The story goes that Brendan Behan was riding the high stool in a Dublin pub while ignoring the overtures from a half-cut Jackeen.
Says he to the playwright, “Ye bollox ye Behan, I remember when you hadn’t an arse in your trousers.” Behan turned, looked him in the eye and said, “Not half as well as I do.”
I remember when Tyrone county football hadn’t an arse in its trousers and hardly dared to dream.
It was 1972 and Da sang ‘On The One Road’ as we drove to Clones. It was my first Ulster final and it was magic. “We’re on the one road sharing the one load, we’re on the road to God knows where, we’re on the one road, it may be the wrong road but we’re together now who cares…”
Me and our boy stood noses to the wire while ecstatic Donegal supporters celebrated their very first provincial title. A wee Gaeltacht woman commiserated, “Ah lads at least you won the minors.” I wished she hadn’t said that.
A year later with my form teacher Aidan McMahon at midfield, the Red Hand conquered Ulster to claim the county’s third title (the previous were in 1956 and 1957). There was celebrations across the land of O’Neill.
Dozens of kids stood on the back of a lorry waving home-made flags as it drove around Coalisland. It made its way to manager Jody O’Neill’s house and I can still see people dancing on the street. My Da somehow or other laid hold of the Anglo-Celt chalice and brought it into the house to show my Mum. “This is what it’s all about,” he said, his voice trembling with joy.
The next Ulster crown in 1984 sparked similar celebrations as Frank McGuigan euphoria swept across the county. The banner on the grass bank read, ‘There will be a McGuigan Cyclone over Clones followed by a huge depression throughout Armagh.’ There sure was. The King posted 11 points from play in a never to be forgotten day. We loved Frank. We still do.
Other coveted provincials titles followed and were huge… until one day they didn’t seem to matter. When you are conquering all of Ireland and up and down to Croke Park regularly who cares about beating the next door neighbour?
Back in the day before the dilution of the championship by the backdoor qualifying system winning the Ulster crown was the only route to an All Ireland semi-final. These days you can reach Croke Park via Leitrim, Tipperary or Laois.
It is strange dear reader. A trip to a Munster hurling final in Thurles is a must on the bucketlist. Tipperary have won 41 Munster titles and 26 All Irelands finals. Last July I took my 14-year-old daughter on her first trip to Semple Stadium – ‘The Field of Legends’ – to see the Premier county and Waterford do battle.
Hurling rarely disappoints and her eyes lit up as thousands of Tipp supporters and players celebrated like they had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The last times Tyrone won the Ulster title were in 2009 and 2010. Damp squibs. After winning the ’09 final against Antrim, Brian Dooher and Ryan McMenamin both went up to collect the trophy like they were going into a dentist’s waiting room.
A number of weeks ago Mickey Harte recalled those wins and referred to a “degree of complacency” among the general public in Tyrone. He stated, “I’ve said this many times, we won back-to-back Ulster titlesand two people came onto the field in Clones.
“The next year, when Donegal won it, 17,000 came on to the pitch, the year after Monaghan won it and there were 19,000 on it. It was being taken for granted by almost too many people.”
What actually happened was the Clones field was cordoned off by security men those two years in a GAA bid to sanitise the event. Sitting with my children at their first Ulster final on the seats that have replaced the grass bank, we waited for the lap of honour that didn’t happen.
The players hurriedly made their way to the dressingroom thinking of bigger fish to fry. It was very disappointing and a far cry from the euphoria that met Tipperary’s win last summer.
Multi-All Ireland and All Star recipient Philip Jordan has since said his Ulster medals mean little to him. His father Mickey played in the 1973 Ulster final. I’m guessing he cherishes that medal.
It is true the supporters also took things for granted. You wait years for an All Ireland and three came at once. As the novelty wore off the numbers going to Croke Park dropped and the flags no longer went up for Ulster finals. We forgot when we hadn’t an arse in our trousers.
The spark for Ulster glory seems to have been rekindled. “You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry,” said the Gortin farmer when the pipes burst during the great freeze.
The tickets have been secured for next Sunday’s first round battle against Derry. It promises to be war with a pulsating atmosphere.
A victory and a trip to another Ulster final in Clones like the old days would be wonderful. “We’re on the one road…”