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McNamee is out to end boyhood heroes' dream

Tyrone star Ronan grew up as an avid Donegal supporter but insists Ulster final against the team he used to roar on will be extra special

By Declan Bogue

That awkward moment when you really need to stop wearing your Donegal kit to your Tyrone school…

Ronan McNamee had a few of those before the penny dropped. St Eugene's in Castlederg was no place to wear the colours of a county whose border lay only a couple of miles away. So he had to, as he puts it now, "grow up".

"I grew up wearing a Donegal shirt. And if you search our house you will still find the odd one about," the 24-year-old Jordanstown student - and now Red Hands ace - reveals ahead of tomorrow's Ulster final between the sides.

It was Adrian Sweeney he grew up worshipping, not Peter Canavan. 'Eddie' was "the be-all and end-all" for him.

His mother Anne Daly was from a little part of the world called Doochary, between Glenties and Dungloe - Brian Friel country.

He says: "Mammy used to tell me to ask all the other boys in Aghyaran, 'how many All-Irelands have you got?' back when Donegal had one and Tyrone had none."

His Donegal friends and relations wish him all the best, that he might play well and everything, but as for the result, forget about it. Those outside of Donegal might struggle with the fact that prior to 2011, Donegal had only five Ulster Championships. They are making hay while the sun shines.

And in those five years, they have faced Tyrone four times - and won all of them. The closest the Red Hands came to a result was in 2012, when McNamee's then-Aghyaran clubmate Martin Penrose peeled off a zinging shot that Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan got a big toe on.

The ball bounced off the post and meandered along the goal-line to safety with Colm Cavanagh just inches from making decisive contact.

McNamee watched from the stands in Clones that day.

Three weeks later, he made his Tyrone inter-county debut, in Killarney of all places, and marked Paul Galvin in an intense game.

"A baptism of fire, as such!" he recalls.

He had been on the panel at the start of the year but was taken off after breaking his ankle. He made his return in the qualifier victory over Roscommon.

Tyrone boss Mickey Harte wanted him to do a job on Kingdom ace Galvin. It didn't work out. McNamee was called ashore for Damian McCaul and Kerry won by 10 points.

"It was absolutely crazy. There was a lot of hype about it and it was an absolute cauldron down there, I've never seen the like of it," says McNamee.

In Tyrone, they still remember the class the Kerry fans showed in victory, waiting behind to clap Harte onto the bus, acknowledging him as an opponent but also what he had been through in his personal life with the loss of his daughter, Michaela.

"The Kerry fans idolised him," notes McNamee.

Since his debut, McNamee has been nominated for an All-Star, but before this season had only one Championship win in Ulster (against Down in 2014) to show for his efforts.

"People say about football passing you by, but that was four years ago," he states.

"We have had a good run this year, and we were pushed to the pin of our collar by Cavan, but we have always been pushing towards getting an Ulster. It has always been top of the list.

"You just have to block out the years before. That's football, sometimes it just doesn't work out for you."

An example came in the first semi-final clash against Cavan. McNamee marked David Givney, who finished with two goals. With rural Tyrone humour, McNamee says: "The man's an absolute sow, 6ft 4in, and probably about 30 stone!"

No wonder he uses the term 'like a sow'. Working on the family farm is something he does to relieve the stresses of inter-county football. Out of season, he enjoys the odd pint. His childhood hero growing up was wrestling superstar The Rock.

Culturally, he's a fan of New York.

The Wolf of Wall Street is his choice of favourite film.

Before games, he likes to tune into The Notorious B.I.G's 'Old Thing Back' - noting it has to be the Matoma remix. He's into pizza.

What drives him the most, and holds Tyrone back in equal measure, is the lack of silverware among the current squad. McNamee's honours include a couple of McKenna Cup wins and a National League Division Two medal from this year.

As an Under-21, he was beaten in the Ulster finals of 2011 and 2012. He doesn't mention the O'Fiaich Cup. He says: "There are boys there who have won a lot but there are boys who are yet to get their hands on anything worthwhile."

And would it mean more to beat Donegal in the final?

He adds: "Possibly. It would mean an awful lot to this group of players to win Ulster and any year you go out, it is targeted.

"When it is Donegal, it does make it extra special because they knocked Tyrone off their perch and were the next team to be on top of the mountain."

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