By Niall Gartland
ALL the personal sacrificies, all the grinding at training, all the agonising near-misses of the past – it’s all been worth it for All-Ireland Champion, Ronan McNamee.
While we don’t want to argue that some players are more deserving than others, it’s fair to say that McNamee has certainly paid his dues to Tyrone football, finally picking up a Celtic Cross medal after ten years of uninterrupted service to the county.
A video doing the rounds of McNamee embracing his mother Anne on the sidelines of Croke Park last Saturday would melt even the hardest of hearts, and while he never truly lost faith, it’s an inarguable fact of life that good things don’t always come to those who wait.
Speaking 24 hours later at the team’s triumphant homecoming at O’Neill”s Healy Park, McNamee admitted that he still hadn’t fully internalised that he’s now joined the ranks of legendary All-Ireland winners within the O’Neill County.
“I felt it would come at some stage, but you’re almost hanging in there hoping it would happen. We’ve been there or thereabouts for a long time, and it’s sweet to finally put the matter to bed. It’s a great feeling but it’s hard to take in to be honest.
“It’ll probably sink in after a few weeks when life’s back to normal, that this has just happened.”
McNamee made his Tyrone debut in their famous qualifier defeat to Kerry down in Killarney back in 2012. Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly were also playing that day, while Ronan O’Neill was recovering from a cruciate injury, and Tiernan McCann and Niall Morgan were drafted into the panel the following season.
Five men now proud holders of All-Ireland medals, and McNamee admits there would’ve been plenty of regrets if they’d failed in their quest to climb the steps of Hogan Stand on the biggest day in Gaelic Football.
“It probably would’ve been deemed a failure to an extent,” said McNamee.
“We won All-Ireland minor titles in 2008 and 2010, and I was part of the 2009 team which lost to an Armagh side that eventually won that All-Ireland.
“We had unbelievable players coming through, a real good group, but it’s easy saying the future looks bright, it’s a whole other matter making things work.
“It took us a bit longer than we’d have liked but we got there in the end. It’s sweet because there’s so much crap talked about the team, people don’t seem to like us. They can think what they like and they’re entitled to their opinion, but we’ve won Sam and that’s what it’ll say in 100 years time.”
Elaborating on what made the difference this time around, he said: “Mickey [Harte] brought the county to levels we’d never reached before over a period of twenty years, and I felt like this win was coming regardless of who was in charge.
“It’s not as if it’s been an awful change under the new management, but it’s different voices and different ideas, and they’ve helped us get over the line.
“It’s nice for the likes of myself, Petie Harte, Mattie Donnelly, T-Mac (Tiernan McCann) and Ronie [O’Neill]. We’d been there fighting for a long time with nothing to show for it, but we’ve won Sam and no-one can take that away from us.”
While he’s in the twilight of his intercounty career, McNamee’s importance to the team hasn’t diminished one iota.
He’s been tasked with marshalling a string of dangermen en route to reaching the promised land, none more so than Kerry star David Clifford.
McNamee held Clifford to four points in what was an unforgettable All-Ireland semi-final, and he says it was very much a case of keeping cool, calm and collected when the umpires raised the white flag. Then in the final, he kept close tabs on Aidan O’Shea, whose overall influence waned as the game wore on. Job done.
“You have to take into consideration that you’re not going to hold Clifford scoreless.
“He’s a cub at the end of the day whereas I’m at the tail-end of my career and I do what I can.
“If he scores four or five points you take it, because you’re confident the lads will do the business for us at the other end of the pitch.
“It’s damage limitation to an extent – the likes of Paudie [Hampsey] and Michael [McKernan] bail me out at times. We’ve good defenders, and we’re honest – we put out bodies on the line and buy into things completely.
“We know if we’re there or thereabouts with 10 minutes to go, the boys coming in will win the game for us. Other teams have good benches, but we’ve an unbelievable bench.
“We have subs who would be starting in any other county. We have 40 boys trying to get into the panel of 26, and while we have 15 boys named to start, it’s the six subs who win the game for us.
“You have Cathal McShane, arguably the best forward in Ireland, the fresh legs of Darragh Canavan, T-Mac who has been about for ages and knows the game inside out, all coming in to freshen things up.”
McNamee is the third Aghyaran clubman to win a Celtic Cross, following in the footsteps of Shane Sweeney and Martin Penrose (“an Aghyaran man whether he likes it or not”, quips McNamee). He also embraced eighties star Ciaran McGarvey directly after the game.
“It was nice to turn around yesterday and see Ciaran McGarvey pitchside, he was in absolutely electric form and it was class to see it.
“It means an awful lot to him, seeing Tyrone succeed, and to have someone from Aghyaran flying the flag.
“I grew up idolising lads like Ciaran, Owen Devine, Shane Sweeney, Michael Anderson and Marty Penrose, and hopefully I can set an example to the boys who will grow up aspiring to play for Tyrone.”