“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
– Karl Marx
When Pat Spillane first uttered the words “puke football” after Kerry’s defeat to Tyrone in 2003, little did we know the Pandora’s box he had opened. Several of RTÉs regular pundits are no strangers when it comes to throwaway inflammatory remarks, whether its Martin McHugh’s labelling of the Gooch as a “two trick pony” or pretty much anything emitted by Joe Brolly. But with Pat, you got the feeling he genuinely meant it. As though the performance of most of the Ulster counties in that season’s championship had deeply insulted him. The man with 8 Celtic Crosses and 9 All-Stars felt physically nauseous at the sight of these modern custodians of a sport he himself played with such distinction. And nobody drew his ire quite like Mickey Harte’s charges. So it was that an exasperated Pat felt obliged to speak out and in doing so, labelled a group of footballers that would go on to deliver three All-Ireland titles as the purveyors of a toxic brand of football. It’s a moniker that has stuck, and has deepened the siege mentality within Tyrone football since.
The passing of the sands of time allow for a certain revisionism. That’s as true for the Kerry teams that Pat graced as it is for the Tyrone sides of the previous decade. History is written by the winners. To label Jim McGuinness’ All-Ireland winning Donegal team as simply a “blanket” did a disservice to the speed of their transitions, their game intelligence and the quality of ball regularly delivered to their danger men in the full-forward line. It may not have been pretty a lot of the time, but it was certainly effective and it’s only when done badly can you truly appreciate how difficult it is to implement. Just witness Kildare’s hapless attempts this season. And only when silverware was delivered were the virtues of that team fully appreciated, and certain flaws overlooked.
That hasn’t quite been the case for the first coming of Mickey Harte’s Tyrone. In many ways they laid the groundwork for what McGuinness would further develop. Manic aggression, total commitment, hard-running support lines, spatial awareness, and several lethal forwards who could inflict damage on the scoreboard. Yet that became discounted when an off the cuff remark from Spillane became ingrained in GAA-speak. To the casual observer, it could have served to cheapen the achievements of what was a fine team that worked harder and smarter than any other they met in that 2003 breakthrough season. It’s a soundbite that has lingered, and lesser sides since then from both Tyrone and elsewhere have been grouped under that broad heading as though equals. The phrase “puke football” is indelibly attached to the Red Hand county.
Therein lies the real tragedy of that whitewash; that some of the truly great talents of the game almost became tainted by association. There were very few angels in the sides of 2003, 2005 or 2008 and undoubtedly they participated in their fair share of cagey, dour clashes. But players like Stephen O’Neill, Owen Mulligan, Kevin Hughes and Peter Canavan delivered some of the finest exhibitions of all that is good about Gaelic football en route to All-Ireland glory in those seasons. They deserve to be remembered for as much.
Now history repeats itself. Here we are at a similar junction with a Mickey Harte side in the latter stages of the championship. Yet again the old clichés are being trotted out and Pat’s phrase gets another airing. But it is farcical to suggest that this current iteration bears any resemblance to the past All-Ireland winning sides. If comparisons are to be made then it’s only fair they’re conducted on a like-for-like basis. The 2003-2008 teams physically played on the line, frequently crossed it, were never short of a word on the pitch or shy about making sure potential frees became definite ones. But allied to that they had skill, flair and could excite when the mood took them or the need arose. More physical than the Meath sides of the nineties? Hardly. “Cuter” than the Kerry teams of the late 2000’s? Unlikely.
So far there’s little evidence to suggest Tyrone version 2.0 bear any resemblance to those title-winning sides in terms of ability, particularly in terms of attacking prowess. After elimination from the Ulster championship by a Donegal side that was there for the taking, a relatively straightforward qualifier run has seen them advance. Central to that progression has been a heavy reliance on a small core of Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte, Conor McAliskey and Darren McCurry to dig out a result and only two goals have been scored in those five games. Moments of real quality have been lacking – both in terms of football and conduct – with the Monaghan clash undoubtedly the nadir. The diving. The whinging. The cards. The hair. Oh, the hair!
Maybe I’m doing a disservice to a team that could yet win an All-Ireland. Maybe they could spring a surprise against Kerry the next day out. Maybe there are qualities yet to come to the surface that could justify comparisons with their predecessors. Or maybe now Pat has reason to feel queasy.