'It could have got really ugly but never did'
Armagh-Tyrone clashes are now the main event in Ulster, writes Dermot Crowe, who meets two of the architects of a fierce rivalry
IN 2002, Seán Cavanagh was in his first year as a Tyrone senior player, sampling a starter course of championship football against Armagh. Tyrone had won the league, held Ulster and had designs on an All-Ireland but Armagh took them in a provincial quarter-final replay, won Ulster in July and immortality in September.
Cavanagh found himself removed to the periphery like most others, watching Kieran McGeeney raise Sam from a packed pub in Drumcondra.
Cavanagh handed two complimentary tickets for the 2002 All-Ireland final on to more needy causes. He was then dating Armagh footballer Charlie Vernon's sister, now his wife, and knew a stack of lads in the club at home who were Armagh in their faith. He watched the game between Kerry and Armagh unfold and then the dramatic twist and outcome. He was happy for his girlfriend and her family and the friends he knew. He schooled with Ronan Clarke. It showed Tyrone weren't far off.
But, he can't lie. He was miserable.
"It made me sick that Armagh had won the All-Ireland, there is no point denying it. Another boy from the Moy with me, when we were leaving the pub, I remember him saying 'well if Armagh can do it, you can do it'. And that is the thing that stuck in my head because it sort of opened the gate for us. We knew we were only a point or two from Armagh."
Armagh were in a serious vein of form that summer. Stevie McDonnell remembers them coming off a training trip in La Manga and being in the condition of their lives. McDonnell's fiercest foe was undoubtedly Tyrone even though some of his countymen might have chosen Down over the years as a more natural rival. That changed over the course of the last decade when Armagh and Tyrone brought rivalry to a point unmatched anywhere else.
Since 2000 the counties have met ten times in the championship, including replays, across all walks of championship life. They renew acquaintances at the Athletic Grounds this afternoon in the quarter-final of the Ulster Championship. Neither is the force it once was. For the first time since their rivalry began to escalate neither is approaching the contest as a provincial title holder or an All-Ireland champion. Donegal ended a duopoly that stretched back to 1999.
But the tie can still weave a spell. Cavanagh's last piece of championship action was a point he kicked at the end of last year's third-round qualifier in Omagh which sealed a comfortable victory over Armagh. He will miss today's match through injury and it is killing him.
"It's horrific; the more you think about it the more it gets you down. I have to accept it. I have a younger brother (Colm) playing anyway and a brother-in-law on the Armagh panel and being from the Moy you will always have an interest in an Armagh game.
"To be honest with you, the thought went through my head whether to go to the game or not. And that's the truth. There is nothing as frustrating. I should be out there."
It is the first championship game against Armagh Cavanagh will miss in his career and only the third championship fixture overall.
McDonnell was blessed to never miss a championship match and bookended his career with games against Tyrone. On his last day in 2011, he was Armagh's chief score-getter but his penalty cleared the crossbar in the second half when they were chasing the game. There was no happy ending. Today he will be working for BBC radio.
"When I made a decision (to retire) there was one thing that kept coming back, Armagh v Tyrone, but the reality is that when I am 45 years old and Armagh are playing Tyrone in a championship match I will still want to play in that championship match."
As a reminder of how gripping the rivalry had become at its peak, the counties drew an astonishing attendance of almost 20,000 to a McKenna Cup semi-final at Casement Park in 2006. By then they were the two most fascinating teams in the country and their rivalry characterised who they were and where they had come from.
McDonnell says their relationship brought the standard of football and quality of preparation to new heights. "When Tyrone beat us in the (All-Ireland) final in '03 and semi-final in '05 there was a lot of bitterness there and jealousy and what-ifs; what if I hadn't got blocked by Conor Gormley in the '03 final? I can never guarantee I would have scored a goal. What if we had kicked on when we went a few points up in the '03 final? You'll never know. But one thing for sure I remember coming out of that (2005) semi-final knowing that Tyrone were going to win the All-Ireland.
"I remember watching it in '05 in the golf club and I was extremely pissed off because I knew they were going to win it. That was the best Tyrone team I have ever seen. And we had the best Armagh team and whoever got to the final that year was going to blow Kerry out."
At that point the rivalry reached its natural peak with three championship meetings in quick succession. They met in an Ulster final at Croke Park that went to a replay and later the All-Ireland semi-final. Tyrone had matched Armagh's All-Ireland win and become obsessed with overtaking them.
That All-Ireland semi-final saw something snap in Armagh's resistance; they have never fully recovered since. "That game had a fierce high intensity," says McDonnell, "the scores that were taken, some of the tackles that were made. I remember having an opportunity in the second half and kicking it wide from maybe 21 yards. That haunts me; that could have put us three up and we might have kicked on."
Instead, Cavanagh emerged as a driving influence as Armagh took off his marker, McGeeney. "As much as I detested Kieran McGeeney lifting the Sam Maguire," says Cavanagh, "at the same time I admired what he had done and achieved.
