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We'll miss banned Barton

By Declan Bogue

It was still January when I sat in the press box at the Athletic Grounds sucking a pen, thinking of an intro. Tyrone and Derry had just played the Dr McKenna Cup final. It was a Saturday night. I had hopes of getting home for Match of the Day and relieving my parents of babysitting duties before an astonishing Tyrone comeback brought the game into the dreaded extra-time.

Extra-time means more minutes, more notes, several substitutions and more incidents to cover. It means cold dinners when you get home. It is the equivalent of a plumber packing up all his tools and starting the engine of his van to see the mains supply spitting water 30 feet into the air.

Such was the volume of activity, I settled on the following: 'Eighteen yellow cards. Three red cards. Over 7,000 present.

'A manager shoved to the ground and almost 100 minutes of cross-Sperrins frantic rivalry. Perhaps nobody thought to tell Tyrone and Derry it was still only January.'

This weekend, the two old foes will again make a mad dash at each other under floodlights in Healy Park, Omagh. Last year they drew at the same venue on the last night in February, the gales blowing sheets of rain across the pitch and making for an absolute pig of a game.

Derry were all set to pick up their first points of the season before Michael McIver's off-balance challenge caught Tyrone's Tiernan McCann high. David Coldrick gave the free, Darren McCurry levelled and Oak Leaf manager Brian McIver almost came apart at the seams.

He said: "The free-kick at the end, we had turned the ball over and our man was fouled on the way out. It should have been a free-kick to us and it's game over. It was a home town decision.

"Decisions were going against us like that for the great percentage of the night... I'm saying nothing."

Reporters asked what other decisions may have angered him. He responded: "Take your pick!"

I can only speak for myself, but I walked out of Healy Park glowing that night. I love it when people can let themselves go and show a bit of emotion like that. Sometimes you just want to feel something.

As William Faulkner noted in The Wild Palms: 'Given a choice between grief and nothing, I'd choose grief.'

In this job you will do dozens of post-match interviews in which managers can be reticent. But even that is preferable to those that eat up your Dictaphone time by reciting a well-worn script.

Derry's current manager, Damian Barton, is another character who is both entertaining and interesting to watch. In their two McKenna Cup clashes with Tyrone this season, he alone has made compelling viewing alongside two oddly gripping games, for January.

Following the first clash, a Derry forward claimed that a Tyrone defender knew what course of action to perform in order to get him sent off.

In the second, there were cards aplenty and no end of juicy spats to get your teeth into. Afterwards, Barton placed a media gag on himself, which allowed us the company of the ever-entertaining Tony Scullion.

This weekend, the latest instalment of the rivalry takes place. Setanta TV have chosen their live coverage wisely.

Twenty years ago, games between these two were almost de-facto All-Ireland finals. You could make the case that the present Tyrone side are just as close to an All-Ireland as that edition of Red Hands, and that leaves Derry in a good place.

For the Oak Leafs to make a leap forward, they require a good dose of old fashioned spite.

As a willing participant in some of the saltier exchanges between Derry and Tyrone over 20 years ago, Barton knows how much it means to a Derry man to get one over on his neighbour - especially with an Ulster Championship tie looming in May.

Tyrone are the benchmark for Derry. That's why few league games matter quite as much as this weekend's.

However, there is a black mark hanging over the contest - the eight-week suspension handed down to Barton in the wake of the McKenna Cup final.

Because he is not on the sideline, he will likely not be granting interviews to Setanta Sports during the live coverage of the game, or to radio and print outlets.

This has robbed the GAA world of one of their central protagonists in a developing, vital rivalry. We suspect he might secretly prefer it that way. But the public miss out.

Belfast Telegraph

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