It was only when I started working in Armagh city in 2000 that I experienced how intense the rivalry was with Tyrone, writes Oisin McConville.
“Some people think football is a matter of life or death, I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” — Bill Shankly
If ever a quote summed up an occasion then today’s first All-Ireland quarter-final between Armagh and Tyrone is as good a fit as any.
As an Armagh man in Croke Park last Saturday, I sat with my five-year-old son Ryan wondering what the next 70-odd minutes would hold. Let’s face it, recent history suggested we may have been leaving in disappointment once again. Instead, myself and the wee man skipped back to the car and floated up the road, even the traffic couldn’t annoy us and with half of the north in Dublin for the evening there was plenty of that.
Strange, being at a match as a supporter of Armagh in the latter stages of the championship, expectations were low.
Personally, I felt Kildare might have too much for us but the Armagh performance was measured and professional.
On the way out, I found myself chatting with happy fans and we all had the one train of thought — we were now proud of the team and had now entered bonus territory.
Fast forward to Sunday and news came through that we would play Tyrone. Scrub all the previous thoughts.
Fuck bonus territory. Fuck the great run to the quarter-final. It’s Tyrone and it’s a winnable game because whenever these two meet, form and league status goes right out the window.
When I was growing up in South Armagh, our traditional rivals were Down. They were successful in the 90s and that heightened our envy, but it wasn’t really a massive rivalry as we couldn’t manage to beat them or get anywhere near what they were achieving.
It was only when I started working in Armagh city in 2000 that I experienced how intense the rivalry was with Tyrone.
Both teams then started to go well and the next six or seven years would see the greatest era in the pair’s footballing history.
We were starting to come together as a team nicely culminating in the All-Ireland title in 2002. Tyrone were also becoming a force, backboned by their immensely-talented minor and U21 players.
I would say that as a player I was fairly calm and collected before games. I would be nervous but still able to deal with the full range of emotions. But these Armagh v Tyrone games were different, the build-up was intense. In ’02, we played Dublin in the semi-final and as you can imagine they dominated the headlines as did Kerry when we faced them in the final.
In ’03, it was starkly different. It was the first time, and to date the only time, two Ulster counties had contested an All-Ireland final.
The build-up was crazy. It was front page news as well as back page news. The Irish News did a poll on who had the best supporters, judged basically on what or who you were willing to paint in your county colours, whether that be your Labrador or your 1980 Ford Fiesta. They also did a daily competition on which team was better-looking, a poll in which I featured heavily (in my own head, of course).
As I say, this was more than just football — it was inhibiting. Day-to-day life was difficult, normality was no more, it was extremely claustrophobic. I genuinely felt I couldn’t breathe. I wouldn’t walk down the street for my lunch and I, like my team-mates, lived for training and the weekend camps. There was a safety in numbers and in the knowledge we were all experiencing similar emotions. We had spent so long trying to get to the top of the tree and to get some sort of respect. When we got there we felt extremely comfortable there, like we belonged.
However, we were very tight going into that match. We spoke about how losing this game would undo all the previous year’s hard work. We didn’t want to lose and that added to our tightness hence why we took 50 minutes to get any sort of foothold in the game. By that stage, it was too late and the final passed us by a little bit.
There are lots of parallels between what was going on then and what is appearing to happen now. There is one obvious difference and that is that the roles are completely reversed. Tyrone in recent years has been laden down with expectation. Their failure to deliver on this has to be a source of annoyance for Mickey Harte. Their failure to get over the line against Mayo last year highlighted their deficiencies as an attacking unit, once their most potent weapon.
The question marks and the doubts in that Tyrone camp now surround the quality of the sides they have beaten in this campaign. All those vanquished teams have exited the championship since — Derry rolled over against them, Donegal have proved to be merely a distant relation to what they once were and Down waved the white flag in the second half of that one-sided Ulster final.
So, in essence, that has to be a concern for Harte and Tyrone, allied to that the worry that they may be undercooked having not played for three weeks.
I admit some of this may be wishful thinking on my part but Armagh have the magical momentum now and a belief they can have a cut off anyone.
Never underestimate how important belief is to an emerging, or re-emerging, team.
Tyrone still have no top-class marksman, they have very talented players and in Seán Cavanagh they have a leader of pure class, but they still lack a 1-8 a game man. This year, that fact hasn’t hurt them as yet, they may even get away with it this weekend but eventually, that will be their Achilles heel.
To win, Armagh must start well and be even more aggressive than they have been and play right on the edge. Tactically, I think the only way to frustrate Tyrone is to stop their runners from deep. To achieve that you have to set up in a mirror image of them with plenty of bodies behind the ball and then try to get your big players on the ball in the last third. If Armagh kick as much ball as they did against Kildare, they will get turned over too many times and become frustrated. Free kicks will probably determine who wins.
My orange heart says Armagh but my head says Tyrone will have too much.
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