WE may witness the end of an era in Ulster football tomorrow and it seems fitting that Down should be the team primed to bring down the curtain.
Armagh and Tyrone’s decade-long dominance of the Anglo-Celt Cup began with the former’s defeat of the Mourne county in the 1999 provincial final in Clones and it could very well end at the hands of the same opponents, and at the same venue, tomorrow.
Ross Carr’s side have already evicted Tyrone from the province and optimism in the county is high. Joe Kernan said as much after visiting Newry, a town that hugs the two county’s mutual border. But that decider nine years ago stands as a warning to those liable to get overly-excited.
Armagh were favourites then too but there were significant pockets of people calling the game in Down’s favour after they destroyed a Tyrone side tipped for the title in their semi-final.
Down manager Peter McGrath gushed about the performance afterwards, saying it “was as good as anything I have ever seen before”.
Armagh, on the other hand, had squeezed past champions Derry with a pair of injury-time points.
Having entered the summer with talk of unrest surrounding the squad, people in Down were daring to talk about a repeat of 1991 and ‘94 but the reality proved to be very different. Armagh won at a canter by 11 points.
“We played very well in the semi-finals to beat Tyrone but it just didn’t happen for us in the Ulster final,” recalls Mickey Linden.
“It was really the start of that Armagh team and they went on a good run for a few years whereas we were a team in decline.
“The fact that we had played so well in the semi-final probably made people think we were better than we were. Armagh were very strong and they were going to win one some time and they did. They won several.”
A quick scan of the teamsheets nine years on and it is clear that the game was a meeting of a team with a great past and one with a great future. Three of Down’s players had won Celtic Crosses in ‘94, nine of Armagh’s would do the same in ‘02.
With everything Armagh have won since, it is easy to forget just how significant that win was and Jarlath Burns’ impassioned victory speech is still cherished by those who piled onto the pitch to greet the breakthrough.
“It was a long time coming, especially for a lot of the players playing that day who had suffered a lot of disappointments in the years before,” said Andrew McCann who played centre-back that day. “It had been 17 years since we had won an Ulster title. It was a very emotional day for everybody.
“What I remember most is the fans pouring onto the pitch afterwards. That was something none of us had ever experienced before. Armagh always had great fans but that just showed how hungry they were for a bit of success.”
In many ways, the roles have been reversed this weekend. Down, not Armagh, are being depicted as the coming force and they are the ones carrying all the seasons of frustration in their kit bags.
Pete McGrath was quoted after the ‘99 game saying, “Down football doesn’t die here today”, but it has been subsisting on starvation rations nonetheless. Their only other provincial final appearance since was in 2003 when they were blown out of the water by Tyrone in a replay.
Times might have been lean of late but Down can always draw on a pedigree that stretches back to its successes in the 1960s and the present bunch provides numerous links to great days of the past.
Carr claimed two All-Ireland medals in the early 90s and the fathers of two of his panellists — Ambrose Rodgers and Kevin McKernan — soldiered alongside him in the first of those finals in 1991. Liam Doyle’s father Willie won a Celtic Cross with the famous 1968 team but the past will always be glorious. The challenge now is to ensure that the future can be equally enriching.
“Down, we hope, are a team that is emerging again under Ross Carr and Armagh are in transition a wee bit,” says Linden. “At the same time, they have a lot of very strong and established players.
“They have a few good young fellas coming in as well like young Moriarty in the full-back line and Charlie Vernon at half-back. They still have a very strong team, as we saw against Cavan.
“It will be a fierce battle in midfield where they have McGrane and the younger guy Toner who did very well against Cavan. Dan (Gordon) has done brilliantly for Down there as well, as did Jack Lynch against Tyrone.
“That area will be the crucial battle. Whoever wins that will win on Sunday.”
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