Tyrone, a county renowned for its GAA fanaticism and zeal, finds itself engulfed in sorrow yet now suddenly gaelic football could provide a temporary uplift in spirits following the tragic death of Michaela McAreavey in Mauritius.
Tragedy: A distraught Mickey Harte, with sons Matthew (left) and Michael at their family home near Ballygawley yesterday following the death of daughter Michaela, wants Tyrone to play this weekend
The vivacious 27-year-old daughter of triple All-Ireland winning manager Mickey Harte was strangled in her honeymoon suite on the idyllic island on Monday just twelve days after marrying well-known Down club footballer John McAreavey.
But just when it was thought that the Tyrone team might not participate in the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup competition because of the heavy burden of grief that hangs over the county, Mickey Harte himself held a meeting with Red Hands officials yesterday evening at which he gave his blessing for the team’s participation.
The upshot is that Tyrone will now play their opening game against Fermanagh at Brewster Park, Enniskillen on Sunday, their scheduled fixture against Donegal last Sunday having been ruled out because of a frost-bound Healy Park playing surface.
The squad were due to train last night but the session was called off as was a pre-arranged meeting of the players.
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Instead, the Tyrone county board confirmed that the team will open their campaign on Sunday when assistant manager Tony Donnelly and trainer Fergal McCann will oversee operations.
Donnelly, who has been Harte’s right hand man since 2005, has already expressed the hope that the team’s involvement in the competition will send out a message of encouragement in what has been a heartbreaking week for the county.
“We will be training tomorrow night and select the team afterwards. We are encouraged that Mickey himself has given this match his blessing. We would of course have acceded to his wishes whatever he had decided,” said Donnelly.
“If it is a case that Michaela’s remains will be brought home on Sunday, then in those circumstances I would not see the match taking place but we will have to wait and see. It would have to be understood that emotions are still very raw throughout the county.”
Tyrone county board PRO Damien Harvey, who has urged the “whole GAA family” to unite in sorrow behind the Harte and McAreavey families in their tragic loss, stressed that the team would now fulfil all their commitments in the McKenna Cup, circumstances permitting.
“There would be a sense that by taking part in the competition Tyrone will be perhaps honouring what Michaela herself would have wanted. She loved football and rarely, if ever, missed a match in which Tyrone were involved,” said Harvey.
All-Ireland heroes Peter Canavan and Sean Cavanagh are among the players who have lauded the contribution Michaela made to Tyrone football.
“The death of Michaela in such dreadful circumstances puts everything into perspective. It is very hard to even think of football at a time like this. All our thoughts and prayers are with Mickey and his family in their terrible grief. We can’t begin to imagine what they are going through,” said Cavanagh.
And Canavan recalled the build-up to the 2003 All-Ireland final when it was decided that the Tyrone squad should join in the singing of the Irish National Anthem — until it was suddenly discovered that quite a few of them did not know the words.
“That is where Michaela stepped in. She wrote the words out in Irish for every player, they were duly learned off by heart, the singing was great and we went on to win ‘Sam’ for the first time,” reflected Canavan.
And Ulster Council officials have confirmed that they respect the decision taken by Tyrone to participate in the McKenna Cup.