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Dublin will relish this trip into the unknown, says Magee

 

By Declan Bogue

All week long in Tyrone, time has dragged its heels. If this is what the Super8s was meant to do - to bring the excitement of real Championship football to the provinces - then the objective has been achieved. The closer you go to the Healy Park pitch, the hotter it feels.

The publicans that run the Main Street complex in Omagh have recognised the special status of Dublin's visit. At 3.30pm today, former Tyrone defender Noel McGinn will host an hour-long discussion about the game in the company of Ryan McMenamin and Dubs and St Vincent's star Mossy Quinn.

This is the first time Dublin have crossed the border to play a Championship match. When the bus leaves Monaghan and enters Tyrone by crossing the Moy River and on through Aughnacloy, it will be a novel experience.

Dublin have only ever played five Championship matches outside of Leinster; the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Cork, the two-game All-Ireland quarter-final epic against Kerry in 2001, a defeat of Derry in Clones in 2003 and a trip over to Leitrim for a 2004 qualifier.

While the narrative has always been that Dublin would not like to be taken out of their comfort zone, that has never been the case, according to former player Johnny Magee, who played in four of those five 'away' fixtures.

He points to his first time on tour, at Thurles in 2001 while Croke Park was being redeveloped, with the fondest of memories. The bus swung into Liberty Square in the town. At the near side was Hayes' Hotel, where the GAA was formed in 1884. The far end led to Semple Stadium, forever known as the home of hurling. And in between was a sea of Dubs fans all in blue, the largest gathering Magee had ever seen outside of Croke Park.

"The place erupted," he recalled. "There were lads on the bus, including myself, that the hairs were standing on the back of the neck and there were a few tears. There were fellas that were experienced guys that had never experienced anything like that before. It was pretty special."

The weekend itself has gone down in legend. The Dublin team of that time bore no resemblance to the austere, process-driven group they are now.

Being on the road was all new to them.

Other teams used to it had their ways of relieving tension while in camp. At the time, RTÉ had just begun broadcasting bingo on TV on a Saturday night, and it must have been quite the sight for the Thurles locals to see two dozen track-suited Dublin footballers landing into the shop to purchase bingo cards, before they all crammed into the one room to play 'Telly Bingo', called out by the famous drag queen Shirley Temple Bar.

If the weekend needed an extra lurch into the surreal, it got it the following morning when the burly forward Vinny Murphy parted his curtains and could hardly believe that Colm Meaney, star of 'The Commitments' and the Star Trek series, was standing fiddling with car keys.

"Beam me up, Scotty!" roared Murphy, and when Meaney turning to see where the voice came from, he got a full view of Murphy's bare behind.

The next time Dublin had to hit the road was a qualifier against Derry in 2003. It was moved to Clones to accommodate the expected crowds and, with the prospect of seeing one of the most famous GAA venues up close during the summer, the Dublin fans took over the town all the way from Matt Fitzpatrick Square to Fermanagh Street before making their unsteady way up to the natural amphitheatre.

Unlike any other county, they enjoy a certain notoriety, singing songs and chanting. If it can get at some players, all the better.

Michael Conlan was the Derry goalkeeper, and when he went to take his first kickout he was met with, "The Derry 'keeper, the Derry 'keeper, the Derry 'keeper's going bald! The Derry 'keeper's going bald!"

Conleith Gilligan, who came on as a sub that day to mark Magee, said: "It was probably the first time I heard Derry players targeted and verbally abused from sets of supporters singing.

"It was the first time I had heard it at a Gaelic match. It was funny because it wasn't aimed at you, but I would imagine it was difficult for players to deal with that had never seen that before.

"I can remember Big Geoffrey (McGonigle) getting grief over his weight at the time. As players, you could hear it!"

There is a sense that in Omagh, Tyrone are willing to get their retaliation in first, with the sidelines reportedly moved in tighter to deny Dublin the width they like to attack with.

The two counties have had a fractious relationship, a country-city schism developing between the counties that goes back to a challenge match played in the Toronto Skydome for a St Patrick's Festival in 1990. Wearing chunky tennis shoes and knee and elbow pads, the surface was rock hard and the O'Neill's ball behaved like a ping-pong ball. Referee Micheál Greenan admitted he should have sent six off.

An 18-year-old Peter Canavan got a punch on the throat. Sean Donnelly went to kick Kieran Duff.

"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!" recalled Donnelly last year. "But when it was over, it was over. We had good craic after it. I have a photograph of me in the hotel afterwards, examining Kieran Duff's leg."

The hurt from the 1995 All-Ireland clash, Tyrone devastated after being denied a late equaliser, never really went away. When the Red Hands were on top, they let Dublin know all about it.

It has erupted from time to time. In 2006, the two had a scandalous league game in Omagh that featured long periods of out and out boxing, later known as 'The Battle of Omagh'.

This week, Sky came to town. After figuring out the co-ordinates and the direction of the sun, they built a tower at the Killybrack Road end beside the scoreboard, looking down towards the Gortin Road.

The scale of the operation is huge. In terms of numbers, RTÉ or BBC cannot compare. Sky want anything up to 11 cameras in action, whereas the others require no more than four. They have asked for 60 people to be accredited, up from their rivals who might take 25 at a push. Sky will have five statisticians alone.

They will be using a super slow-motion camera on the sideline that requires extra light, so no matter what the weather, the floodlights will be turned on at half-time.

Just 17,636 spaces are available this evening.

Omagh St Enda's secretary Conor Salley said: "This is the biggest demand since the Dublin match last year and far superior to any other. We never would have had a match outside Croke Park like this."

In last year's All-Ireland semi-final, the energy in the crowd evaporated once Con O'Callaghan's shimmy put Ronan McNamee on the floor and space opened up for his goal. Tyrone's challenge was killed in an instant.

It finished with 16 points between the sides. Mickey Harte has had it rammed down his throat at every opportunity since by his critics.

If this is the madness the Super8s was supposed to create, then bring it on.

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