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all-ireland kings Two Tyrone players reveal the inside story of their Covid crisis

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Conor Meyler of Tyrone celebrates with the Sam Maguire Cup following the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Conor Meyler of Tyrone celebrates with the Sam Maguire Cup following the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Niall Morgan of Tyrone celebrates after the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Niall Morgan of Tyrone celebrates after the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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Conor Meyler of Tyrone celebrates with the Sam Maguire Cup following the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Two of Tyrone’s Sam Maguire heroes have spoken publicly about the Covid-19 crisis that ripped through their squad earlier this summer and threatened their participation in the All-Ireland series.

Niall Morgan and Conor Meyler disclosed how joint-managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher told the group of plans to withdraw from their rescheduled semi-final against Kerry because of the health implications.

The duo, both shoo-ins for All Star recognition this year, were speaking on BBC podcast The GAA Social.

According to Morgan, the team’s goalkeeper, there were a few dissenting voices at first. However, the intervention of his Edendork clubmate, Darren McCurry - who posed the question: “If somebody drops on this pitch, who's to blame?” - had a key role in convincing players that this was the right road to travel.

The rest is history: with Kerry’s acquiescence the GAA granted a further one-week postponement (pushing the game back 13 days from its original date), the Ulster champions duly shocked the Kingdom in extra-time … and the miraculous transformation was complete when Tyrone vanquished Mayo last Saturday to claim their first All-Ireland SFC title since 2008.

Meyler launched a powerful defence of their diligence in the face of a pandemic. “This wasn’t like Tyrone started Covid. Or that Garvaghey was some sort of Covid centre. It was rife everywhere. It was inevitable that boys were going to pick it up,” he said.

“The problem is that some boys were so badly hit with it, and there were so many, that it was totally genuine when Feargal and Brian said, ‘We’re pulling from this because your health is more important.’ Boys were very sick, like; very sick for a long time.”

Morgan also addressed some of the negative reaction to the stance adopted by Tyrone in the midst of their plight. To the question, ‘Why does everyone hate Tyrone?’ he replied: “I’d say we’ve a fair bit to play for it ourselves! We’re not a clean-cut team … maybe we’re a bit more now compared to what we were in the past.”

Both the netminder and Tyrone’s play-anywhere No 10 were among those to test positive for the virus.

Reference was made during the BBC podcast to a slip-up by squad members who went socialising after their Ulster semi-final against Donegal.

“We were doing everything by the book at training – and then we did go out, but there’s a lot of the backroom staff feel that it was already in the dressing-room before we even got to Breffni Park that day,” said Morgan.

“It’s roasting hot, and there’s 40-50 people shoved into the two dressing-rooms in Breffni. It’s a very close environment as it is; and then you go out and maybe it spreads a wee bit more. And then you go to Croke Park the following week and there’s maybe symptomatic cases and you’re all put in that dressing-room again. And then more cases come out.

“To be fair to Feargal and Brian, they handled the media side of it really well. And they made a really tough call at the training that Saturday,” he continued, “and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to play next week.

"We don’t feel we’re capable of it, and we’re not going to put you boys in the spotlight of going down and getting a hammering again, because it’s already happened once this year and we’ll take the flak.’

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“They offered it up to us. They said, ‘Is there anybody against this?’ And the players spoke.

“Everybody was sitting about the grass. It was a tough session and the whole of the backroom team came over. We thought it was just the usual round-up and ‘We’ll see youse on Tuesday night’ - and Brian and Feargal hit us with 'We've got medical evidence, medical backing that we shouldn't be playing.’

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Niall Morgan of Tyrone celebrates after the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Niall Morgan of Tyrone celebrates after the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Niall Morgan of Tyrone celebrates after the All-Ireland SFC final win over Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

“A few boys sort of said, 'No, we're playing', and there’s a few boys probably thinking ‘This is my opportunity to play, I haven't played much this year.’ But we did decide as a team then that it was best we didn't play.”

Morgan went on to explain how a question posed by his clubmate, McCurry, drove home the severity of the issue.

"One of the lads, who wouldn't speak much in the huddles, stood up and said, ‘Hold on, if somebody drops on this pitch, who's to blame here?' And I think that made everybody sort of take a step back and think, ‘Wow, there’s people dying from this.’

“I was sure Darren would have been ‘We’re playing this match’ and for him to come out and say that … Darren doesn’t drink, he eats clean, if he eats a takeaway it’s once a fortnight or three weeks. Darren lives for football, and for him to say that was harrowing, I suppose.”

At that stage, the Tyrone camp agreed that their fate lay in the hands of the GAA hierarchy.

“That was said,” Morgan outlined. “We’re going to Croke Park with this medical evidence, we’re going to hand it over, they’ve already got the data of every player that has had Covid, all their symptoms, when they tested positive. Then it’s up to them. If they put us out, you know, we’re holding our ground here – on a medical basis.

"All the talk was the GAA had said we weren’t for changing, only for Kerry. I don’t know how true that is; I think they’re pulling a stance just in case somebody decides next year again ‘Well, we’re not going to play’ if, say, a player is injured.

“Like, it is a pandemic. If we were saying, ‘Oh, Meyler and Pete and Kieran and Mattie and Darren have all injuries, come on, we’ll make up a story and say that we can’t go down and play’ … all the evidence was there, all the reasons behind it.

“Some people agree, some people disagree, and everybody's entitled to their own opinion.

“Some players on the team agreed, some players didn’t agree, but we did it as a team and I think that's the biggest thing that we've had all year.”

Meyler, for his part, was full of praise for how Tyrone’s joint-bosses “managed the whole Covid thing, it was incredible. From the start of the year we did everything by the book. We weren't meeting up, (it was) all on Zoom... then when we got back there were no changing rooms. Still haven’t been in changing rooms.

"We were getting tested at training at times – I don’t know if other counties were doing that either, some maybe didn’t want to know. And there were boys told, ‘You've to go home, you’ve to isolate’ or ‘You've to go and get a proper test.’ The boys were very, very serious about it.”

Even though he was ‘double-jabbed’, Meyler was among those to contract Covid after the virus got into his own family home. “I had no symptoms, and I wouldn’t have known only I was made go for a PCR test,” the Omagh clubman explained.

“I’ve seen it within my own house, how badly my ones were all hit. And my Mum, you’d think she’s working for the Covid police, she’s so strict on the Covid thing because she was working in intensive care with Covid patients in Enniskillen at the start of the year, and then she was brought back in.

“She was so, so cautious – and yet we still picked it up. So, it’s inevitable that people are going to get it. This wasn’t like a choice. People seem to think Tyrone boys seem to want to get it.

“Like, we were for playing that match if we could …. but it is a game, there’s more important things in life. You just have to put the health of the boys first, but I’m glad that obviously the GAA saw a bit of logic and moved the game back a week. For the sake of one week in the whole year, it was ridiculous the attention it got.”

He concluded: "The problem was some boys were so badly hit with it, and there were so many, that it was totally genuine when Feargal and Brian said, 'We're pulling from this because your health is more important'. Boys were very sick. Very sick, for a long time.”

Morgan also tested positive, having initially thought he was merely suffering from hay fever.

“Next you know you’re not training and it’s a bit of a disaster. You’re trying to work on kickouts and your goalkeeper is not there. You’re in the middle of the championship, and maybe our kickouts have been sort of a theme where people like to get at us,” he outlined.

“It was a very difficult stage. And then, when you went back to training, you didn’t know who was going to be there. There were nights that you’d maybe 20 players in total. It was just a disaster – it really was.”

But one that delivered, eventually, the happiest of endings.

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