Iconic trio give unique insight into Ulster football
Philip Jordan, Ross Carr and John Morrison, came together to discuss what is by far the most competitive provincial championship
You couldn't hope to capture a better reflection of the parochial splendour that is the Ulster football championship than last Sunday's clash between Tyrone and Down.
Along with Munster hurling it's a jewel in the GAA provincial crown and perhaps the most attractive thing about it is that it can take many forms. Last Sunday was dour for long stages before an infusion of drama dragged everyone back to the edge of their seats.
By far the most competitive of the provincial campaigns, Ulster is especially so this time around. As of this morning, there are five counties harbouring realistic ambitions of winning the title. Along with Tyrone, conquerors of Down in yesterday evening's preliminary round replay, Derry, Donegal and Monaghan are all genuine contenders for the Anglo-Celt Cup. Furthermore, Armagh won't fear anyone, while the winners of Antrim and Fermanagh will stand just one game away from a provincial final.
For much of the past 10 years the province was dominated by Tyrone and Armagh, but now a summer of unpredictability awaits us. Munster continues to be a two-horse race, while Dublin and Mayo are streets ahead in their respective provinces, so it's down to the northern counties to provide the sense of competition we demand until the All-Ireland series arrives.
We asked three iconic Ulster football figures – coach, manager and former Armagh player John Morrison, two-time All-Ireland winner and All Star Ross Carr and three-time All-Ireland winner and four-time All Star, Philly Jordan – to sit down at the Armagh City Hotel to discuss the conundrum that is the Ulster football championship.
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Damian Lawlor: Tell me what the Ulster football championship means to you guys?
Philly Jordan: It's very parochial. (Silence before there is laughter all around)
Ross Carr: Master of the understatement.
John Morrison: It's our life.
DL: Go on . . .
JM: During the Troubles we learned to fight, not literally fight, for what we have now. People from other parts of the country would have said, 'Fair play to them', but I don't know if there was a real appreciation that we had to fight for our sport. Once Down made the breakthrough, things changed. People from around the country saw us as threats then because Derry, Donegal, Armagh and Tyrone all came through to win All-Ireland titles after. Five of the last 12 All-Irelands have gone up north.
RC: I think problems for Gaelic footballers in Down only materialised as we became more successful. From 1983 to 1990 I don't think the Brits even knew we had a football team. In the middle of our successful era we went to Jordanstown for a training weekend. I collected DJ (Kane) and I was stopped. It was raining but my bag was taken out and emptied out onto the ground and they went through all my cassette tapes. They pulled the tape out, that stuff.
DL: Were you intimidated?
RC: Not in the slightest. You got on with it. It made us stronger.
JM: It didn't make you bitter; it was just the way it was. Growing up, I never thought about the words 'hate' and 'prejudice'. We got on with it.
PJ: It was part of life. Outside of sport as well. Whenever we went to see Tyrone play in Dublin as kids we knew we'd be stopped. Life went on.
DL: Philly, was this part of the reason why the Tyrone team decided to learn the words of Amhrán na bhFiann?
PJ: There were a couple of angles. Mickey (Harte) wanted us focused on something before the throw-in so we decided to learn the national anthem. It was said to us that we were some of the few boys in the country who couldn't sing it. My proudest day was playing against Down in 2004. The amount of supporters who said afterwards that all they could hear was us singing. A few years later I met Mickey, and said we had lost that focus. We used to belt out the anthem and everyone was proud to sing it. So we started doing it again.
JM: What ye did with the anthem, learning the words, made the hair stand on my neck. It was so passionate. Maybe deep down ye were expressing the fact that ye were now free to play in your own country. The Troubles had ended, things were improving and Tyrone were winning. It was like a weight was lifted off your shoulders.
PJ: Well, Tyrone were different in that some of us had won All-Irelands as minors and under 21s and while Ulster counties had been knocking on the door, we kicked the door open by winning championships. We never had an inferiority complex; we believed we had the best players in the country.
DL: Tyrone's players may have come up through the ranks with confidence and success, but it wasn't like that for many others.
