GAA Football

In the shed saying the Rosary: Terry McCann, proud father of Tyrone stars Tiernan and Conall, looks ahead to the All-Ireland final

A pre-final get together. Tiarnan, Terry and Conall discuss tomorrow's game in the back garden - the scene of countless impromptu All-Ireland finals
Andy Watters

I BELIEVE in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth…

It’s dark and cool in the garden shed where Terry McCann sits whispering the Rosary in self-imposed exile.

Well, his body is in the shed, his heart is in Croke Park with his sons Tiernan and Conall and his mind is on Tyrone’s semi-final battle with Monaghan.

Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name…

His sweaty fingers squeeze the beads and the steady mantra keeps the nerves stampeding around his chest under control but not for long. He checks Twitter for an update: Bad news.

He changes position and returns to the Rosary.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners…

By the time Terry emerges from his shed into the evening sun, Tyrone are in the All-Ireland final.

“My pulse rate was racing and I couldn’t sleep at night so I reconciled myself to stay at home,” the big man from Killyclogher explains.

“I watched the first few minutes and then I went out to the shed. Mad stuff! But that was my way of coping with it. I know it’s totally illogical.”

Football is the only thing that really stresses him out: Killyclogher most of all and then Tyrone because he knows the commitment his sons give, the dedication, the sacrifices they make. Life revolves around football.

“Some people want to be the top lawyer in the country, or the best doctor, or have the flashiest car… but for us it’s always been about football,” he says.

“Playing in an All-Ireland? Jesus, money can’t buy that.

“You have to play well for the club, get picked for Tyrone, you have to train, get on the team, you have to win matches… I say to Diane (his wife) ‘Aren’t we so lucky’.

“But then we came back home from watching Oisin (the youngest of their three sons) in the minor championship final, we got beat by Errigal by a point, and we were lying in bed talking: ‘Is this football worth it? It’s so depressing.’

“The following day Tyrone went and beat Donegal and we were high as kites again: ‘Aw this football… It’s brilliant! We can’t get enough of it’.”

When it comes to football, you tend to get out what you put in and it’s hard work. There are no sponsored cars in Tyrone, no meals delivered to the players’ homes. This Red Hand machine is fuelled by pride in the jersey.

“People don’t realize the commitment that’s involved at this level,” Terry explains.

“Last year Tiernan broke his hand, couldn’t work for six weeks, he broke his kneecap on the 14th of February and couldn’t work for six weeks. Nobody bothered with him, nobody was coming saying: ‘Can we sort you out?’

“The GPA, eventually after six months’ of red tape, gave him E600.”

To put that into a perspective: Tiernan McCann is a qualified pharmacist.

Recently a job was advertised for a pharmacist and the pay was E90 per hour. Do the maths – Tiernan could potentially earn E600 in one day.

But he has given up his apartment in Dublin because he couldn’t afford it and is back living at home with his parents. Why? Because he wants to play for Tyrone. And don’t get the impression that he’s complaining, because he isn’t. This is the life he has chosen.

He works Monday to Friday in Monaghan from 9am-6pm, leaving home at 8am, goes straight to Garvaghey when he finishes at 6pm and gets home at 10-10.30pm at night. He has been doing that for the last three months. Work-train-sleep-repeat.

Killclogher Parish Blitz champions 2000. Conall is from on the right and Tiarnan is front row centre with the cup. Sadly team-mates Dominic Earley (back row right) and Matthew Drum (between Tiarnan and Conall) have since passed away

“He has the looks of a film star, and people look at him and think: ‘He’s a cocky so-and-so’ but he’s not like that at all,” says Terry.

“He’s quite reserved, he’s essentially a private person.”

Tiernan is a certain starter tomorrow and, after coming off the bench to drive Tyrone to victories against Donegal and Monaghan, Conall will expect to be introduced to the midfield battle in the second half.

Conall hasn’t missed a Tyrone training session this year. You think that happens by chance? Far from it. There is a committed support network behind the scenes, doing all they can for the McCann brothers. It is led by their mother Diane and includes aunts Ursula and Lucy. Cooking, washing, ironing, driving, supporting, praying…

Terry and Diane were due to be in Portugal last weekend, but they cancelled the trip so they could be there to help out.

“I just make it handy for them, I just help them out,” says Diane modestly. She is a devoted Gael like late her mother Anne McCaughey. Anne was also a teacher and she was a pioneering GAA coach in their native Carrickmore where kids still play for the McCaughey Cup.

“I don’t mind doing it, any wee thing to help them along.”

Conall McCann in action for Killyclogher Pic Seamus Loughran.
Tiernan McCann on the attack for Tyrone

Just down the road from the McCann home, red banners read ‘Good luck Tiernan, Conall and Mark (Bradley, also from the Killyclogher club)’ and ‘McCann for Sam’.

The support is welcome but go anywhere in the county and you’ll hear tales of players who should be in the panel but have been overlooked or cast aside. In football-mad Tyrone if you drop a ball, kick a wide or miss a tackle, criticism can follow quickly.

Sitting in the stands at games, Terry and Diane have heard jibes directed at their sons and other members of the team and there is no shortage of anonymous keyboard experts ready to do the same.

