Tyrone's Ronan McNamee prepared for another duel with Monaghan's Conor McManus
RONAN McNamee knows the “hero or villain” narrative off by heart by this stage. A break of the ball between him and Conor McManus tomorrow could swing the debate either way.
The Aghyaran clubman is well used to the thankless nature of being a full-back.
The cards are always stacked in favour of the full-forward.
McNamee did little wrong when he marked McManus in their Ulster Championship meeting back in May – and yet the Monaghan attacker was hailed, and rightly so, for kicking four brilliant points in the closing stages against Tyrone.
All McManus needs is an inch of space to affect the game.
McNamee was within touching distance every time – but two simple off-loads from the Clontibret man led to two first half points for Monaghan.
Another off-load led to Vinny Corey grabbing the all-important goal just before half-time. At the halfway point McManus had been involved in every Monaghan score, bar one.
After a forensic examination of his display, you would find it hard to fault McNamee.
Monaghan and Tyrone’s seasons took different paths after that rainy day in Omagh – but the sides will be re-united at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon in a game with infinitely higher stakes.
If McNamee gets the McManus portfolio, he will look forward to the challenge again.
“Obviously if you’re asked to do it, you’re doing something right,” he said. “You can be a villain one day and a hero the next on a break of a ball.
“McManus is different class. He’s one of the top three in the country on form. Any day you’re tasked with marking him, it’s a privilege to be asked to do it.
“It’s a great opportunity for any defender to go out and play against one of the best forwards in Ireland.”
It’s unlikely Tyrone boss Mickey Harte will make radical changes to the tactical plan that saw them come up short against Monaghan at the beginning of summer.
Two years ago, McNamee struggled against Cavan’s David Givney in an Ulster semi-final. The game ended in a draw. The second day McNamee got on top of Givney before the big full-forward limped out of the tie after 26 minutes.
Providing McNamee doesn’t suffer any ill-effects from a calf problem that he was able to manage during last Sunday’s win over Donegal, he’s likely to saddle up to McManus for a second time this summer.
“At county level you’re going to come up against top players no matter where you go,” McNamee said. “We travelled to Meath and their forwards had frightening pace. The boy [Paul] Broderick from Carlow is as good a forward as you’ll get in Ireland.
“Maybe some players don’t get the recognition, but McManus has been doing it year in, year out for Monaghan. That’s what puts him above a lot of other forwards.
“If he gets the rub of the green he’ll destroy you. There’s a fine line between being close and being a million miles away.”
McNamee has been virtually first choice with Tyrone since he was “pushed off the bus in Killarney” to face Kerry in an All-Ireland Qualifier six years ago.
Earlier that year, he suffered a broken ankle before being called back into the Tyrone squad by Harte.
McNamee will feature in his third All-Ireland semi-final in four seasons – 2015 and 2017 were his two previous appearances.
“It’s a great feeling to be back in an All-Ireland semi-final,” he said.
The turning point of Tyrone’s season, McNamee feels, was overcoming Meath in their opening All-Ireland Qualifier.
Cathal McShane popped up with a late equaliser to force the game into extra-time.
“I think Meath was the turning point of our season. It was a dog-fight. I never felt we were going out of the Championship.
“Cathal had ice in his veins that day to hit that point and he nailed it. So that’s the game that was nailing of our season because we were coming off the back of the Monaghan defeat and we were taking a lot of flak. We’d a lot to prove.”
Tyrone have finished like a train in most of their games this summer and while McNamee lauds the conditioning of the squad, he insists there is more than a bit of quality about them.
“We are in good shape. Pete [Donnelly] has us in good shape and we know in our own hearts we’re in good shape and that we can go for 70 minutes or more.
“We finish games strongly but fitness will only get you so far. You can be fit to run but I suppose it’s about having the guts to do something about it.”
A lot will be the same come Sunday afternoon when Monaghan and Tyrone size each other up again, but McNamee is hoping for a different ending.
“It’s another Ulster derby. It’s great for both Monaghan and Tyrone. It’ll be enjoyable. Everyone will be buzzing ahead of the game. The border towns will be hopping and it’s great to be in the position we’re in and we’ll definitely not take it for granted.”