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08th Feb 2022

POV of Tyrone man watching melee-gate game against Armagh in Athletic grounds

Lee Costello

“Was he fighting against himself ref?”

We pulled up nice and early at the Athletic Grounds for the Armagh vs Tyrone game, and next to us we could see the Tyrone players arriving in their car pools, with fresh fades, the new McAleer and Rushe gear, and a kit bag hooked over their shoulders.

If you’re arriving on par with the players it’s a good indication that you’re early, but as me and my partner stepped into the grounds, the atmosphere was immediately palpable.

The only thing that flooded the stands quicker than fans piling in, was the anticipation, as everyone was desperate to get the best view possible, for what was surely going to be something special.

There was almost a collective but silent agreement among the fans from both sides, that absolutely anything could happen, and although we didn’t know for sure what, we just knew in our heart of hearts that it was about to go down.

My eyes were fixed on the match day programme, laughing to myself that I wasted £3 to read a team that had Conn Kilpatrick in midfield for Tyrone, despite the fact everyone knew he was currently in the Bahamas.

Then I heard an almighty roar, a battle cry that gathered in pace and volume, demanding my attention to look up and see it was the Armagh players coming onto the field to warm up.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a warm up get such an introduction in a National League game before, and more than that, we quickly realised that we were sitting right in the belly of the beast, surrounded by fans who were 100% behind their team.

The first half was a hard watch, as groans of “It’s Killarney all over again”, were whispered among us in red and white, while the hands of Orchard county fans were red raw from passionately and repeatedly clapping their team’s glorious performance.

Tyrone literally couldn’t string a handful of passes together, numerous shots were dropped short, and Armagh were just so devastating with their kick passing, work rate and sheer insatiable hunger for goals.

The second half got off to a better start for the champions, and for the well-being of my programme which had now been crumpled and conditioned into some form of frustration stick, that I would bat off my knee every time we lost possession.

Padraig Hampsey was leading the charge, scoring a brilliant point, and was now marking Rian O’Neill, getting out in front of the seemingly unstoppable talisman on three occasions, to give us something to roar about.

Soon the deficit was halved, reduced from 10 points to five, and the six minutes of injury time that were announced on the tannoy, sparked an Armagh man behind me to say a sentence that allowed me to crack a smile for the first time in the whole game… “I am absolutely s**ting myself!”

And then… it happened.

Cathal McShane was forced over the line, resulting in an Armagh kick out, a precious opportunity to run the clock, keep the ball, and hang on to this now precarious lead.

A small scrap broke out, the ones you see all the time at games, and you could almost hear the slap of eyelids as the crowd collectively rolled their eyes, and a sense of ‘come on, just get on with the game’ was very much the shared feeling.

Then, you could see separate scuffles starting to accumulate, corner backs were sprinting up to get involved, there was about three or four wrestling duels taking place, until they eventually all merged into one.

When it finally calmed down, the referee, David Gough, took his sweet time in dealing with it, again leaving impatient fans, carrying bundles of nerves telling him to just “do whatever it is you’re going to do already.”

And boom, the red card is flashed, instantly met with boos, as Armagh’s Greg McCabe was given his marching orders.

One fan stood up and shouted “Was he fighting with himself ref?” – an argument which may be used against him in just a few moments.

What happened next, from the perspective of a Tyrone fan, was like something from a spy movie, when the skilled agent points his gun and pulls the trigger repeatedly, accurately and in multiple directions.

It was as though you could hear the bang as Gough raised his red card, then the noise of the glock being reloaded as his arm came down, only to fire it up again three more times.

A second of shock swept the arena, before the most ironic cheers you will ever hear started to echo throughout the place.

“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio.”

Unsurprisingly, Armagh came out on top, kicking another point to bring their lead to six, and the whistle finally put me out of misery, but not before having to endure a rapturous standing ovation from the Orange faithful.

In summary, it was a thrilling game to watch, the atmosphere was electric and the rivalry among fans was the perfect blend of banter and passion.

The melee that everyone is so obsessed with is boring to talk about really, if headlocks are going to be treated as red card offences then so be it, there just needs to be consistency throughout the whole game on this stance, and probably one or more of the match winners should have seen red on the balance of things.

Highlight of the day however, is when an Armagh steward overheard my fiancé and fellow Tyronian, sigh about how the shop doesn’t take debit cards, because she wanted to buy soup to help battle the cold weather, and he insisted on giving her a fiver to do so.

So all in all, it was still a pretty good day.

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