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Why we owe battling Tyrone and Armagh sides so much

By Declan Bogue

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 people would come.

In 1999, the All-Ireland final attracted 63,276 fans 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 and took on the Orchard County - the first time two teams from the same province contested the showpiece.

The rivalry bordered on unhealthy and it was suggested by some hysterical people that this could be the first game for which 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 those are the breaks. The Ulster Council saw enough of it to rent out Croke Park for the 2004 Ulster final. A total of 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.

Some observers couldn't be pleased.

But the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final between the Red Hands and Orchard, 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 Owen Mulligan goal against Dublin, the Canavan free, the Conor Gormley block.

Armagh opened their dressing room in 2003 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, the letters from Muhammad Ali the morning of the final, the character and sheer courage of Oisin 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.

The two were portrayed with polarising personalities. Armagh were serious, deep thinking and methodical. Tyrone were more light hearted, playing their card game 'Dropsies' on the morning of the 2003 final with a few 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 clickbait era.

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

Now, Tyrone and Armagh face off in the All-Ireland quarter-final this Saturday. Imagine how incredible it would be if that old rivalry was to flare up again. Or would the same people make the same mistakes?

Belfast Telegraph


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