I’ve always admired the sense of difference that Tyrone project through their football teams, the contrariness, the snapping dog in their soul. They just don’t care how others see them and bow to no-one. It can make them spiky and mean in battle, but that edge is a central part of their character too.
hen they beat us in ’03 en route to winning their first ever senior All-Ireland, Mickey Harte wasn’t slow to put those offended by Tyrone’s huge physicality back in their box.
“It was intense,” agreed Mickey after our semi-final, “but not one Kerry player had to leave that field injured. If anything was injured, it was Kerry’s pride!”
Even as a Kerryman, I couldn’t but respect those words. Because that’s how the modern Tyrone are wired. To dance to their own drumbeat. To be independent.
So they couldn’t care less, I imagine, what the rest of us are thinking about their Covid crisis. But that it remained such a strong topic of conversation after a weekend that had absolutely everything should, nonetheless, concern them.
We had the greatest team in history gunned down by Mayo in bizarre circumstances, every conceivable emotion on show last Saturday night in Croke Park. Then you had the beauty of Offaly under-20s winning an All-Ireland the following day.
But Tyrone stayed in the news for something they didn’t do. Or maybe something they did.
This has nothing to do with Kerry, incidentally. It’s not even a broad topic of conversation in the county right now. The semi-final delay isn’t ideal but, trust me, it’s not pre-occupying too many in the Kingdom. Kerry did the decent thing when they didn’t have to do anything at all and now they just want to move on.
That’s why I was a bit bemused sitting beside Colm O’Rourke in The Sunday Game studio last weekend when he tried to put the onus on Kerry to basically resolve a situation that they’d had no part in.
An unnecessary little dig, as I saw it. If I’d been thinking quicker on my feet, I’d maybe have asked if he was suggesting something along the lines of Meath’s magnanimity towards Louth after the 2010 Leinster final?
Anyway, one thing that’s needled me about the Tyrone case is this reflex hostility towards anybody suggesting that maybe there are questions that Feargal Logan and his management team still need to address here.
The moment you say that, you are instantly accused of being out of touch with the seriousness of Covid.
I got a lot of heat last year for arguing that Sligo should have fulfilled their championship obligations one way or another, in spite of their Covid issues. Fermanagh did, so why couldn’t they?
Now there are plenty of people in Sligo vexed that they didn’t play hard-ball with the GAA like Tyrone have now done. As Colm Keys argued in these pages this week, the impression left has been that there is one rule for the big counties, another for the small.
But Sligo didn’t fight their corner and I would question did they even really want to fulfil their obligations, given their chances of success were minimal? Tyrone, by contrast, are fighting. I respect that.
There are plenty of people out there who love to hate Tyrone’s innate ruthlessness, but I’m not one of them. The defiance that’s keyed into them as football people, to me, transcends normal inter-county enmity.
Logan is a formidable presence as joint manager and spokesman, a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing with last weekend’s statement. Backing the GAA into a corner, as Tyrone did, required a steely nerve. And Logan was always guaranteed to have that. For the integrity of the championship, I think it’s absolutely vital that both All-Ireland semi-finals are completed.
But Tyrone need to understand too the level of disruption this delay has caused, not to mention the fact it sets an uncomfortable precedent.
It seems to me that Covid protocol is a great, protective shield here because it almost precludes legitimate questioning of a situation that, clearly, spiralled out of control.
But, personally, I have very little faith in any investigation set to explore the circumstances of what’s happened up there. Because any investigation will, inevitably, be done on Tyrone’s terms.
I’m not trying to insinuate that they’ve anything to hide but these are unique times, calling for unique behavioural standards from us all. Nobody in society has been immune from the effects of the pandemic. We’ve all suffered in different ways. Our children have suffered. Our elders have suffered.
It’s the height of arrogance to tell people they’ve no right to ask simple questions. So let me ask a few.
Was there contamination already within the squad that came to Croke Park for the Ulster final against Monaghan? Did close contacts travel? Bear in mind that Logan and four players could not travel that day.
If there was no contamination among those who did travel, how exactly did the second burst of infection happen within the squad? Was it from socialising?
Bizarrely for me, Logan indicated that they made vaccination optional among the group because of concerns that vaccines might briefly (for two weeks maybe) inhibit performance levels.
Given what our communities have been enduring, that to me comes across as an outrageously selfish comment.
I mean, seriously Feargal?
The essence of his reply to questions about what became rampant transmission among the group since has been “we’re an amateur sport and the virus is in the community”.
But Feargal, it’s in all our communities, but only one county seems to have lost control.
So Tyrone end up with “17 or more” positive tests in the camp, most of whom – apparently – have played in this championship. This despite holding all of their team meetings outdoors; despite them using no dressing-rooms; despite even their video analysis being held in the open air; despite their only indoor activity being carefully policed weight-training.
Well, how did it happen then?
There are plenty of rumours fizzing around Tyrone’s situation right now, rumours that only they themselves can really put to bed.
Yes, we all need to mindful of player-welfare, categorically. But what must clubs be thinking when they see what’s happened here? Put it this way – there’s no evidence that, as a country, we’ll be Covid-free any time soon, so the onus is on us all to find ways of living responsibly in the midst of the pandemic. So we need to learn from this.
I still admire Tyrone’s obstinacy and despite that six-goal drilling they took from Kerry in the league, there’s absolutely zero chance in my eyes of them rolling over meekly next Saturday now. Quite right too.
But to send out last weekend’s message of, ‘We’ll only play when we’re ready and we won’t explain why we’re not!’, is unacceptable.
Maybe the GAA jumped the gun with their initial announcement that the semi-final would be delayed by a single week. But we’d have to assume they made that call on the back of whatever information they were getting from Tyrone.
I very much doubt we’ll ever get clear-cut answers on this and, in their absence, gossip and rumour will always thrive. But that’s Tyrone’s problem now, not ours. People will simply draw their own conclusions and this will have long-term implications.
More so, I believe, at club level than inter-county. People will be arguing, ‘If the rules can be changed for a county, why not for a club?’ Will that not be a fair question?
We had a christening over in West Kerry on Wednesday, a current Kerry player on the invitation list. But there was never any chance of him attending. Zero. Inter-county players just aren’t taking any chances. They’ve completely sacrificed all semblance of a social life.
But is it a different attitude in a different jurisdiction?