Decline of the empire
The fading fortunes of Armagh and Tyrone in recent seasons does not augur well for the future health of football in Ulster
Published 18/06/2011 | 05:00
WHICH of this year's Ulster football games booked some space in your memory locker?
Armagh v Down? It was interesting enough, but hardly fell into the "were you in the Athletic Grounds on the night Armagh beat Down in the 2011 Ulster championship?" category.
The other four games? They served their purpose in terms of keeping the campaign ticking along while also filling some slots for the first round of the qualifiers.
There are, of course, three games to go, so maybe the real quality has yet to announce its arrival.
Don't bank on it.
Let's rewind to last year. Which game do you recall from the Ulster championship? Try hard now.
Scarcely the one-sided Tyrone-Monaghan final, or the equally lopsided Monaghan v Fermanagh semi-final, or the uncompetitive quarter-final where Monaghan beat Armagh by 12 points.
The Tyrone v Down semi-final went well for 20 minutes, but Down managed just two points in the subsequent 50 minutes.
The most entertaining game was the Donegal v Down quarter-final, which went to extra-time, although it won't figure on even an extended catalogue of classics, let alone a short list.
2009? Unremarkable by any standards. With respect to Antrim, their form has been unspectacular, yet they reached the 2009 Ulster final which suggest standards weren't all that high in their half of the draw.
Now flick back to the 2005 Ulster championship.
That's right, the one that featured four replays and took 12 games to complete, including the drawn and replayed finals between Armagh and Tyrone, which drew a total of 92,140 spectators to Croke Park.
The Armagh-Tyrone rivalry of that period was a national event, attracting spectators from well beyond either county. Indeed, a case can be made for arguing that the three Armagh-Tyrone clashes in the 2005 championship (they also met in the All-Ireland semi-final) were the best series of games between any two counties in GAA history.
Admittedly, that's a fairly limited field, since it's most unusual for counties to meet more than twice in the championship in the one campaign.
However, it does include the 1991 four-game Dublin v Meath saga, a series which is back in focus on its 20th anniversary.
Was Armagh v Tyrone 2005 better than Dublin v Meath 1991? In my view, yes. Armagh and Tyrone were very much at the peak of their considerable powers in 2005, whereas in 1991, Meath had slipped from the heights of their best years (1987-88), while Dublin were four years away from an All-Ireland success.
Dublin v Meath was an enthralling affair because of the remarkable way in which the sides were drawn to equality in the closing minutes of all four games (two of which went to extra-time), including the deciding clash where only one point separated them.
Even then, Jack Sheedy had a late chance to level it up and send the game into extra-time, only to see his long-range free drift wide.
The 2005 Armagh-Tyrone rivalry had a different texture.
Both had won All-Irelands over the previous three years and it was 1-1 in championship clashes between them during 2002-2003. Their three games in 2005 were essentially in different competitions, with Armagh winning the Ulster final in a replay and Tyrone's win coming in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Nobody can deny that Armagh and Tyrone took Ulster football to a remarkable high over the last decade. While doing so, they dragged others with them, perhaps not on a permanent basis, but over shorter periods or even on a given day.
Fermanagh, for instance, enjoyed some exciting times between 2003 and 2008, reaching an All-Ireland semi-final, a league semi-final (Division 1) and an Ulster final where they lost a replay to Armagh.
Cavan took Tyrone to a replay in the 2005 Ulster semi-final; Down did likewise with Tyrone in the final two years earlier. Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland in both years.
Monaghan and Fermanagh drew with Armagh in 2006, but lost the replays and then watched as Joe Kernan's squad won a third successive Ulster title before losing, unluckily, to Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
It was the end of Armagh as the enforcers that had imposed themselves on the scene for so long and while they came back to win Ulster in 2008, it was not a particularly good campaign overall.
Since then, Tyrone have dominated Ulster, but have dropped quite some way back from the lofty heights they reached, via the qualifiers, in the 2008 All-Ireland series or, indeed, before that.
The essential point about Ulster is that neither Tyrone nor Armagh are anywhere nearly as good as in their peak years, yet so far at least, nobody has been able to dethrone them in Ulster.
Down have been dismally disappointing on the provincial circuit and while they put an excellent run together to reach last year's All-Ireland final, they haven't kicked on this year.
On the contrary, their performance against Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final was a throwback to the worst of their erratic days.
Ulster can argue that theirs isn't the only championship where standards are questionable at present, which is a very fair point.
However, the difference is that whereas Leinster has been unconvincing for a very long time, Connacht has gone into decline with the deterioration of Galway and Mayo and Munster rely on Cork and Kerry, Ulster was the province with the largest number of title contenders for the local prize.
Also, they could rely on their champions -- and some others -- to make a bold bid for All-Ireland honours.
Two questions arise. Are any of the Ulster counties, including Armagh and Tyrone, capable of hoisting the bar back to last-decade levels? And, if not, who will benefit from the decline?
Cork and Kerry continue to be the market leaders from the other three provinces, with Dublin and Kildare driving on from Leinster, although it remains to be seen how far they get. As for Connacht, it's difficult to see Sam Maguire crossing the Shannon any time soon.
To suggest that Ulster has declined invariably draws accusations of not recognising that it remains the most competitive province. Nobody is disputing that, but competitiveness and quality should not be confused.
Gaelic football needs Ulster's top teams to remain at the levels attained in the last decade.
These were not only the benchmark for other counties in the province but for a great many outside it, too.
It would be a pity if Ulster were to lose any altitude, especially since there are no guarantees that anybody else, with the exception of Cork and Kerry, can reach the dizzy heights achieved by the outstanding Tyrone and Armagh teams of the last decade.