"My idol when I was growing up was Anthony Tohill and I was lucky enough to mark him in a qualifier in 2002 up in Casement Park. It was the same with Kieran in '05, when I marked him. It was me coming through as a young player who wanted to show what I could do, but I knew it would be intense. There wasn't much off-the-ball chat but you could see both of us going hard
as we could for every ball. In my mind, that was Armagh's biggest mistake, taking him off that day.
"I can't remember who picked me up in those last ten minutes. But I felt there was freedom; God, McGeeney is gone. Armagh have lost the whole focal point of their defence. And I was lucky to get five or six possessions in those last ten minutes and I got a score and set up another one. It was almost like going back as a child again, you felt free."
There was never much between the teams, just over three points on aggregate since 2000. Games were knife-edged and totally consuming spectacles. In an way it seems odd
that there wasn't more trouble, that they held it together as well as they did.
But it was never a picnic. In a league match in Omagh in March 2003, with Armagh unbeaten in a year and All-Ireland champions, Tyrone refused to offer them the customary guard of honour as they took the field.
"I wouldn't think too much about the parade, that meant nothing to us," states McDonnell. "But I always remember one incident in that match, myself and Ryan McMenamin.
"It was actually a sideline ball that should have gone to us. I kind of shadowed the ball over the line and the linesman gave it to Tyrone, and I was pissed off and was giving him (linesman) everything. What does McMenamin do? He comes up and gives me a kiss in the face."
In spite of the heat and the high stakes, McDonnell relished being part of it. And he developed a genuine respect for McMenamin. "He built up a reputation but to be fair to him I always found him to be a fierce competitor and a player I always enjoyed marking because he was going to test you to your absolute limit."
For the 2003 All-Ireland final he had McMenamin in his head for weeks leading up to it. McDonnell was having his best season and would later be crowned Footballer of the Year. But before the start Cormac McAnallen went on him and it threw him off kilter.
Over two years later, on the night of the 2005 All Stars, he was dying to ask McMenamin a question that had been on his mind since that year's semi-final.
"For some unknown reason, it's not like him; he never opened his mouth to me. He just went out and played football. And Seán will back me up here, he is a fantastic footballer, and sometimes his first job is to get inside the head of an opponent. Anyway he never opened his mouth to me in the semi-final and I asked him why he didn't and his answer was plain and simple. Some players it works on and others it doesn't; he obviously felt it didn't with me, only spurred me on more.
"I always enjoyed listening to his stories (laughs). The thing is, there are a lot of talented footballers out there who are mentally weak, and getting inside their heads can put them off. He did it because it worked and I have absolutely no qualms about that. Because when you pull on a county jersey and you go out on the field, you do whatever it takes to win."
McDonnell admits there is "jealousy" in knowing that Tyrone won three All-Irelands and Armagh took just one. But he can't help admiring Tyrone for what they achieved. "They didn't give a shite who was in it. You look at what they have done against Kerry, they have played them three times in the championship and beat them each time and that against one of the best Kerry teams.
"In 2008, Seán was captain of our international rules team and I think we were in Parnell Park for that the following Friday night and I remember shaking his hand after winning the All-Ireland. The point that (Brian) Dooher scored is what stood out in my mind and he didn't have the best of starts. In my opinion, he scored one of the best points ever in Croke Park. He took on the ó Sé's and kicked it over the bar, that rubberstamped Tyrone; they didn't give a damn about reputations."
Cavanagh recalls McGeeney on an international assignment in 2003 calling to the room he shared with Kevin Hughes late at night to offer his congratulations on them winning their first senior All-Ireland. Both McDonnell and Cavanagh insist that among the players it never spilled over into hatred.
"I think when you come off the field you have respect for each other," says McDonnell firmly. "I believe that is the way it should be. You should be able to shake your opponent's hand. There were incidents. You had a small melee in 2005. Then when Ryan McMenamin dropped his knees into John McEntee. You get that when there is so much at stake. But there were really strong characters. I am sure Tyrone players came up against worse in their training sessions and we were the same."
Cavanagh says it always managed to stay on the right side of the line. "You did almost hate them. Things could have got really ugly, but it never got like that. But you hit them as hard as you could."
As a measure of how much it once dominated life, McDonnell had to change the date of his child's Christening in 2006 at Joe Kernan's request to allow him play against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup. That was the day nearly 20,000 showed up. "It was crazy," says the Killeavy man. "The GAA moved Ulster finals to Croke Park because more people wanted to see Tyrone play Armagh, that was the reason behind it."
Cavanagh agrees it had become obsessional. "In all those years we always looked out to see where Armagh was and when we'd be meeting them. Once we were able to get through Armagh we kind of felt we had it. It was frightening going out in 2005 (All-Ireland semi-final). I remember after that game the relief on our faces and we sort of half-knew we were going to do it in the final because we felt that nothing could be as bad as that. We felt: now we have beaten Armagh we can't lose this."
And so on to the Athletic Grounds for the latest re-enactment with a newish cast and many of the old protagonists gone. The wider world is no longer in the grip of Tyrone and Armagh. In Ulster and in the two counties, though, what they created in the last decade has ensured its appeal is perpetual.
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