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Comment: Why the GAA owe a debt of gratitude to Tyrone and Armagh

By Declan Bogue

Back at the turn of the century, the GAA were in an uncertain position.

Already committed to the process of rebuilding Croke Park as a world class state-of-the-art sports stadium under former President Peter Quinn, they put their faith in the belief that they would build it, and they would come.

In 1999, the All-Ireland final attracted 63,276 with a good portion of the stadium closed.

In 2002, with all areas open, the new capacity was reached when Armagh beat Kerry in the All-Ireland final with over 80,000 paying supporters.

Enraged and utterly sick with jealousy, Tyrone arrived under Mickey Harte and reached the All-Ireland final the following year, the first time two teams from the same province contested it.

The rivalry bordered on unhealthy and it was suggested by some hysterical clowns that this could be the first game that the GAA might consider segregating supporters.  

You mightn't have heard but there was money flying everywhere at that time. Men at weddings would open wallets that expanded like a bale of insulation as they called for drinks.

You were at nothing unless you were holidaying three times a year and any car more than two years old was considered a death trap.

Never saw any of it myself, but them's the breaks. The Ulster Council saw enough of it to rent out Croke Park for the 2004 Ulster final. 67,136 went along to watch Armagh pummel Donegal.

The following year Tyrone and Armagh packed in almost 100,000 fans across two Ulster finals. Two previously unremarkable Ulster counties were the centre of the GAA world, biting chunks off the mortgage payments.

But some observers couldn't be pleased.

Like the reporter who attended that 2005 Ulster final replay and wrote afterwards; 'The truth is that if we are to judge Ulster football by Saturday's final replay, the game is in serious trouble in the province. This was a foul-ridden, petty and mean-spirited affair where private grievances gradually infected both teams to such a degree that referee, Michael Collins grew so increasingly distracted that he ended up sending off Stephen O'Neill for a single yellow card offence.'

Or the columnist who added, 'Several great players who should know better occasionally let themselves down by cheap, mean behaviour. Do these folk heroes not realise that long after they have retired such behaviour will leave a blot on their characters that will never be erased by Ulster or All-Ireland medals?'

But the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final, between Tyrone and Armagh, settled in the end by that awesomely dramatic late free from Peter Canavan was one of the finest games ever played.

And as for the final between Tyrone and Kerry? Simply astonishing.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that Tyrone and Armagh put the GAA and the sport of Gaelic football on a solid footing. Despite the prophets of doom, the appeal of Gaelic football has never been greater.

For that, we owe the teams of that time.

Tyrone gave us the Mugsy goal against Dublin, the Canavan free, the Conor Gormley block.

Armagh opened their dressing rooms and let us in on the moment that Joe Kernan shattered his plaque to commemorate losing the 1977 All-Ireland final as a masterstroke in motivation, in the letters from Ali the morning of the final, in the character and sheer courage of Oisín McConville - already enduring the start of a personal hell off the field - to miss a penalty and come back and make up for it with a goal in the second half. Just as Benny Tierney told him to.

And then the characters. Harte. Kernan. The Armagh backline of Geezer, Justy, Enda, Francie. The Tyrone attack of Stevie, Peter, McGuigan, Dooher.

The Macs. McGrane. Cavlan. Ricey, Stevie Mac, Marsden and Jordan.

In classic superhero movie fashion, the two were portrayed with polarising personalities. Armagh were austere, serious, deep-thinking and methodical. Tyrone, more light-hearted, playing their card game of 'Dropsies' on the morning of the 2003 final with a bundle of notes in the pot.

Like Queens Of The Stone Age turning up and plugging in their amps beside a Wagner Orchestra.

Perhaps we don't know the current lads as well as we did then, both an oddity and yet understandable in the click-bait era.

But the GAA owe them a debt of gratitude. Austerity has had its' way. Less than 39,000 were in the stadium on Saturday to see Down, Monaghan, Armagh and Kildare in action.  

Imagine how incredible it would be for the game now if that rivalry was to flare up again.

Or would the same people make the same mistakes?

Gallagher exit adds to Ulster state of flux

At the last count, I think it was seven local newspapers in Donegal. The joke that there is one for every day of the week has always been backed up by the theory that the Donegal senior football team has always given all seven too much to write about.

Nobody can make the declaration with any certainty, but there are plenty of people who clearly feel that online abuse was a factor that might have crept into Rory Gallagher's thinking when he decided to walk away from the post of Donegal manager.

The odd thing is that you will struggle to find players who have anything but praise for him.

As Eamonn McGee tweeted; 'Sad to see Rory go, loved working with him. A born winner, passionate GAA man and so important to our All Ireland win in 2012.'

Without prying too much into the reasons, perhaps Gallagher felt like doing something else with his life, as a man with a young family and a busy shop to run in Killybegs. It couldn't have been easy working in such a public environment since their Championship defeat to Galway.

At the present time, three Ulster counties are looking for a new manager in Derry, Fermanagh and now Donegal. By this time fortnight, there could easily be two more with Down and Antrim having vacant seats.

To be continued.

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