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Tyrone have what it takes to win the biggest prize: McNamee

Red Hands vow to get past Armagh and make major push for All-Ireland

By Declan Bogue

This year, Tyrone took their Ulster winning celebrations to the east of the county.

Last year it all centred around Sally's of Omagh, so this time they felt obliged to grant the east end a touch of their hem. Partying in McAleers of Dungannon it emerged that there was a Snapchat Story created; 'TyroneUlsterChampions'.

We'll have to take his word for it when Ronan McNamee says how much craic it was.

Last year, it couldn't have been more special for him. Growing up in Aghyaran with the Tyrone-Donegal border nearby, he attended the local primary school in a Donegal jersey that his mother bought him as a reminder of her home county.

The drama of the Red Hands' win, in the heat of the Clones furnace with three monster points gliding over, made it for him.

This year, victory over Down was the same but different.

"It was a wee bit quieter (in the dressing room), maybe a bit more satisfaction," says the full-back now, looking back on his second Ulster title in six years of trying.

"It meant an awful lot to an awful amount of people. You could see that in their emotions at the end of the game, family members, club mates. The pitch was absolutely jammed with people and there might have been far more than what was on it last year."

Ulster final Sunday was one that the people of Tyrone could enjoy, rather than endure. With the Down attack tamed early on, a suitable cushion opened up and then the fancy boys like Ronan O'Neill could be introduced to treat us to the odd lobbed goal.

It's felt like that through the Championship season for Tyrone, who face their rivals across the River Blackwater, Armagh, in the All-Ireland quarter-final today (Croke Park, 4pm).

There is a theory out there that they have not been tested. But Sean Cavanagh in his final year is making the proud boast that this group is every bit as talented as the group that landed their first All-Ireland title, in his second season of 2003.

"I am sure he is not saying it light-heartedly because he was part of some unbelievable Tyrone teams down through the years," considers McNamee.

"I am sure every county squad is the same, but they know the potential that is there and what could be on any given day that things go right for you. There's definite talent there to be the All-Ireland champions, but whether the results go for you and the ball goes over the bar is another story.

"I don't think we are a million miles away but we are just not there yet, and everybody knows that Dublin is the yardstick, the team to beat and you are just trying to get your own house in order and take it a game at a time."

Last winter, Cathal McCarron's dark and uncomfortable autobiography was a study of life as an inter-county footballer. Superbly constructed, it mixed light and shade perfectly. One of the most striking images that emerged was that of team manager Mickey Harte leading the team in saying the Rosary.

McNamee has already stated his own deep faith in religion and the practise, but he also looks at his manager as someone who affects his life and guides him on the true path.

"It's just the way he conducts himself. What he has come through. The whole family is the same whether it is Michael, Mark, Matthew, they are all the same. Just a really nice people," he explains.

"Mickey brings a calmness to the thing when people might be on edge at times. There is no point putting on the Tyrone jersey, training and making the effort, being away from your friends and family year in, year out and not want to win.

"If you have a group of people willing to put in the effort and someone like him leading it, then you'll not be in a better place."

Once upon a time Peter Canavan told the story of Harte introducing a sports psychologist to the group in an effort to freshen things up. But Canavan pointed out to Harte they needed to hear his voice, not somebody else's.

McNamee will go along with that. "You could go anywhere in the world and not get chances like this, not get a manager of the calibre and experience he has," says McNamee.

"The knowledge he has on things, on life in general. Like, I don't know what he was like 10 years ago, but the way he approaches things now, everybody is on a level playing field.

"The three weeks before the Ulster final was an open book. Nothing is ever scripted."

Tyrone are back in Croke Park for the first time since that damp February night when they drew with the Dubs. On the last sunny day, they fell flat on their faces against Mayo, refusing to go all out for a win and delivering their most timid performance of the year to lose their only game of the year.

It's a possibility that they took Mayo for granted, but that shouldn't be a factor today. This is Armagh after all. There's something more primal to it.

The memories of last year's defeat are still to be banished. "I remember it well. It was probably the quietest changing room I have ever been in," says McNamee almost with a shudder.

"I just had to put it to the side. It's a sore one because of Mayo reaching an All-Ireland final and being within a whisker of winning it. There's a sense of 'what could have been'."

There's a lot of 'destiny' floating around this Tyrone panel in 2017. Sean Cavanagh's last season, the puzzling situation of Mickey Harte in the last year of his arrangement. Their devotion to each other.

Harte says he wants to be around for a long time. There is a big future for this group. McNamee agrees.

He says: "Any given day it is an honour to play for Tyrone but he sees something and the players see something, so fingers crossed we can achieve what that something might be."

And a big present, too.

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