Armagh and Tyrone: A Rivalry Rekindled

Conor O’Shea looks back on one of the most intriguing rivalries in Gaelic Football alongside Armagh legend Steven McDonnell ahead of Saturday’s Quarter final clash between the two counties.

stevie mcdonnell
Armagh’s sharpshooter, Steven McDonnell

It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt, but that is far from the case between the two great Ulster rivals, Armagh and Tyrone. Since 2005, they have only met in Championship action four times, with Armagh emerging victorious in the last encounter on a scoreline of 0-13 to 0-10 in Round 2 of the All-Ireland Football Qualifiers back in 2014.

Before the renewal of the age-old rivalry between The Orchard County and The Red Hand this coming Saturday we throw our minds back to the games that not only kept fans of the two counties involved captivated, but also kept the rest of the country under a magic spell.

With the turn of the century it was clear that Gaelic Football was changing with teams becoming more tactically aware and upping their work-rate in order to scale the summit and lift the Sam Maguire cup. Ulster football hadn’t tasted the sweet success of September since Down prevailed against Dublin in 1994. All of this changed when Armagh under the legendary Joe Kernan and Tyrone under the evergreen Mickey Harte came to the fore.

Armagh’s talisman from that period and 2003 Footballer of the Year, Steven McDonnell admits that there was a tactical shift around this time.

‘‘Because both teams had never won the Sam Maguire previous to this, new systems and game plans had to be thought out to make us more competitive at the business end of the season. Believe it or not, the Armagh 2002 team weren’t actually a defensive team. We simply dropped Kieran (McGeeney) back covering and John Toal filled his role when we did not have the ball. We were a team that loved to kick the ball and deliver it fast in to the forwards. Tyrone brought the ultra defensive aspect into the equation in 2003.’’

2003 saw Tyrone beat Kerry along their way to winning the All-Ireland for the first time. In what was a highly talked about and controversial game, Tyrone applied huge pressure on Kerry and won 0-13 to 0-06 in a game that 8 time All-Ireland winner with Kerry and RTÉ pundit, Pat Spillane labelled as ‘puke football’. The game marked a shift in Gaelic football’s balance of power.

Tyrone went on to meet Armagh in the final, the same Armagh side who had beat them in the 2002 Ulster Championship en route to winning the All-reland for the first time in their history. No doubt that this was a chance for Harte’s side to exact revenge and they had 3 points to spare over their nemesis winning 0-12 to 0-09.

The game however, was not short on drama. In the final minutes, with Armagh trailing, their standard-bearer, Stevie McDonnell, was played through on goal. As the stadium held its breath time seemed to stand still as Tyrone’s Conor Gormley emerged from nowhere to throw himself onto McDonnell’s boot like a man possessed to prevent what would have been a certain goal. Call it fate, but Tyrone managed to hold on to secure their maiden All-Ireland win.

Armagh, despondent and dejected promised to dust themselves down and put things right once again.

‘’As a footballer you have to deal with disappointment very fast and that is exactly what I done. I actually believe in a way that it made me a stronger footballer. It was an extremely important block for Conor to make and I have to respect that he was prepared to put his body on the line to get his team over the finish line.’’

Kerry came back to win Sam in 2004 but 2005 without a doubt was the high point of an ever-increasing rivalry between Armagh and Tyrone when they met three times in the All-Ireland Championship with both sides vying for ultimate supremacy.

At this stage, the rivalry had reached new ground with the whole country eagerly anticipating the clash of Ulster’s two heavyweights. Both sides offered up one of the greatest trilogies the game has ever seen with neither side willing to back down. Countless highlights include the Armagh fightback in the first Ulster final to the outrageous scoring displays produced by Stephen O’Neill of Tyrone and McDonnell throughout.

Speaking about the trilogy, Armagh’s main man at the time regards them as ‘intense, fast paced and bitter’ which showed the country what a ‘unique rivalry’ existed between these two teams.

‘‘Everyone wanted a part of it and that’s why Ulster finals were moved to Croke Park. GAA fans all over the country attended these games because they knew they would get fireworks.  It they also knew they were witnessing a rivalry like no other at the time and two teams full of top quality footballers going head to head against each other.’’

The first game finished level, 0-14 to 2-08, with Armagh netting late on through McDonnell and Oisín McConville to provide a replay for a captivated audience. Armagh went on to win the battle and claim Ulster glory winning 0-13 to 0-11. Life is full of twists and turns and the same can be said of the Championship as both sides did battle again in that year’s All-Ireland Semi-Final with Tyrone prevailing 1-13 to 1-12 thanks to an added time free on the 21 from their hero, Peter Canavan, which sent Tyrone into ecstasy and Armagh into the depths of despair.

McDonnell concedes that there is regrets still harboured and that it was a tough pill for his team to swallow: ‘‘The semi-final in 2005 was probably the most difficult to overcome. We went 16 games unbeaten that year and Peter Canavan knocked us out with a last minute free. We had our chances in the game and that’s why there are regrets.’’

Mickey Harte claims in his autobiography that while Armagh won some of the battles and may have won Ulster 3 years on the trot between 2004 and 2006, that Tyrone ultimately won the war of the two sides.

The many clashes between the two titans of Ulster solidified the mutual respect they had and still have for one another, even if they would not be the very best of friends according to McDonnell.

‘‘Looking back, we had some rivalry with Tyrone and there were some intense matches. I have no doubt that both teams brought out the best in each other and indeed brought Gaelic football to higher levels in terms of preparation. Tyrone & Kerry at that time were certainly the best sides we came up against. We certainly don’t purposely go out of our way to meet each other but we have come across each other at events such as pre-championship talk nights. When this happens there certainly is a mutual respect there.’’

Looking ahead to this Saturday’s match between two wholly different sides now McDonnell expects a ‘hard’ challenge but is fully confident of Armagh prevailing.

‘‘Tyrone are a team that has developed a system over the last 3 years that suits them and they will certainly be hard to break down. Armagh are playing with more flair and players are expressing themselves and gaining in confidence. Both teams are strong and athletic but Tyrone’s game requires serious stamina. If Armagh can get the ball working for them and get a few early scores then they will take the game to Tyrone. I expect this will happen and therefore predict a win for Armagh.’’

In life, and in football, there is neither low nor high but down for a while and up for a while and both sides are on an upward trajectory. As the rivalry enters a new chapter, legends of the past loom large.




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