Armagh 1999 breakthrough: The start of the glory days

By Shaun Casey

“DERRY, Down and Donegal, the three All-Ireland winners from Ulster in the ‘90s, but to do it that way just makes it all the sweeter,” Armagh captain Jarlath Burns told RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey after guiding the Orchard County to their first Ulster title in 17 years.

They certainly did it the hard way. Armagh fans of the noughties were spoiled as they witnessed their county collect the Anglo Celt trophy on seven occasions inside ten years, but everything started on that remarkable day in Clones in 1999.

Armagh had reached three provincial finals since their last success in 1982 but lost out to Tyrone (1984), Derry (1987) and Donegal (1990) before finally ending their long and difficult wait for silverware.

The team that defeated Down handsomely in the 1999 Ulster decider was back-boned by future All-Ireland winners. In fact, 10 of the starting team were on the field when the ball was thrown in by John Bannon on All-Ireland final day three years later.

One of those players was Diarmaid Marsden. The Clan na Gael man, who was part of an Armagh minor team that reached the All-Ireland final in 1992 but lost out to a Trevor Giles inspired Meath, had been struggling with a groin injury in 1999.

He came off the bench in the opening round of the championship and grabbed two points as Armagh drew with Donegal after they famously conceded two goals in the first seven minutes, and repeated the trick in the replay, scoring a clever flicked goal this time, as the Orchard County earned a five-point win.

Marsden scored 0-2 from full forward in the semi-final against Derry as Armagh held on to win by the minimum of margins and left perhaps his best performance of all for the decider, kicking 1-2 as Armagh brushed past their old rivals, 3-12 to 0-10.

“Some of the lads might have been around in 1990, ‘Houly’ (Gerard Houlahan) would have been there, John Rafferty maybe, Benny (Tierney), ‘Geezer’ (Kieran McGeeney) but there wouldn’t have been too many more,” recalls Marsden 25 years on.

“It was the first final for a lot of us. For most of the ‘90s or certainly from the mid-90s onwards we were really struggling to win a match – I think it was four years in a row that we didn’t win a match in the Ulster Championship.

“We got past Down in ’98 and then Derry beat us in the semi-final, and I suppose it was roles reversed when we got over Derry and got into the final against Down.

“Based on that and on the kind of progress we were making; we were full of confidence for the final. I think Tyrone were the favourites in the other semi-final and Down pulled off a shock there so we knew we had a good shot.”

Since winning their maiden All-Ireland title in 1960, Down held the upper hand in the rivalry, if you could even call it that. The counties met ten times between 1961 and 1992 and Armagh only tasted victory once after a replay in 1990.

But the new kids on the block were eager to change that record. “Throughout the ‘60s, certainly in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Down seemed to always be on top of Armagh but most of our team hadn’t experienced that so there was no real baggage there.”

Down had a team stacked with All-Ireland winners from the early ‘90s while Armagh were a coming force and when the two counties collided on that early August afternoon, both teams were heading in different directions.

It didn’t feel like that at the time of course and hindsight paints a much more clearer picture and while the confidence was high in the Armagh changing rooms, Marsden insists his side were still wary of the talent Down had at their disposal.

“They still had the likes of Ross Carr, Mickey Linden, Gregory McCartan, Eamonn Burns all playing. They were All-Ireland winners from five years previous and they were maybe getting on a bit,” continued Marsden, who finished the season with an All-Star award.

“But they had some new, fresh players there too like Shane Mulholland, so they were always going to be dangerous, but we were young, and we were all in the right frame of mind and everything was set up for us.”

Armagh, managed by the deadly duo of Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan, just had one of those days. Everything they touched turned to gold as they trounced their old foes, which was something that didn’t happen all that often.

Marsden himself bagged a superb goal, latching on to a long ball in by full-back Ger Reid and burying it past Mickey McVeigh in the Down net while Oisín McConville rattled off an unbelievable tally of 2-7.

“I would probably say it was one of my favourite matches, favourite experiences, favourite occasions. Everything just seemed to work. I don’t remember us having too many wides, our defensive structure was solid, those boys were really up for every battle.

“I don’t think Down got in close to goal at all. We dominated around the middle and we got the scores up front. Between the weather and the occasion, the Armagh supporters were just on cloud nine that day.

“Obviously beating your rivals in an Ulster final, which hadn’t happened in quite a number of years, was certainly pleasing for the Armagh supporters and everything just clicked on the day.

“Things opened up and goal chances presented themselves and we were able to take them. It’s well documented what Oisín scored, and it just seemed like everything that we kicked we got a score from and that rarely happens.”

Armagh’s most famous day followed in 2002 when Joe Kernan guided the Orchard County to their first and currently only All-Ireland title, but that ’99 Ulster final is probably a close second in terms of the fond memories Armagh followers share.

After such a barren spell, similar to the one the current Armagh team is experiencing, there was such an explosion of emotion when the full-time whistle sounded as a sea of orange and white flooded onto the baking hot Clones turf.

“It was brilliant, it was something we never experienced, and we knew with five or ten minutes to go that we weren’t going to get caught. The supporters knew that too and they had to be put off the field a couple of times before the final whistle went,” laughed Marsden.

“I think in previous games the crowd had come on to the pitch even when we got over the semi-final against Derry. I remember there was a significant number of Armagh supporters on the pitch because they knew the significance of us getting to the final.

“The final itself, every Armagh supporter was on the pitch, and you had Jarlath’s speech and lifting the cup; I was up beside him there at the time and it was one of those special moments that was well savoured.

Marsden concluded: “Thankfully we were able to go on a few more times after that to win Ulster titles but certainly for the first one for that group it was really special. The weather and everything, it was early August that time, it all just added to the occasion.

“Everyone always talks about the great days and the sunny days going to Clones in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and you’d have loved to have been there as a supporter. Obviously I wouldn’t trade it for my chance on the pitch either.

“But everybody you talk to just has so many vivid memories of those days and they all seem to be sunshine and good results, that’s what people remember. I know for supporters and family, they were great days going to Clones and coming back usually with happy faces.”

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