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A carnival atmosphere but heartbreaking Tyrone tale

 

By John Campbell

It's invariably one of the biggest days in the country's annual GAA calendar, an occasion when the footballing elite go toe-to-toe for the Sam Maguire Cup, one of the most coveted prizes in the sporting sphere

Yesterday at a packed Croke Park the sense of anticipation was palpable, the atmosphere heavy with expectation for an All-Ireland final which had promised so much.

The Tyrone hordes who had descended on Dublin from before lunch-time on Saturday created a carnival fervour within the city that was subsequently transmitted to the great sporting cathedral on Jones's Road.

They arrived cushioned by optimism, fortified by the glorious feats of their heroes of the Noughties and with implicit faith in their successors who carried the O'Neill county thus far.

Alas, the gods did not smile on Mickey Harte's troops including Tiernan McCann on the field of play where they initially flattered to deceive before succumbing to a team that confirmed their status as one of the greatest sides ever to grace the gaelic football stage.

It had been all so different in the opening minutes when the Red Hands transported their ecstatic land by sprinting into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead, something that was definitely not in the pre-match Dublin script nor, if the truth be told perhaps, in the Tyrone match mantra.

But the second quarter was to provide Mickey Harte's side with the kind of reality check that they have not encountered for some considerable time.

The delight that had consumed the O'Neill county fans in those delirious early stages was initially replaced by apprehension, then fear and finally sheer anguish as Dublin galloped clear over the final lap.

Many Tyrone fans held their hands over their eyes and their players tried desperately to stem the tide in the final quarter and when referee Conor Lane awarded a penalty with only minutes remaining it seemed as if Peter Harte had thrown the side a lifeline when he smacked the ball past Stephen Cluxton.

Surely, the thinking was, we can smuggle something out of this? Alas, no. Dublin are made of stern stuff.

They merely erected the barricades again, underlined their defensive capacity and even after surrendering John Small to a second yellow card they showed they had the character and tenacity to hold out.

Yet the passion, fervour and sheer love of sport that embroidered the occasion was there for all to see. And if the formal World Meeting of Families took place last weekend in miserable, dank conditions, then the family ethos was just as prevalent yesterday only this time in glorious sunshine.

Former Tyrone player Ciaran McBride and his family were there en masse, the huge cost of the venture regarded as a worthy investment in the biggest day in the Irish sporting calendar.

Nor was McBride the only ex-Red Hand to throw his weight behind Mickey Harte's storm troopers.

They were there by the score, the golden target of a possible fourth All-Ireland title proving an irresistible force.

That they were outnumbered by the vast Dublin fan base was no great surprise. With GAA activities having now infiltrated the most unlikely locations, the All-Ireland final weaves its magic against an even bigger backcloth and this was reflected in the 82,000 attendance - all nationalities, creeds and classes among them people for whom the All-Ireland final is an annual pilgrimage while for others it was a first state of sport at the highest level.

But hopes that had burned brightly in the early afternoon had been cruelly extinguished before tea-time. By then Tyrone's army of followers had been consigned to a depressing journey home with those two critical words 'what if?' littering conversations.

It was far from being a match for the ages but it was nonetheless a frenetic, rugged, uncompromising struggle rather than a sophisticated strategic battle.

If Tyrone shared top billing, then Derry's 1993 All-Ireland winning squad were accorded a rapturous welcome when they took a bow in the interval between the minor match and the senior tie.

Skipper Henry Downey and the rest of his heroes including the ebullient Joe Brolly looked smart and snappy as they lapped up the plaudits, their passion for the sport still evident in the ongoing commitment of some of them in various capacities.

For Tyrone, Derry and indeed the other Ulster counties there will be other days out on a similar scale yesterday.

That after all is what counties crave more than anything - the opportunity to parade their wares on a majestic ­sporting stage and the chance too to acquire enhanced credibility ­e­specially at a time when there is a belief that Dublin could be settling in for a long-term reign at the top.

The glamour, glitz and colour of All-Ireland final day were markedly pronounced yesterday as once again the sense of occasion tended to dwarf the actual fare on offer.

But the challenge, of course, is for teams to try and keep coming back to be part of the action on this biggest of all days.

Tyrone may be licking their physical and psychological wounds today but these will heal in time just as they did last year when it was thought that they become a spent force in every respect following that semi-final mauling by the Dubs.

And perhaps when they return to Croke Park, as they ­assuredly will, the gods might then be in a rather more benign mood.

Belfast Telegraph

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