“If I heard somebody saying things in the stand I might just give them the eyes or I might go up and say to them: ‘Do you realize how much work these people put in?’,” says Terry.

“I’d find it hard not to say something but it doesn’t happen too often. By and large Tyrone are a very supportive crowd.”

You might think the McCann brothers seamlessly came through the system in Tyrone and were worshipped as stars of the future. Again, that’s not the case. It’s a surprise to learn that neither made an Omagh CBS MacRory Cup panel.

“Tiernan was playing for Tyrone minors and U21s and Killyclogher seniors in the semi-final of the senior championship and he couldn’t make the best 40 footballers in the Christian Brothers!” Terry recalls.

“I remember Tiernan coming home crying as an 18 year-old lad after not making the panel.  I’ve always told them: ‘I think you will be Allstars’.

“I said: ‘I’ve seen you play football, I know you have the talent, you have the desire and you have the support. Anything you need to help you, we’ll do it’. But they work, anything they get, they’ll work for it.”

Terry says Conall is the most skilful of his sons - “it’s hanging out of him”. That’s not to say Tiernan is lacking in it but his determination to succeed is what really makes him stand out.

Oisin wants to follow in his brothers’ footsteps while Terry’s only daughter, Grainne “the blue-eyed girl”, plays midfield for the Killyclogher ladies and was part of the St Mary’s squad that won the All-Ireland camogie title.

Terry himself played for three managers in his four seasons on the Tyrone panel but he doesn’t consider himself a county footballer.

He also played county hurling but as a youngster he devoted himself to football and honed his skills during long summers at his granny’s in Carrickmore. Kicking the ball off gable walls or the roof, he pretended to be Dominic Daly or Frank McGuigan.

He had played minor and U21 level before he broke into the seniors in 1987, while a student at St Mary’s and lined out at centre half-forward against Armagh in that year’s Ulster Championship semi-final in Irvinestown.

Tyrone lost, Art McCrory resigned and Donal Donnelly replaced him as manager. In 1990 Terry returned to the panel under John Donnelly and played in the infamous game against Dublin at the Toronto Sky Dome. But that was the end of the road for him.

“You have to have the self-belief,” he says, reflecting on his inter-county days.

“When I went out to play club football I’d think I was as good as anybody but I always thought the other boys were better than me when it came to the county. You were always looking over your shoulder in case you made a mistake.”

A couple of years later, Terry took his first steps into management and his journey began when he and Enda Kilpatrick – a fellow teacher at Dean Maguirc in Carrickmore – took on the Tyrone Vocational Schools side.

They were there from 1993 to 2000, steering a ship crewed by talented young ’ballers with baggy trousers and dirty shirts. There was Enda McGinley and John Devine and boys with nicknames like Mugsy, Hub, Horse, Norton, Wobblyhead, Fred, Rod…

“They were great days, great times and some characters,” says Terry.

“The first final we went to was at Pairc Ui Chaomh in 1997. We had Hub (Kevin Hughes) and Mugsy (Owen Mulligan) and I don’t know what they weren’t at in their room the night before it - cutting each other’s hair and all. Oh aye, getting the hair done to get ready for the match… They were well ahead of their time them boys.”

The lads sang and laughed on their way to games and on their way home and after a near-miss in that ’97 final they beat Offaly in the final the following year to become All-Ireland champions.

That set the scene for the minor All-Ireland that followed later that year, paving the way for the men who took the county to the 2003 Sam Maguire.

Tiernan and Conall were allowed to travel home on the team bus.

“One of the handles on the cup was broken off by the time we got to Castleblayney,” says Terry.

“I remember Horse (Gavin Devlin) up singing BoyZone in middle of the bus with the programme rolled up: ‘No matter what they tell you…’ Our boys couldn’t believe what was happening.”

A dozen years before that bus came home, Terry had stood at the crossroads in Killyclogher waving and cheering as his clubmate Noel McGinn hopped on the Tyrone coach for the county’s first All-Ireland final.

“There were hundreds there,” Terry recalls.

“To think now that the boys are going to be playing in an All-Ireland final… I could nearly burst with pride.”

There are tears in his eyes. Aunt Lucy in Carrickmore always says ‘The water is high up in the McCanns’ and she is spot on.

“I get emotional, that’s just the way I’m made,” says Terry, smiling again.

“I hope Tyrone win, that’s the bottom line.

“My father says: ‘As long as Tiernan plays well and Conall play well, I don’t care if they win.

“But I explain to him: ‘Look daddy, it’s all about the team. As long as Tyrone win, they’re happy. They’re not focused on how they do themselves’ and I admire them for that.

“Number one, Tyrone win and I’d like to see the boys play well and make a positive contribution.”

But there’s so much more to this final than 70 minutes of football. Win, lose or draw, Tyrone being there will light a fire in 10,000 young hearts across the county.

“You go out down to the park and you see all these youngsters who want to see our boys. It’s… (pride and emotion take over and words fail a man who could normally talk for Ireland).

“I don’t want to go out in public and let people see me like this. I don’t want to let my guard down but if they win the All-Ireland, here, I’ll not care.”

He’s missed the semi-final but he’ll be there tomorrow.

If you spot him in the stands with tears in his eyes you’ll know why. His prayers have been answered.

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