadows hanging over Down’s All-Ireland victories in 1991 and 1994. We remember how the game was won. Pete McGrath understands this.
And Tyrone’s footballers need to appreciate they will be remembered not just for what they won, but also for how they played. If Tyrone refuse to accept that principle then they can’t complain about the criticism which is bound to follow. And I say that as a Derry man who loves them dearly.