Tuesday 10 December 2019

'The two teams met in the middle and it was hell for leather'

Peter Canavan expects less strife this time as he recalls to Declan Bogue his first taste of Tyrone v Armagh

Tyrone captain Peter Canavan shows his relief before lifting the Sam Maguire Cup in 2003 after his side's All-Ireland SFC final win over Armagh - it was a moment his late father Sean didn't get to see. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Tyrone captain Peter Canavan shows his relief before lifting the Sam Maguire Cup in 2003 after his side's All-Ireland SFC final win over Armagh - it was a moment his late father Sean didn't get to see. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Think of Tyrone and Armagh in a Gaelic football context, and chances are your head is full of packed houses in Croke Park for Ulster finals. 4x4 jeeps. Marsden. Jordan. Big Joe and Mickey.

One of the key players in that drama, which reached a crescendo in 2005 with three championship games in the big house, shaped the finale. And that's another memory; Peter Canavan's pressure free with the last kick of the All-Ireland semi-final.

Raised 13 miles from the Armagh border of the Blackwater River, he was always aware of the fierce rivalry, but nothing could have prepared him for the nature of his Tyrone debut, against Armagh, two decades hence.

They had played an ill-tempered championship match in the summer of 1989 in Healy Park. Tyrone scraped home by a point but things went on in the tunnel at half-time that were left unresolved.

It was with this history that both sides met in a floodlit tournament staged in Castleblayney in the wet and cold of the winter.

"The two teams met in the middle of the pitch after 20 minutes," Canavan recalls, "and it was hell for leather for five minutes and that was the end of the game."

Canavan was only 18 and fresh on the panel, watching 27 men trade punches in the middle. His direct opponent was his cousin Leo McGeary of Collegeland and he quickly concluded it wasn't worth it. However, there was a third party to consider.

"The Armagh goalkeeper was Benny Tierney," he chuckles. "Tierney came out to me and said, 'Come on Canavan, you wee c***!' and started sham-fighting. The crowd thought he was serious and were urging him on.

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"So we hung about and messed about there and the rest of them killed each other in the middle of the pitch!"

That summer, Canavan's championship debut was a one-point loss to Armagh. In his championship career, they met Armagh 12 times. The Orchard held the better record – five wins to Tyrone's four, with three draws thrown in.

When Armagh were going for three Ulster titles in a row in 2001, it was Tyrone that tripped them up in the first round. The following year Armagh faced Tyrone and the game was level when Canavan had possession late on and dished off to Richie Thornton, who blazed wide.

Armagh won the replay and the All-Ireland. The Tuesday after, the remnants of a huge party at the Armagh City Hotel was still in swing when Canavan walked in for a conference he had to attend.

In amongst all the slagging from supporters, he made it his business to congratulate as many players as possible. But something changed in that moment for Tyrone themselves.

"It gives you the energy to train that wee bit harder and go the extra mile and I think Tyrone were prepared to do that in 2003," he explains.

"We believed that the All-Ireland was a realistic goal but every game has its own story and in a way we had a lot of tough battles along the way. In the back of our minds we always felt that if Armagh were able to do it, we were able to do it."

Tyrone staggered through an Ulster minefield in 2003, that had already cut down Armagh in the preliminary round. But by September, they were set for the first and only all-Ulster All-Ireland final.

A couple of weeks before, both squads turned up at an awards night, Tyrone's jocular slagging contrasting with Armagh's more serious demeanour. It didn't concern Canavan.

For many different reasons, it was one of Canavan's hardest years. His father Seán passed away during the summer and never got to see Peter lift Sam that September.


Those games – the 2003 final, the 2005 Ulster final and replay and the All-Ireland semi-final, occupy a space of their own. Each game was different to the last but one thing that never changed was the mental and physical battle they were engaged in.

Canavan recalls the '03 final: "The hits ... I remember Sean Cavanagh and Francie Bellew clattering into one another and it felt like the stadium shook. Hits were being given left, right and centre and both teams went at it."

The Tyrone bus pulled out of Croke Park a couple of hours after the final whistle, with Sam Maguire displayed up in front. As they turned the corner in front of Quinn's pub, Armagh fans, the memory of their first All-Ireland fresh in their minds, began clapping.

Looking at the broader picture, he maintains: "They were great games to be involved in but when you are involved in them, you don't say, 'My God, this is a great game'. You are just consumed by beating them and how to win the match.

"There were times we felt we should have beaten Armagh well and didn't and they would come back to get a draw or win it.

"Maybe in the (2005) semi-final, they were saying, 'What do we have to do to beat Tyrone?' For long periods they were the dominant team and we came at the finish with a burst and had the never-say-die attitude that carried us through."

Tomorrow the counties will meet again. In many ways they are back to where they started in 1989, only without the animosity.

"It's a sign of the times that Sunday's game is not even going to be televised," Canavan points out. "A few years ago, it was the sort of game that everyone would liked to have seen."

Changed times, indeed.

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