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Fired-up Tyrone ready to land big knockout strike against Dublin

 

By Declan Bogue

Last summer, former Tyrone captain Sean Donnelly spotted a familiar face, sizzling in the Clones crowd at the Ulster final. More than a quarter of a century had passed since Micheál Greenan had been referee of an exhibition game many parishes away in Toronto between Tyrone and Dublin. Donnelly approached and said: "You don't know me, but…"

And Greenan stopped him there: "I do! You are Sean Donnelly from Trillick. Remember that game in Toronto? That was meant to be a friendly!

"I never seen such a game like it. I should have sent six men off, including you!"

Some of the footage of that bizarre night is up on YouTube. With 1989's All-Ireland football finalists Cork and Mayo already committed to playing an exhibition game at Brentford soccer club on St Patrick's Day 1990, the GAA nominated the losing semi-finalists. Tyrone manager John Donnelly saw it as a good chance to integrate an 18-year-old Peter Canavan, who didn't escape the roughing up.

Donnelly remembers the details. The Skydome surface was rock hard and the ball behaved like a ping-pong ball on marble. They were given chunky tennis trainers and elbow pads were sown into their jerseys, 8am training sessions were the order of the day. Drink was banned. It was no junket.

With both teams billeted at the luxurious Sheraton Hotel, it was big enough for the teams to ignore each other.

And the pigskin was only a distraction for an uppity Tyrone side, not altogether comfortable in their own skin.

"Did you see myself kicking (Kieran) Duff?" asks Donnelly with a chuckle.

"He went in for the ball and I took a swing with my boot and missed him. Then I took another swing at him and caught him the next time!"

He adds: "But when it was over, it was over. I mean, we had good craic after it. I have a photograph of me in the hotel afterwards, examining Kieran Duff's leg, just to make sure the knee was broke right!"

It wasn't Donnelly's first rodeo. In 1984 he was part of the first Tyrone team to play Dublin in Championship football in the All-Ireland semi-final. All new to them.

They came out onto Croke Park first from their dressing rooms between The Hill and the Hogan Stand. They knew the Dublin team liked to warm up in front of the Hill.

So they decided to take the gaff over.

"There was no real decision," the Trillick man smiles.

"We ran out and as far as I remember it was just there, the nearest goals. But I don't think we thought too much about it. We just started warming up."

He continues: "The two teams were kicking the balls in and out and whenever we were doing that, you made sure to hit it brave and hard, in case you would hit a Dublin man! And I would say they were doing likewise! Balls were coming in on top of you and you had to rev up and get to the ball, kick it out again."

That was a decent Tyrone team. Frank McGuigan was home from America and had scored 11 points from play a few weeks earlier against Armagh in the Ulster final. Eugene McKenna was typically imperious. Big Art McRory was manager.

They didn't have the belief though.

Fast forward to 2008. Tyrone turn up at Croke Park with the country expecting Dublin to put them out of their backdoor misery in the quarter-final.

But they found themselves 2-9 to 1-5 up after 50 minutes as the rain fell like a deluge. Sean Cavanagh and Joe McMahon thumped goals past Stephen Cluxton.

Colm McCullagh looked up to see Davy Harte streaking up through the middle, unmarked. He collected the fist pass, rode the tackle of David Henry before stepping inside Paul Casey to lace it past Cluxton.

He sprints back into position, completely zoned in on the job. Tyrone are not tourists in Croke Park. There's no novelty, no gimmicks. Just there on business which becomes pleasure for the last 20 minutes. "That whole week of preparation for the Dublin game, it was one of Mickey's strengths that he would pinpoint exactly where you were going to break this Dublin team down," recalls Harte now of his uncle, nine years on.

"We would have done a lot of video footage at that stage. When he was doing his match-ups, who was going to be on who, it filled us full of confidence."

And then his goal came.

"It was a surreal moment when the ball hit the net. Me facing into The Hill. The rain lashing down," he recalls.

"It was one of those things that whenever you are not used to scoring goals, you don't have a celebration. The boys in the club would still slag me for not having a celebration but it was a case of getting back into position as quick as you could."

And the best thing about Davy Harte is that he played all those games fuelled by pizza. Long before Sean Quigley earned cult status for his fondness of the same dish, Harte made it part of his routine - a pre-match pizza from 'Pete-Za' in Ballygawley town.

What it comes down to is that Mickey Harte  is solely responsible for not meekly surrendering to Tyrone's fate against Dublin teams. The question is whether this current group truly believe it as much as his original group of players in his first five years.

"That was true from my time on the panel. You never felt inferior to any team," says Davy.

"That came from Mickey having successful teams in underage having a winning mentality, and they had competed against the best in underage and beaten them," he adds.

Harte has changed Tyrone's perception of themselves, who to respect, but not fear.

Forever.

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