Tiernan McCann's pursuit of perfection
By Conor O'Shea
One of the greatest coaches in the history of American Football, Vince Lombardi once said: ‘‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.’’
For Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann, the quest for greatness is never-ending.
Aged 26 and in his fourth year on the Tyrone senior football panel, McCann, who hails from Killyclogher on the outskirts of Omagh, is now a mainstay in Mickey Harte’s starting 15. Of course, McCann was driven from a young age, having come from a staunch GAA family.
His father Terry hurled and played football for Tyrone and Killyclogher until he was 39 and also managed the Tyrone Vocational Schools side as well as fulfilling a role as a county coaching officer.
His maternal grandmother, Anna, was a Scór Co-Ordinator in Tyrone and sat on the Tyrone county board for over 20 years. Scór is a competition run by the GAA that combines all the colour and rivalry of Gaelic Games with the social element of Ireland’s traditional past-times.
When asked if he felt any pressure growing up as a young player after his father having a successful career he displays his laid-back qualities.
"Not at all really," says McCann. "I don’t think myself or Conall ever felt pressurised really. We just kept taking any advice we got on board and worked hard at becoming better players. Our parents were very supportive.’’
This year, Tiernan’s younger brother, Conall, has been a central part of Mickey Harte’s plans, after putting in an eye-catching performance on his Championship debut against Derry back in May, notching two points and dominating proceedings in midfield.
Since then he has made the Tyrone number 9 jersey his own to the delight of his older brother.
‘‘I’m delighted he’s got that opportunity to showcase his abilities. He’s really been a standout player for Killyclogher for a number of years now along with Sparky (Mark Bradley), especially on our run to winning the championship last year and he carried that form into the Sigerson with St. Mary’s. I’m confident he’ll continue to improve and develop at County level.’’
Indeed, winning the Tyrone club championship last year is Tiernan’s career highlight to date with the Tyrone defender labelling it as ‘priceless’.
It was just the second time ever that Killyclogher won the competition with the time previous being back in 2003 when his father Terry was still playing. A just reward for the club who had suffered defeat in the final at the hands of Trillick in 2015 on a scoreline of 1-9 to 0-11. Dark days followed for a while, with McCann admitting that it was ‘a long road back’.
2015 was a tough year for McCann on both a footballing and personal level, losing an All-Ireland semi-final to Kerry as well as the Trillick defeat. He received negative publicity from all quarters after a clash with Monaghan’s Darren Hughes in Tyrone’s All-Ireland Quarter Final victory over Monaghan but is now keen to push on as a footballer.
That he certainly has done, establishing himself into of the most lethal attacking half-backs in the country over the past two seasons having played wing-forward in 2015 when he got a sustained run in the Tyrone team.
The seamless transition is little wonder considering he was a keen admirer of Armagh’s Aaron Kernan and Tyrone’s Philip Jordan, both of whom played half-back for their counties during the noughties.
‘‘From my mid-teens I had always seen Aaron Kernan as the perfect role model and a player I wanted to try and develop into as he had everything and represented his club, county, province and country at the highest stage.
"Obviously, Tyrone winning 3 All-Irelands, I took great admiration from those players. They were blessed with Phillip Jordan as a key component, he was a terrific player I modelled my game on."
He acknowledges that the modern game is constantly evolving and that what number jersey is worn doesn’t have too much bearing on where one might end up playing over the course of 70 minutes.
‘‘To be honest, I’ve always been a half back in the Tyrone colours. Made my championship debut in 2014 wearing 5 and wore 10 in 2015, but played in our back 6 regularly.
"But, as we’ve seen many times before numbers nowadays don’t really pay much significance as the middle 8 roles are now so interchangeable. Take Petey Harte for example; who wears 7 but is the best forward in the country.’"
This is one of the many attributes of a Mickey Harte team, players who are flexible and can play in a variety of different positions to try and bamboozle the opposition.
Tyrone, who have won the Ulster Championship for the second consecutive year are gathering momentum and will meet the All-Ireland Champions Dublin in a mouthwatering All-Ireland Semi-Final on August 27th in Croke Park.
It really is a case of 'The Irresistible Force' against 'The Immovable Object', with Tyrone’s mean defence coming up against Dublin’s flamboyant attack.
Tyrone have conceded twice in their previous eight Championship games and operate with a double sweeper system. Many harboured doubts about their supposed lack of firepower but they have had a big spread of scorers and have accumulated 6-77 in their 4 Championship games to date. Only their opponents Dublin have scored more.
Their biggest attribute is their ability to force an opposition turnover and break at lightning speed up the pitch, a plan which McCann plays an integral role marauding forward.
He attributes his Ferrari-like engine to speed-work, gym work, long distance runs, the right preparation and Tyrone Fitness Coach, Peter Donnelly.
"We are extremely well coached and conditioned. A healthy diet and a good night's sleep complement that too. Peter Donnelly is the man to ask.’’
Not that the busy Tiernan McCann has the time to sit down and dwell on things too much at the moment anyway. He works as a pharmacist on a locum basis and currently resides in Santry in North Dublin. Travelling up and down to Garvaghey to attend Tyrone training sessions during the week while working is a tough task and something must give.
‘‘It gives me the platform to be flexible with my work, operating as a locum. I’ve a weekly planner app on my phone which I put everything into, I’d be lost without it. This year I have found it manageable albeit I have had to work less to compensate getting to training and games.’’
When asked about playing club football in Dublin he vehemently renounces any notion of easing the burden on himself, proudly stating: ‘‘Killyclogher is my club and I owe them everything!’’
Occupied between trying to improve professionally and as a footballer, McCann says that the work can always be ‘topped up’ before a big game. He acknowledges that Jim Gavin’s side will be a massive challenge.
‘‘I don’t think the work is ever done leading into a big game. A lot of work is in the bank yes, but you’ve got to keep that topped up. We’ve been sharpening the tools so to speak. A huge challenge yes, but one I know Mickey will have us ready for.’’
Mental preparation has been ‘invaluable’ to Tyrone with Harte’s charges often doing group work to mentally prepare for games. Following on from a disappointing exit to Mayo last year there is a sense that there is something different about this current Tyrone crop, something which McCann puts down to experience.
‘‘Once bitten twice shy I think. We’ve experienced the pain of defeat and disappointment whereas last year we went the whole year unbeaten and got caught cold by a better Mayo team. Experience I suppose.’’
Before concluding, Tiernan McCann is asked what he sees down the line for himself as a player and as a person.
"As clichéd as it may sound, I’m focusing on the Dublin game because I know how much of a challenge that’s going to be," he says.
"As a player and person, I suppose you’re always seeking that improvement, and that’s something I place an emphasis on.’’
Another step in Tiernan McCann’s pursuit of perfection.