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McNamee eager to get back into All-Ireland title picture



Picture that: Ronan McNamee of Tyrone and Patrick Durcan of Mayo at Healy Park earlier this week

Picture that: Ronan McNamee of Tyrone and Patrick Durcan of Mayo at Healy Park earlier this week

Picture that: Ronan McNamee of Tyrone and Patrick Durcan of Mayo at Healy Park earlier this week

There is no greater dichotomy in Irish sport than the final whistle of an All-Ireland decider.

For the winners, their lives are changed forever. For the losers, there is nothing but an emptiness. A dream has died and the worst thing of all is that there will be an inevitable backlog of club fixtures to be cleared.

Once the farcical homecomings to Aughnacloy and Healy Park were out of the way for beaten finalists Tyrone last September, they huddled in close for a couple of days to lick their wounds and pass the time together.

They got their own kind of enjoyment out of it, according to full-back Ronan McNamee.

"We enjoyed a few days after it. Obviously we didn't win, but it was a long year and a great year and you just had to get back on the horse. You can't sit about," he said.

"We were lucky to play in an All-Ireland final. You were blessed to get near it, to experience the whole two weeks up to it and the day of it and a couple of days after it.

"You can't explain or put what it was like into words. To win it would take it to another level completely."

Before the end of that week, his club, Aghyaran, needed him. They were mired in a relegation battle in their first year up in senior football.

He didn't make the customary Red Hands season debrief. In fact, by the time Aghyaran and Dungannon had their relegation-promotion play-off replay on November 25, Tyrone had already started trialling potential hopefuls for the 2019 season.

"People had been out of football for almost two months and heading back into trials at that stage," recalled McNamee.

"We were still going. It was a long year but it all came off the back of Tyrone doing so well, that's why the year went on so long."

McNamee and girlfriend Clara had booked a three-week holiday with another couple to the Philippines for the end of October, believing they would be long finished with football by then.

"But we ended up changing flights," he said. "I left a day later than the rest of them, there were four of us who went for three weeks.

"I was in the bad books. We were playing the Moy and, to be fair to Aghyaran, they sorted the flights for me. I left a day after the rest of them and I came home a couple of days early because we were playing Pomeroy in the play-off.

"I was in the Philippines but my head was in Aghyaran. I was just thinking when they were playing Pomeroy in the first game it ended up being a draw and then as soon as it was a draw, I knew I would be going home for the second game, so I was looking at flights and getting everything sorted, not letting on to Clara what I was at.

"Pretending, 'I might have to go home for this game', but I knew rightly I was going home for it."

A long year. Some of Aghyaran's key players picked up injuries in those final weeks when the pitches turned heavy after a scorching summer and, ultimately, the losses hurt them as they lost a replay that went to extra-time with Dungannon.

McNamee himself hit three points from midfield but the loss of county panellist Ronan McHugh to injury was a blow.

It left a salty taste after the All-Ireland final loss.

McNamee draws a contrast between last year's experience and the Tyrone team that secured three All-Ireland titles in the previous decade.

"We tasted it here in 2003, 2005 and 2008," he recalled.

"Growing up in school it was class, the boys coming around with the Cup and all so it gave you a taste for it.

"Especially last year, it being 10 years since anything close to it was about, it gives you that wee bit of incentive and maybe belief that you could reach it again.

"You don't want to pitch it at there at this early stage, but there are 32 counties striving for the same thing."

All of that can wait. Tyrone are out in the Ulster Championship on May 12 against Derry. They have six more league games left to see what they can learn, beginning with Mayo in Healy Park tomorrow.

Tyrone beat them by 12 points in Castlebar last year, Mayo won by a single point in 2017. Neither have particularly good records at home.

"It has sort of been that way for the past four or five years," said McNamee, who watched Mayo's league opener against Roscommon with a mixture of bewilderment and pity.

Mayo had Roscommon at home and it couldn't have worked out better for James Horan's first game back.

They had to master horrendous conditions. They had to reel a lead back in and they had to simply lay down a marker to their neighbours in their first year with Anthony Cunningham as manager.

And into the bargain, they got an eye gouge grudge they can nurture into the summer.

"It was an awful night for football. I felt sorry for them to be brutally honest, both teams," added McNamee. "There was a stage where Robbie Hennelly soloed the ball and it went out over his head. The wind blew it over his head so it was a wild night for football.

"I suppose it was hard to take anything from it but from that, they put the shoulder to the wheel and got the job done regardless of how it looked or what wind was blowing.

"They know they are good in Omagh, they like playing in Omagh and we will have to knuckle down and get the job done."

The real graft starts now.

Tyrone vs Mayo

National Football League Division One

Healy Park, Tomorrow, 2.30pm

Belfast Telegraph