RC: It wasn't. Down won an Ulster title in 1981 and won the league in 1983 but although we got to the Ulster final in '86, we were constantly beaten thereafter in semis and first rounds. I was on the panel eight years and thinking this isn't going to happen for us: but by luck or design we ended up winning All-Irelands. And once you win, it sets the ball rolling for others. So your goal-setting changes. Back then we couldn't look further than an Ulster championship; everything was all knockout and the rivalries were more geographical rivals than intense. To have a rivalry you need to play against each other regularly but that only happened in the mid-2000s when Armagh and Tyrone were winning Ulster and competing against each other but could meet in the All-Ireland series too. The qualifier system brought a new level of competition to all championships. That's why the Ulster championship is so competitive now – not because they are exceptional teams. It's more that teams are at a general level close to each other now rather than being so far ahead like Armagh and Tyrone were years ago.
DL: So, could this year's championship be the most competitive of all time?
RC: It's definitely the most evenly balanced. For 10 years only two teams could win it. Maybe now we have five who can win. Monaghan have to show us they can be consistent winners, Donegal's recent history gives them a chance, Derry's form is good and then Tyrone are most people's favourites. The other teams can make it difficult. Cavan are coming hard; Armagh are always a threat but they're not good enough to win it this year.
PJ: The thing is that it's different for every player. Some players will target an Ulster medal and it will be the be all and end all. For others, Ulster is just one of two championships they will want to win this year.
JM: Growing up, Ulster football was the only Gaelic football of any real quality that you saw. Dad would take you to matches and it was a gentlemanly sport. If your team was knocked out you rowed in behind your rivals. I remember standing out the road there with Down flags, Derry flags, supporting whoever was playing. Then other counties started getting their name on the trophy and now if you come out of Ulster you are seen as a potential All-Ireland winner. This year is balanced and it might come down to resources yet. The notion of money has created a 'have and have not' split. All counties want to do the same things as their rivals but they can't because they don't have money. The rivalries are more intense now, but a lot of it has been ramped up by the press. There is still a lot of banter about here.
DL: How would you gauge the respect now shown to you by teams from the south?
JM: Everyone loved us 'til we started winning! (laughter all round). We came to Dublin, took home silverware and they didn't like us anymore.
RC: For a while, southern teams didn't know what to expect from us. But it was nearly like a switch going on. When Down won, the other counties said, 'If they can win, so can we because we are better than them'. From there Ulster teams believed. It was nearly as quick as putting on a switch.
JM: There's actually a theory centred on primal cues and it relates to the Korean golfer Se-Ri Pak. She became the first Korean to win a golf Major and opened the door for others. The year after Armagh won the All-Ireland, you could nearly see Tyrone coming and they won three. You often see talent emerging when someone else wins. Sometimes the motivation or the spark comes from the outside.
DL: There was serious opposition to the style that Ulster teams employed. Did you get the sense outside of the province that not everyone was happy to see teams from your province thrive? And was there much sledging?
RC: I never had one smart comment passed to me by an opponent from outside of Ulster.
PJ: Neither did I.
JM: I only got it twice; I was on the line on both occasions and neither was serious. When Derry played Limerick in a qualifier and someone said to go back to the black north. One of our men turned around, pointed to the tricolour and quietly said that we were the only ones still fighting for it. Silence! We got it in Aughrim another night. Harmless stuff.
RC: I played for 17 years, not once did I get that.
PJ: Within Tyrone there would definitely have been a lot of frustration at the 'cynical, negative' tag that was slapped on us, though. When Down reached the 2010 All-Ireland there was no criticism; but at the start of the noughties we were slated even though our 'scores for' tally was exceptional. I think we got a hammering from elements of the media to be honest; that's the only issue I'd have with how we were perceived.
JM: It was ill-defined stuff. Yes, sometimes there was a blanket defence but I always saw Tyrone as the ultimate counter-attack side. Armagh started the blanket defence but evolving from that a lot of teams tried to play the counter-attack game. You had what I call CADA, Counter attacking, defender attacking.
PJ: That's the most difficult thing for a manager – to get the balance right between attack and defence. And I think in Ulster we have a greater respect and emphasis on 'the coach' and 'tactics' then the other provinces. Defensively, you can be sound but if you can't get scores . . . when Tyrone were playing well, we had it perfect. Still we were hit with that 'defensive' tag.
JM: Nah, it was always counter-attack. Sure you scored in most games. You had an average that any inter-county forward would be proud of.
RC: Yourself and Tomás ó Sé were the best exponents of wing half-back play.
PJ: I wouldn't mind only I spent my whole career soloing in the incorrect fashion – left hand, right foot. I probably survived because of the coaching I got from Dessie Ryan in college. Take five strides and then use the ball. Against an opponent, I would move in when he took his fourth step and force uncertainty when he had to play the ball. Dessie was the best coach I ever saw.
