Derry and Tyrone are best of enemies
If you come across any Tyrone supporter this week professing total confidence in victory over Derry in Celtic Park, well, they're either good at telling lies, or plain bad at accepting the truth.
On all-known form over the past 12 months, there should only be one winner and that should be Mickey Harte's men. But, bitter experience has taught me - as well as every Tyrone man, woman and child - that Derry must never, ever be taken for granted. Never!
From a personal point of view, games against Derry defined my career. That might seem a bit strange to people who saw Tyrone reach the pinnacle against Armagh and Kerry, but for me, it was the rough road travelled against Derry during the nineties that laid the groundwork. How rough was it? Well, it was damned brutal, being honest.
Local rivalry is what makes the GAA so special and there are plenty of famous 'derby' duels across the country: Mayo-Galway, Cork-Kerry, Dublin-Meath, Kilkenny-Tipp in hurling, etc. But, I don't think you get the level of venomous intensity anywhere else.
Some say it borders on naked hatred. To me, hate is too strong a word, but no question, it is full of spite. Why so? Probably something deep in the DNA, because there is no sweeter victory for a Tyrone footballer than one over Derry and I am sure that applies vice versa as well.
In my early days as a senior inter-county footballer, I yearned for the taste of that sweetness but all I got was the bitter tang of defeat. My first experience of Derry in Celtic Park was in the National League in February 1991 and it was a baptism of fire.
The pace, for an early-season league game, was relentless and the hits were harder than I'd ever experienced before. Even for an old Tyrone hand like Damien O'Hagan, the physicality caught him on the hop - he had his jaw broken in an off-the-ball incident and a Derry victory rubbed salt into his wound.
And it was to get much worse. That May we crossed swords again, this time in Omagh in an Ulster quarter-final and I was fully convinced that revenge would be ours.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had captained Tyrone to the county's first All-Ireland U-21 title. We beat Kerry in the final and I was man-of-the-match after scoring two goals and a brace of points. The county was on a high, I was on cloud nine and...yes, so naive. I'm not sure exactly how long I lasted, but it was the only time in my senior career that I was substituted for under-performing.
Kieran McKeever marked me - hard but very fair - and I didn't get a kick. I was completely in his pocket and trooped off with my tail between my legs. Derry won by a point after a late goal from Damien Cassidy.
But that was not the worst of Derry-inflicted heartbreak. That came in the following year's league final. We had a really good mix of old heads - the likes of John Lynch, Kevin McCabe, and Plunkett Donaghy from the '86 team - and exciting new talent from two All-Ireland U-21 winning teams, which made for a great buzz in the camp heading down to play in Croke Park.
We felt at home and played some tremendous football that day. Ciaran Corr was on fire in the middle of the park and we led by three points with three minutes to go, but then it all came asunder.
Anthony Tohill floated in a '45' which Plunkett Donaghy and (goalkeeper) Finbarr McConnell both went to field and the ball ended up in the net.
Two minutes later, Tohill curled over a point with his left boot and that was that. It was a sickener, made worse by the thought of having to travel to Celtic Park to play them in Ulster's preliminary round just weeks later. Looking back now, we hadn't recovered psychologically from the league final. Derry ended up winning by three points, but in truth they played us off the park.
In 1993, we were fallers at the first hurdle again, losing to Armagh after a replay. Derry, meanwhile, won the All-Ireland. We didn't dwell on that too much and there were positive signs the following summer. We got to the Ulster final and though we lost to Down, that run helped us hugely. We were learning more about the opposition and ourselves.
The summer of '95 began with a quarter-final win over Fermanagh, and from there we headed to Clones to face Derry like men possessed. In the pit of our stomachs was that nasty pain that we had got from being kicked in the solar plexus so many times by our neighbours. We had our fill of it. Things didn't go to plan either, but this time we were ready for whatever was thrown at us. We had two men sent off in the first half - my brother Pascal was dismissed after an altercation with the current Derry manager, Damian Barton, and Seamie McCallan also got his marching orders. At half-time we were three points down and those Tyrone supporters who hadn't left for home were venting their fury at referee Tommy McDermott as he ran off the field for what he thought was the sanctuary of his dressing-room.
But rumour has it that our manager Art McRory had left the dug-out early and was already in there waiting him. Art, in the only language he knew, let McDermott know what he thought of his first-half display before storming out and heading back to our dressing-room. (I'm still waiting on Art's version of how he lost his way to our dressing room in the first place.)
Derry had Fergal McCusker sent off in the second half and the momentum swung. We started to gobble up every 40-60 ball and went for the kill. After years of repression, we were overcome by a collective obsession. We willed ourselves to a one-point win and at the final whistle everyone of us could feel the weight lift from our shoulders.
A corner had been turned, no question about it. We went on and won Ulster before losing that infamous '95 All-Ireland final to Dublin. But we bounced back and beat Derry in the Ulster semi-final the following year, despite yours truly getting sent off. Rather harshly I might add too!
I got sent off three times in my inter-county career - once against Armagh (which was later rescinded) and twice against Derry and it's the other incident in 2001 which should resonate for Tyrone this weekend.
We met Derry in the Ulster semi-final again in Clones and beat them by two points. The shoe was on the other foot...or so we thought. This was the first year of the 'back door' and having beaten Cavan in the Ulster final, we drew our old foes in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
However, in that Ulster semi-final, I had caught Paul McFlynn flush with a shoulder. He was one of Derry's key players, but he didn't see me coming and came to a shuddering halt. After treatment, he struggled to his feet and played on, but he might as well not have been on the pitch. I had got the Derry blood boiling and would pay with my own six weeks later.
St Tiernach's Park was again the venue and as the Derry bus reached the outskirts of Clones, Eamon Coleman put on a video-tape of my clash with McFlynn. And he replayed it over and over, and over again. Before the players (and it was they who later told me) got off the bus, the Derry manager turned around and bellowed: "Are youse boys going to let that wee baldy b****** bully youse again?"
Coleman didn't have to wait long to get his answer and I soon realised that I had a bullseye on my back. Every Derry player wanted a piece of the action. No matter where I went, I had a Derry hand on me. I couldn't move, and I retaliated at the end of the first half. I saw red, and we saw the end of our championship. Derry won by five.
So, now 15 years later, we have an undercurrent to this Sunday's match in the wake of Tiernan McCann's tackle on Brendan Rodgers which saw the Derry midfielder having to leave the field in the opening seconds of this year's McKenna Cup final. The fires have been stoked since - not on a team bus mind you, but in public - and that's a dangerous tightrope for any manager to walk.
Derry have already lost to Tyrone four times this season - in the league, the McKenna Cup twice, and also the O Fiaich Cup. They won't lack incentive but I feel they will need something extra special to bridge the gap.
Tyrone are in tremendous physical condition, possess the better footballers and have a superior bench. All they need to do now is to learn the lessons of the past and keep their discipline!