Royal pains of '99 helped make the future Orange
Justin McNulty tells Donnchadh Boyle about halcyon days when Armagh ruled roost
Back in 1999, Armagh went ballistic. An Ulster title win released a pressure valve that had been building for 17 years and that they dismantled neighbours Down in the final only added to the fervour.
We didn't know it at the time, but the future, in Ulster at least, was orange. Armagh would win six of eight Ulster titles in that period and make their All-Ireland breakthrough in 2002 as they helped hasten the arrival of the modern era.
Along the way, though, they shipped some heavy blows. Defeat to Meath in that year's All-Ireland semi-final was one of them.
"I suppose, at that time, the Ulster title was our mountain top," recalls former Armagh defender Justin McNulty. "We had done a demolition job on Down and the hype was enormous. Then we had to reset our goals midstream. We didn't do ourselves justice in that game.
"I think we had the ability and the firepower to win the All-Ireland that year."
As they developed into one of the game's foremost powers, Armagh would build a reputation as a stoic team.
But the night before the game, McNulty recognised they needed a release and took to playing some of the pranks that had been a regular theme on away trips.
He pulled the bible out of his bedside locker and started ringing other rooms. Most of the squad knew his game and told him where to go before pulling the phone from the wall.
However, physio Dan Turley was among the uninitiated and he answered and McNulty immediately took to reading passages. Turley, who had recently turned to religion, listened intently before McNulty got bored and stopped reading. Turley thanked the mystery voice and hung up the phone. Later that night at dinner, he declared himself pleased with the facilities at the hotel and noted he was particularly happy with the free bible readings.
The serious stuff started the next day, but it was biblically bad fare. In the following day's Irish Independent, Eugene McGee described the game as 'atrocious.'
Meath, battled-hardened from their All-Ireland success of three years earlier, essentially won an arm wrestle that McNulty admits he was too keen to get involved in.
He had watched the Royals against Tyrone in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final when Meath softened up the Ulster men before sending them home. And McNulty made a promise to himself the same fate wouldn't befall him or Armagh.
"I had watched that game and it made me angry. Brian Dooher wore a 'turban' that day and I was determined that Meath weren't going to intimidate me. Foolishly, I punched Nigel Nestor. It was a straight red and I should have been sent off."
Armagh made a blistering start that day scoring two goals in the first half and led at the break. However, they imploded on the restart, kicking just one point – from a free – in the entire second half.
"We didn't really play that well. We started well and were clawing our way back into the game when Ger Reid was sent off. It was our first big game in Croke Park, I suppose. Meath went on to win the All-Ireland that year and it probably helped us realise we could compete at that level. Overall, though, I think Meath were deserving winners."
That lack of potency up front could in part be explained by Oisin McConville's personal turmoil. His father Patsy had been taken seriously ill in the build-up to the game.
The Crossmaglen man was establishing himself as a top-class forward at that stage and had hit 2-7 in their previous match against Down, a record for an Ulster final. Against Meath, McConville didn't score and his father died shortly afterwards.
"That was an issue in the build-up to the game, but Oisin was very brave in how he stood up and got into a position where he could play that game."
That remains the only time Meath and Armagh have met in the championship, but on Saturday night in Croke Park, they'll go again. McNulty will be there as a supporter, enjoying his hiatus from the game since stepping down as Laois manager, though he hinted he'd be ready for a return to management with the "right opportunity."
Armagh have developed momentum through the back door and picked up a reputation for flourishing in the physical exchanges after scuffles against Cavan and Tyrone.
"Any team worth its salt in Gaelic football will love the battle. And some of them have shown that they do thrive when it gets physical.
"Meath are a wounded animal and I saw their captain Kevin Reilly was quoted saying their character has been called into question. They are backed into a corner and that makes them dangerous.
"But I think the side that are more organised defensively will win.
"Armagh obviously have Jamie Clarke as their marquee forward, but they have others too. Meath have good forwards too and I think that's where the outcome will be decided on Saturday."