RC: You never dropped your head when you soloed, though.
PJ: You couldn't. Even now Tyrone under 14 football is two-touch. You have to be aware of everything all of the time.
DL: So who were the other Ulster football icons?
JM: Wee Pete (Peter Canavan).
RC: Oisín (McConville). But every era had its own icons.
PJ: The two Stevies. (O'Neill and McDonnell).
RC: Mickey (Harte) has to be there.
JM: Big Joe too. Mickey Linden.
RC: McAlarney (Colm). He could have walked out into a torrential downpour and not got wet. He would have dodged the raindrops.
PJ: Frank McGuigan. The list goes on.
DL: Ok, what about the iconic Ulster football moments?
RC: The way Mickey dealt with the twin towers in the 2008 final. (Kerry, driven by Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh, were hunting for three in a row until the pair were curbed by the McMahon brothers and only contributed 0-1 between them.)
PJ: No one knew until that day that Justin and Joe were on them. Brian McGuigan is one of my best friends and he was fretting over not starting the final. Then Mickey told him he was starting and we only found out the night before that he wasn't and Ryan Mellon was in. People say Tyrone were robotic but I only found out that morning from Tony Donnelly I was marking Declan O'Sullivan. We had worked on the 'twin towers' in training. Mickey wanted to put Joe and Justy in there together but over the course of 15 conditioned games he only played them there once or twice. Kept us guessing.
JM: Playing the Ulster final in Croke Park in the mid-noughties was iconic. We couldn't get away from Croke Park (laughs). Now the problem is getting Dublin out of there!
RC: The 2005 season took on a life of its own. The Ulster final. The All-Ireland semi as well. Geezer being taken off against Tyrone.
JM: The Armagh myth died that day. Seán Cavanagh went straight to the middle and hit three points.
RC: Too much was made of it. Geezer was not in the game.
PJ: I don't think it gave Tyrone extra belief.
JM: Maybe, but it pulled from Armagh.
DL: And the biggest Ulster rivalry?
RC: That just evolves with whoever is successful. In the mid-'90s there was a fierce, bad-tempered rivalry with Derry and Donegal. Then you had Armagh and Tyrone. This week it will be different to next. That 'chip' can develop a team as long as you control it. The McKenna Cup has contributed to it. When I played McKenna Cup the taxi drivers needed to be careful because they could have got a game. But when it was moved to January that competition kicked off too.
PJ: In 2003, we took that competition so seriously and it's been like that ever since. I played in every McKenna Cup, league and championship match that year. Mickey said we would win every game and breed confidence. You soon had crowds of 20,000 turning up in January. The thing is had we not won what we did at under 21 level we may never have achieved at senior. Because the rivalry was that intense. I remember playing Down in Newry in an under 21 game in 2001 and the team talk that day was that if we don't beat these fuckers now they're gonna be the team to go on and win everything. We had to keep them down. We beat them by a point and beat everyone else handily enough after.
RC: Look, we can get carried away with this wave surrounding Ulsterism too – it's only twice in six years that an Ulster team has won an All-Ireland. And it was eight years between 1994 and 2002. My kids dug out a video of one of our All-Ireland wins and they turned it off after five minutes. They thought it was shite!
JM: Yeah, but even when things were quiet before Donegal won, Tyrone, Derry and Down all brought great underage teams through.
DL: Will there always be an Ulster championship?
JM: The word traditional in the north means we are not for changing. Joking aside, though, Ulster might take an open draw quicker than the rest.
RC: I don't know.
PJ: I don't know either. But something will have to change. Look at Sky Sports' first report, Mayo v New York, they ended that report by saying Mayo's next game would be in five weeks. In what other sport would you wait five weeks for a next game.
JM: You could run the Ulster series off in six weeks.
PJ: At the moment it's nearly five weeks between a preliminary-round and second-round game.
RC: They need to look at double-headers.
DL: Finally, summarise Ulster football for me?
PJ: Every team has a team they don't want to play! (Laughter)
RC: I look no further than my own county. There is always romance; always a light no matter how dark the clouds are. There always has to be a rainbow.
JM: I played with a lad every Sunday. He always came in and asked, 'Who is the best player here and why am I?' Maybe that attitude has slowly rubbed off on us . . .
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