Even before the final pairing was known in June 2004, the Ulster Council made the decision to switch the Ulster football final to Croke Park.
Next Saturday they will once again be hosting their showpiece day in Dublin, and while the reasons are strikingly familiar; an opportunity to get more people to the game, the circumstances couldn’t be any more different with Coronavirus still casting a shadow over society.
But back in 2004, with the Celtic Tiger roaring, demand for tickets to games had never been higher in the northern province.
The year before, there was the first and only all-Ulster All-Ireland final, between Tyrone and Armagh.
The decision to go to Croke Park was multi-layered, but there was a line in the annual report of then GAA Director General Liam Mulvihill at the end of 2003 that raised eyebrows. He suggested that if the Ulster final of 2004 was to pair up Tyrone and Armagh as it had for the previous years All-Ireland decider, then the Ulster Council might consider hosting in headquarters.
That was rephrased by the late Ulster Council secretary, Danny Murphy.
"The reason is to accommodate the greatest number of people wishing to attend and we also like to encourage children in attendance," he said.
"During the Ulster championship, except where a game is all ticketed, we have admitted under-16s free to our games.
"Here in Croke Park we have three times the number of family tickets available in Clones. We believe interest in this game is such that we would substantially exceed the capacity available in Clones."
There was of course another motivation too.
“The reason it went to Croke Park is we needed money at the time. This was for the floodlights that were installed in a lot of the provincial grounds at the time,” explains then Ulster Council Chairman, Michael Greenan.
“The Government in the six counties wouldn’t allow the (grant) money to be spent in the 26 counties, if you understand.
“What we did was simple. The money that we generated from playing the matches in Croke Park, we spent that money by doing a package to all the counties in Ulster, to provide a secretary and a coaching officer.”
He continues: “We came up with the plan. So we gave them a full-time secretary and a coaching officer. And they sent money into our kitty. That’s how we came up with the money.
“As it happened, there was one county didn’t get involved in it, Monaghan. And that’s the reason there are no floodlights in Clones.”
Such a decision was never going to meet with universal approval. It was bold and put noses out of joint.
Since the Troubles erupted, the Ulster final was taken out of it’s usual home of Casement Park in 1971 and placed in Clones.
Naturally, the crowds in Clones became an annual ritual. Attendances gradually grew to around 40,000 people in St Tiernach’s Park for the games themselves, with many others along for the day.
With such a captive audience, the businesses, hotels and pubs all did a roaring trade. And to take that day in the calendar away from them? Well…
“I don’t know if I have been forgiven yet, by Clones or Monaghan,” sighs Greenan.
As it happened, he handed over the Anglo-Celt Cup for the three years it was in Croke Park to Kieran McGeeney in 2004, ’05 and ’06. McGeeney’s reaction with Armagh seeking their second All-Ireland title grew more weary with each passing year.
Even going down the road was, as Greenan admits: “A bit of a gamble.”
He adds, “But it meant that everyone who wanted to go to the game, could go. Families were allowed.
“I remember being up in Dublin on the Saturday night and somebody from Donegal crossed over the street to say ‘thanks very much’.
“This man was with his wife and children and he told me that he would have to leave them at home if the match was in Clones. We were able to do that and give children the possibility of going to the match with their parents and sitting beside their parents. It was a win-win situation all round.”
But if Greenan was all for spreading Croke Park around, it didn’t extend to the decision of GAA President Sean Kelly’s motion to invite soccer and rugby in during the period of time it took to redevelop Lansdowne Road. The two clashed frequently over the issue and Greenan came off worse.
“The one thing I give myself a bit of credit for, and that is my opposition to opening up Croke Park for soccer and rugby,” he says.
“I actually believe I have been vindicated totally. All that was being done was generating money for the FAI to squander. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.”
Eventually, Greenan found himself marginalised. He was shed from a lot of the committees he chaired or sat on.
The Ulster final had meant a great deal to him. He played for Cavan in the finals of 1967, ’68 and ’69. As county selector, he was there for ’76, ’78 and ’83. He was referee for the 1985, ’86 and ’89 deciders, and of course he was Ulster Chairman and handed over the cup three times in the ‘00s.
He’ll admit now that his stance did him some harm.
“It possibly did. Because I have been shafted right, left and centre by the GAA.
“I have no involvement at all. I haven’t been in Croke Park from when they opened it up. I haven’t been in Breffni Park for about seven or eight years, haven’t been in my own club grounds for at least seven or eight years.”
The GAA is littered with figures that took decisions unpopular in some quarters. Eventually it caught up with them.
But you cannot deny the vision he had in the first place.