GAA Football

Time Out: Seeing Tyrone glory through green eyes as Down nostalgia starts to fade

In their first year in charge, the management duo of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher led Tyrone to the All-Ireland title last weekend - beating Mayo in the final. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

I WAS talking to a fella from Tyrone down at Croke Park on Saturday. He’s not your typical Red Hand supporter, this man. There was no headband, no pre-printed 21-TY-SAM number plate, no colours on display at all.

If you didn’t know better, you’d nearly think he was ambivalent towards his own county’s fortunes, even in the midst of the wild celebrations that heralded Tyrone’s All-Ireland title triumph.

Due to family connections, he recalled with far greater fondness attending the homecomings of 1991 and ’94 when Down were last crowned kings of Ireland. He spoke about how he would love to see the red and black return to football’s top table.

“But,” he said, “I have a theory about Down.

“I was out around Ballyhornan over the summer there and it struck me – there’s too many other things to do in Down. You’ve the coast, beaches, mountains.

“Where in Tyrone, there’s f**k all else except football.”

There might be a sliver of truth somewhere but, apart from the bucketloads of money thrown their way, how do you explain Dublin’s domination in recent times? There’s a fair bit to do in the capital too, where competing codes lie around every corner.

Kerry has its fair share of beautiful beaches, national parks, mountains as far as the eye can see. They also have 37 All-Irelands and a never-ending production line of talent. The current eight year stretch without is verging on a famine of biblical proportions.

Down has always had the coast, always had beaches, always had the Mournes, and always had good – at many points, exceptional – footballers. Still does. Just look at the current champions Kilcoo, a team hewn in the Tyrone mould, full of brilliant players whose iron will and an emphasis on the collective led them to a decade of dominance and the last Ulster club crown.

Yet, barring the run to the 2010 All-Ireland final, the county as a whole has had little to cheer since Pete McGrath and DJ Kane brought Sam up the road 27 years ago.

And if you’re thinking this is just another entitled lament from a Down man stuck in the past, well, you’re absolutely right. Because with every momentous occasion savoured by an Ulster rival, the gap seems to widen that little bit more - not just between now and then, but between us and them.

Of course, having past glories to trade on isn’t something that should be taken for granted. Plenty of others would love the opportunity to meander along memory lane, so indulge me, just for a minute.

Generationally, those Down teams of the Sixties and the early ’90s captured the hearts and minds of so many across Ulster; not just for breaking new ground, but the manner in which it was achieved.

My uncle, James Milligan (he’s actually my wife’s uncle but I’m claiming him), played midfield alongside Colm McAlarney on the 1968 All-Ireland winning side.

I hate to think of the amount of hours of that man’s life I have taken up asking questions about what it was like to play alongside Paddy Doherty, Sean O’Neill et al. About the final against Kerry, facing the legendary Mick O’Connell, what it’s like to walk up those steps in front of 70,000-plus people and lift Sam Maguire.

James, as modest a man as you will ever meet, was at first almost affronted by this fanboy before him. Thankfully, 20 years down the line, he is happy enough to humour me on occasion.

A while back he recalled how that team had been invited to Ardboe, among other corners of Ulster, in the weeks after the ’68 final. At the end of the night somebody suggested some kind of financial recompense for making the trip out. The Down boys were mortified at the suggestion.

They brought Sam to the Loughshore and were treated like kings. The memory stays with them still. For anybody who followed those sides, their lustre will outlive them all.

Despite those All-Ireland successes in the Sixties, Down had to wait another 23 years before getting their hands on Sam. How many other Ulster counties ascended the Hogan steps in between times? That’s right, none.

And so, when the Mournemen beat Meath in the 1991 decider, they left an imprint on another generation, again stretching beyond county borders. Owen Mulligan spoke about it ahead of the 2017 Ulster final between Down and the Red Hands.

Mugsy’s love for Tyrone has never been in doubt; as a player he gave it everything every time he stepped on the field. In recent weeks his Cookstown bar has been bedecked in red and white. Given what happened at the weekend, that is unlikely to change any time soon.

It was in the early-to-mid ’90s that young men across the county started to fall in love with Peter Canavan, while the men who reached the ’86 final held, and still hold, a special place.

Yet there was a soft spot for the Mourne County too.

“I grew up going to watch Down, seeing them beat the Meaths and Dublins of this world,” said Mulligan.

“My da and uncle would have taken me to those games or else we would’ve gone over to the local hotel with all my cousins to watch them, and we’d all have had our Down jerseys on.”

Any time I have interviewed the likes of Pete McGrath, Ross Carr or Mickey Linden, you still have to mute that 10-year-old who remembers so vividly the buzz and the breathtaking colour on the Hill, the excitement when they arrived at our primary school in Carryduff with the trophy.

I am forever grateful I lived through that period. Unfortunately, those now-distant days are all we have, and that looks like being the case for some time yet.

While Tyrone were sweeping to a fourth All-Ireland title, rapidly closing in on Down’s five, the Mourne County are still in the process of recruiting a manager to replace Paddy Tally.

The fact the Galbally man stepped away on July 8, and today is September 17, with the senior championship getting under way last night, suggests finding a new man is proving tougher than anticipated.

There are no prizes for nostalgia and misty-eyed affection. The Red Hands fed off a feeling that ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’ throughout their summer march. Whether that’s true or not, ultimately it doesn’t matter - it helped take them where they wanted to go, and they have lapped up every second of it.

Meanwhile the rest are left to look over our shoulders, green-eyed with envy, wishing it was us.

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