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Dublin: 3°C Tuesday 26 January 2021
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Friends reunited: old sparring partners Armagh and Tyrone face off again

Though they might not like admitting it, they drove each other on to All-Ireland glory in the last decade. Ewan MacKenna charts a northern rivalry.

Attending the launch of the replica model of Croke Park Stadium, Peter Harte of Tyrone and Ciaran McKeever of Armagh.
Attending the launch of the replica model of Croke Park Stadium, Peter Harte of Tyrone and Ciaran McKeever of Armagh.
Image: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

ON THE SURFACE it can seem a little sad.

There we were, just a handful of years back, watching two teams that had never won an All-Ireland between them take over not just their province but also the nation and change the way we watch and play the sport.

Of course there were the All Irelands. After the 2002 final, graffiti went up around north Armagh reading: “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods”. A year on and Tyrone no longer coveted them, as instead they took them.

But there were so many other memories too. From the high end and the greatest game of football ever played in the last four in 2005 to the low end and nearly 20,000 people jostling for space during a McKenna Cup tie a few months later.

We’d never seen the likes of it before.

But delve deeper and dig beneath that surface because while Tyrone and Armagh may never be as good again, at least they have each other. The bigger picture doesn’t always come into it with these two and while their result no longer decides the country’s finest, there’s still plenty of satisfaction to be had from just one win. After all, long before there was silverware to plunder, neither had a problem going to war for nothing more than pride.

A few years ago, talking to Benny Tierney, he recalled a day when Armagh and Tyrone “had no delusions about themselves and we could kick the living shite out of each other and for no more than bragging rights”. The game was in Omagh and Tierney had listened to a choir of Strabane boys singing “you fat bastard” from behind his goal in the first half.

When he returned after the interval, they’d switched ends and continued on as before. But they never expected a late Tierney save or a narrow Armagh win and when the final whistle went, he launched into a celebration solely for their viewing.

He pulled his jersey over his head, wiggled his arse and started to slap his belly. When he pulled the jersey back down half-a-minute later, he saw four of his Strabane neighbours scaling the fence and took off.

“I would have been killed,” he joked to me. “No one knew why I left the field so early. It was all good fun though.”

Another day he had a water bottle and began squirting his old college mate Peter Canavan. The two of them laughed it off but the crowd didn’t. “I might as well have taken his head off, given the reaction,” he recalled. “I miss all that though. Armagh-Tyrone is the reason you play football.”

Noisy neighbours

Maybe it’s because theirs is the least friendly of local rivalries that it means more. Because, long before the glory days, there were other days. Back in the 1950s, a replay between the sides in the Athletic Grounds ended with Tyrone hiding in the pavilion well past nightfall. A late 50 had drifted into the net to give the visitors a one-point win and started a riot on and off the pitch. The referee immediately blew full-time but when a Tyrone official peered out of the dressing room, he saw a bloodbath and his team refused to leave until the crowd dispersed.

It was after 10 when the police moved in and they finally made a victorious return across the county boundary.

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And so it continued. A challenge match in Castleblaney in 1987 that never saw half-time and was later described as the stupidest decision either county board ever made. A championship clash the following summer that saw war break out in the tunnel. A goal that remained the highlight of Ger Houlahan’s career in Omagh in 1993. All incestuous. All played out to a private audience. All back before they were kings.

“Things changed though,” Joe Kernan once told me. “Things went national.

“There’s no denying what pushed Tyrone on to win an All Ireland was us winning one the year before. We are great local rivals and have both brought the best out in each other. You can’t ask for a greater compliment. Contrary to reports at the time, we were good for the game. We changed the way football was played. The only thing is you’d be envious with us having just the one All Ireland. And when you think of that, you have to look at 2005. It was one of the best games and worst memories in my years in charge.”

Early that summer, Armagh had somehow survived an onslaught from the hottest forward of the year, Stephen O’Neill, and won an Ulster final replay. As the team gathered around the Anglo-Celt Cup in the middle of Croke Park, Kernan warned them this was a beginning rather than an end. That if they were to get back to the top and win that second All-Ireland they’d have to come past Tyrone again. He wasn’t wrong. “The semi-final was everything you wanted,” continued Kernan. “It was physical. It was fast. It came down to a free at the end. If the referee had blown the whistle a minute earlier, no one would have complained at a draw. It’s a little sad that it was decided like that.”

Paddy Russell was the referee that made the call as Armagh raged against the dying of the light. With seconds remaining, he saw Ciarán McKeever grab hold of O’Neill’s shirt. It allowed Peter Canavan to leave us all another enduring image from this great rivalry. “I was nervous going into that,” recalled Russell to me in 2009. “I was well aware of what happened when the two met in Ulster. It was messy stuff. Three sendings off. But in fairness the teams went out that day and showed everything that was great about themselves. And turns out it was one of the easiest games to referee because it was just good, tough, hard-hitting football. Everything you want in Gaelic football was there. Yes, it was decided by a free, but I wasn’t there to make a draw of it. I had to implement the rules and it was a free. No doubt.”

Afterwards Kernan described that encounter as being like the Thrilla in Manila. He said the crowd had felt every blow. But after retiring in the 14th round of his bout with Ali in the Philippines, Joe Frazier never won another fight. And after losing a split decision that semi-final, Armagh dropped away. “A body blow,” said John McEntee of the day. “We were desperate for our second All-Ireland and that was the year to win it. It was a significant moment in that we were knocked off our perch when we were maybe at our best. But worse teams won two All-Irelands and for that reason I hope what we did is not forgotten.”

Yet in the era of the back door, while their remarkable record in Ulster can be devalued, it cannot be discounted. And by being so good, they finally broke Gaelic football’s tradition and turned a Big Two into a Big Three. Before there was Dublin and Kerry, Kerry and Offaly and Cork and Meath. But in 2005, there was an Armagh side better than the 2002 version, a Tyrone team better than the 2003 model and a Kerry that were an improvement on 2004. It had and has never been so good and that’s what made losing by so little so hard to take.

Joe Kernan. INPHO/Donall Farmer

“It was a crushing defeat,” Tierney, who was part of the backroom team by 2005, said to me. “When I stopped playing I found it very easy just to get into family life. But that was the first game after retiring that I really felt something coming home on the bus. Pain. There was nothing between those sides. You could nearly see Armagh were a dying team, coming to the end, still trying to cling on to what they had achieved. There’s an awful feeling that comes over county players when they near the end and you fight for your last breath and I could see Armagh doing it that day.”

And after the last breath had been drawn there was silence. Returning to the bowels of Croke Park after the final whistle, Davy Harte patted Oisin McConville on the back of his head and all hell broke loose. He kicked out at the Tyrone player and when Joe McMahon joined in as well, McConville was dragged into the dressing room by teammates. No point fighting for what’s already lost. That’s when it really hit home. It was nothing more than a vacuum. There was no frustration or anger. Just lonely quiet.

Now though there’s again a blast of noise. While Armagh have never returned to that level, at least Tyrone have returned to their level. That’s what makes Sunday’s meeting so exciting. In sickness and in health, through good times and bad, there has been a rivalry that’s never disappointed. All Irelands and trend-setting teams may be behind both counties, but the bitterness is not. For that reason we should be thankful.

For that reason we can look forward as well as back.

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