Posted by Mickey Harte

A look back at the Tyrone-Armagh rivalry over the last 10 years and a memorable finish in Croke Park

2005 Tyrone Armagh 520x280

Looking back over the last decade, there have been many, many intriguing encounters between Tyrone and Armagh.

Many people have suggested that it was good for football, not alone in Ulster but in Ireland, that two teams of that calibre came along at the same time. On the other hand, had it only been ourselves or Armagh, we might well have been expected to do a lot better. But I think the fact we were both there challenging each other meant there was a share of the spoils, particularly in Ulster.

I do think that Armagh should have got more than the one All-Ireland and most Armagh people would think so, too. They believe they were unlucky not to beat us in 2003 but that’s all a matter of opinion. That final was very intense. Armagh were champions the year before and, in many ways, Tyrone were enthused by that because in the couple of years previous they would have felt they were as good as them. So, the way Joe Kernan’s side went on to get that breakthrough win in 2002, it gave Tyrone renewed ambition.

That ambition was fulfilled quickly when our under-21s joined the seniors to form a great mix of confidence and experience. And while the 2003 final was low-scoring, it doesn’t fully reflect how the game went because I remember there were plenty of goal-scoring opportunities. There were probably four very good chances at least and, ordinarily, you would expect at least two of them to be taken.

I recall one Armagh chance in particular when Diarmuid Marsden burst through only for Cormac McAnallen to put pressure on him and stop him from getting a shot in. And then there was the dramatic save by Conor Gormley when he blocked Steven McDonnell, which many people see as the defining moment of that game. To some degree that is true but, it must be said, it’s not the whole truth. There was still some time to go in the game at that stage and I think that had McDonnell scored, it would not necessarily have been the definitive moment in the game.

I think the most memorable games between the two sides took place two years later. The Ulster final was played at Croke Park and we were in control until we let Armagh back into it to claim a draw. We then played particularly well in the replay and were in a strong position again. We were four points up and still had Owen Mulligan and Peter Canavan to bring off the bench. We put them on to close the game out but within a minute or so Peter was off after an encounter that he didn’t invite on himself. To make matters much worse Stephen O’Neill was then sent off after confusion over his first booking.

So, I think a number of things went against us that day but it didn’t take away from the intensity of the game. Most of all, it set us up for a potential third encounter. We beat Monaghan and Dublin to fulfil our side of the bargain while Armagh knocked out Laois in the last eight. Most people remember that semi-final as a game as good as any that was ever played.

In terms of the sheer intensity of it, the way the play swung from end to end, the way Armagh seemed to be in pole position and went two up with very little time left and the manner in which we came back and got the winning score meant the 70 minutes had almost everything. Our second last score came from our corner-back Shane Sweeney, who fired over the equaliser with his weaker foot. That showed our intent to attack.

Ultimately, Peter kicked the free that won it for us in injury time and I think it is a much undervalued piece of history. Many people would have looked at it and thought it was a relatively straightforward kick but it was far from it. I think it was one of the most courageous free-kicks I’ve ever seen a player take. The way Peter took it with such aplomb, from an angle on the left, and slotted it over made it look easier than it was but that was a serious kick and few sportspeople have handled similar pressure with such nerves of steel.

There were also those memorable TV images of the discussion between himself and Owen over who would take it. Of course, Peter took on the responsibility but it was a nice moment between the two of them and one of the great moments in the history of Tyrone football. But that was Peter: he was calm when he needed to be but could energise the dressing room if it was required. He had all the qualities and all the skill but he had the true grit that really made him special. He showed the composure that day to put us through to our second All-Ireland final and it was an unforgettable piece of football drama.

KERRY GET BETTER as the championship goes on and their 36 All-Ireland successes prove that. With reference to Cork’s supposed Croke Park hoodoo when they come up against Kerry, I think that’s more of a media construct than anything else. When a team struggles against certain opposition or in a certain venue it is built up as some kind of a psychological burden on them. We’ve seen that with Mayo when they get to All-Ireland finals as well because so many of their teams in the recent past have not produced the right results.

But there is another way to look at that. Mayo have been in those finals when so many other teams have not, so you’re comparing their record with teams who haven’t made that stage. Rather than it being a real thing it seems to be more media-driven. In situations like that, what I like to do is break the trend so teams such as Mayo have got to tell themselves they’re not interested in trends. They have to believe they can make their own piece of history. And, one day sooner rather than later, those records will change for them and for Cork. I certainly don’t believe that anybody should be hung up on what happened in past seasons. There is also the fact that teams have new groups of players who have the chance to write their own script.

Looking ahead to this weekend, I think Cork are currently in a better position than Kerry. Bryan Sheehan is out and he will be a big loss to last year’s finalists. They didn’t look to be at their best against Tipperary but maybe it will suit them that the perception is there that they are not playing well. Cork, however, have been more consistent and you can’t overlook the fact that they have won four league titles in a row. They’ve also won an All-Ireland and have been at the top table for a long time now. They have a lot of the injured players back and seem well equipped to deal with Kerry. Having said that, it could very well be different in August if the two sides meet again. At the moment, I would put Cork slightly ahead but that could be reversed later on in the summer.

SWITCHING SPORTS for a moment, I have an interest in the European Championships and it would be nice to be able to see the games. Usually, I wouldn’t watch it until the latter stages but, because Ireland are in it, I will watch the group stages and I’d like to see how they progress. I think it’s good for the country when any sports team, no matter what the sport is, is doing well.

We all hope that they will put in good performances but it’s a tough ask for them and they are in a very difficult group. Still, they have been in tricky groups before and emerged to make the knockout stages so it would be a major achievement for them if they could do the same again.