Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 17 March 2018

Friendly foes bring out best in each other

Derry versus Armagh isn't the darkest of Ulster rivalries, but that doesn't mean it has passed without incident, says Dermot Crowe

I N the baking hot oven of Ulster football rivalry, the fiercest heat is generated by Tyrone and Derry. Joe Brolly blowing kisses at Tyrone fans after scoring a goal against them in the championship is the money shot of their frayed relationship. He is proud and provocative; they are agitated and appalled. In that context, the history of Derry and Armagh, who meet this afternoon at Celtic Park, is an oasis of calm.

But it has had its moments and some of their matches over the best part of 60 years have led to seminal twists for both counties. The last encounter was the only one of 17 meetings to occur outside Ulster, in the 2007 qualifiers, and ended the management reign of Joe Kernan. If Armagh will always rue not winning a second All-Ireland in the last decade, then Derry shoulder the same baggage from the 1990s. When they surrendered that fight, Armagh took their seat in 1999.

Today's match comes at a time when neither county is in the pristine condition they were back then. The last meeting in Ulster was in 2005 when Mickey Moran managed Derry and presided over a defeat to Armagh which would see his team freefall into the qualifiers and a fourth-round exit to Laois at Croke Park. Moran's three-year term ended there.

Before that again, they met in the 2000 Ulster final when Armagh's emerging superiority was reinforced with a well-deserved one-point win at Clones. Anthony Tohill struck a late free from 50 yards wide which would have levelled the game and Derry haven't been in an Ulster final since. Today's preliminary-round meeting doesn't have the same status but a win for Derry will ease concerns over their poor league form and Armagh need to consolidate the good work of recent months. Even with the qualifiers as a safety net, losing the first round of the championship is not widely prescribed as beneficial.

Jim McKeever played in the first Ulster senior championship game between Derry and Armagh in 1953. "I had spent a year in college in England and came home the night before. I remember having to go off; I got a thump on the face and had to get stitches. Armagh had a good team." Much too good for Derry at the time, who lost 1-5 to 4-11, a margin of 15 points that remains a record.

Derry's chief tormentor was a forward named Art O'Hagan who scored three first-half goals. Armagh reached the All-Ireland the same year and lost to Kerry. The following summer Armagh won 1-12 to 1-6, McKeever's late goal of little consolation. Back they headed in 1955 to Casement Park to renew acquaintances. Derry turned the tables on Armagh with a 3-4 to 0-2 victory. The win sealed Derry's passage to the Ulster final for the first time since 1921.

The decade had more to offer. In 1958, Derry won Ulster and then defeated Kerry to reach the All-Ireland final, where they lost to Dublin. The following spring they met Kerry in the league final, with many predicting the same pairing to be challenging for the All-Ireland tile in Croke Park that September. But Derry crashed to an Ulster first-round loss to Armagh at Lurgan.

"They caught us badly on the hop," recalls McKeever of the one game that really sticks out in his mind. "Derry had gone to play a friendly the week before, part of a long-standing commitment to play in Roscommon. It turned out to be in the middle of a heatwave. The following Sunday we were playing Armagh. I can remember that disappointment. We expected to do better."

That effectively ended Derry's All-Ireland ambitions and it would be a long time before they resurfaced. Derry bounced back to beat Armagh in 1960 but lost in the next round to Cavan. The counties didn't meet again until 1971.

Derry's win in '71 was repeated more emphatically in '75 and '76, with 14- and 11-point margins. Yet in 1977 Armagh buried them in the Ulster final, winning 3-10 to 1-5. For Joe Kernan, it was a moment to relish. "We were lucky to get over Cavan in the first round. We beat Monaghan in the semi-final and Derry in the final. Something clicked. We were playing with belief and confidence."

But just as Derry finished his management career in 2007, they also saw out his playing days 20 years before. Kernan made his final playing appearance -- "the last day I wore the jersey" -- when introduced as a sub against Derry in the 1987 Ulster final. The match finished with Derry two points in front. Managing Armagh was Fr Seán Hegarty, aided by the late Eamon Coleman, a Derry man to the core. Hegarty managed Armagh for much of the 1980s and had one year in charge of Derry in 1990 before his close friend Coleman stepped in and changed history. They had a shared love of football that lasted until Coleman's untimely death. "When Eamon died," says Hegarty, an Armagh native, "a part of me died too".

In the 1987 Ulster final, Armagh had a player sent off in the first half after an incident involving current Derry manger Damien Cassidy. But their meetings were generally free of rancour. "If Derry won and beat Armagh, you would have as many Armagh people in Croke Park wanting them to win," says Jarlath Burns, the former Armagh player. "There would not be hatred at all. We are separated by Tyrone. And Lough Neagh."

Burns was part of the Armagh effort in the 1990s to dislodge Derry as Ulster's leading force. Having failed three times in four years to beat Derry, they finally came good in 1999. Burns recalls the first of those defeats, a ten-point lesson in 1995, which ended the reign of Jim McCorry. In the dressing room at half-time, the captain John Grimley, who had been left on the bench, went on a tirade. But the team didn't muster the recovery he demanded.

John Morrison was Armagh coach in 1995 when McCorry stepped down. He later served from 2003 to 2005 as coach to Mickey Moran with Derry. In the last of those years they faced Morrison's native Armagh in an Ulster semi-final and lost. "There has always has been lot of friendship between the two counties, particularly in university," he says. "Anthony Tohill and Kieran McGeeney I think were room-mates in university. In 2005, John Toal got a snap goal which turned the game for Armagh."

He describes that day "the second most horrible of my life"; the first being the Ulster final of 2002 when coaching Donegal when they faced the Orchard County. Morrison says Armagh have been more influenced by rugby-style physical conditioning than any other county in Ulster. Derry is commonly seen as championing ball players.

The 1999 Armagh win proved pivotal. It had been 22 years since Armagh had beaten Derry in the championship and in doing so they qualified for a first Ulster final since 1990. Cathal O'Rourke carried much of the scoring load for Armagh during the 1990s. "I think part of the problem was that not only did we admire Derry in years past, we actually revered them," he said at the time. "They have been the albatross round our necks for too long really and I know that a championship win over them would set this Armagh team up as realistic Ulster title contenders for the next five years."

Diarmuid Marsden scored the winning point and declared it extra special as he had never been on an Armagh team that overcame Derry. A year later, Derry rallied late but lost again. "The best team won on the day but I'm finished," said Eamon Coleman afterwards, the crestfallen Derry manager. "That's my last fling and nothing will change my mind. I gave it my best shot. I'm not bitter at being beaten."

But he came back and gave it two more years. Losing to Armagh was bad, but it wasn't the end of the world.

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