By Michael McMullan
FORMER Derry star Joe Cassidy and Armagh’s John McEntee went toe to toe in the 2000 Ulster final in Clones and are looking forward to Sunday’s rematch, recalling the buzz of playing at the home of Ulster football.
Armagh were 1-12 to 1-11 winners in 2000 thanks to Oisin McConville’s late winner to clinch back-to-back titles after Johnny McBride’s 61st minute goal shot Derry back into contention.
In a full-length feature interview for Thursday’s Gaelic Life, the former UUJ teammates Cassidy and McEntee cast their minds back to an era when Derry and Armagh were vying for provincial supremacy.
Cassidy was part of the 1998 winning team who will be honoured at half time on Sunday to mark 25 years since Joe Brolly’s late goal sunk Donegal to land the title.
“That Ulster final 98, the atmosphere didn’t stand out,” Cassidy said, contrasting to Cavan’s fanatical support in their final win over Derry 12 months earlier and the Oakleafers’ semi-final win over Tyrone.
Derry had got used to league and championship success and Cassidy said the 2000 showdown with Armagh was the last fever pitch encounter until last year’s extra-time win over Donegal.
“Armagh are fanatic and what I saw last year from Derry, I genuinely haven’t witnessed anything like it since ‘93 or ’94,” he said.
“In ’97 and ’98 there was a good following, but not to the degree there is now and not like it is last year.”
McEntee agrees, referencing the mad dash for tickets this week and how Armagh fans show up in their thousands, often over two hours before throw-in.
Five busses left Crossmaglen at 11am ahead of their semi-final win over Down. It was a contrast to the drab atmosphere in Castlebar where he was supporting twin brother Tony as Sligo manager in last weekend’s Connacht final.
“Clones is just electric in terms of the gathering of people, the crowds around it and you can remember driving through it on the bus, it was just amazing,” McEntee recalls of the venue Armagh won many of their seven Ulster titles from 10 during their golden age.
Cassidy remembers the buzz of the Garda escort and the players inside zoned in for battle, but concedes the the development of Casement Park will spell an end to Clones as the venue of choice.
“That journey was always special,” Cassidy said. “Clones for me was always Ulster final, Croke Park was different, but there was something special about Clones.”
Cassidy tips Derry win do the business on Sunday and would “be shocked” if Ciaran McFaul isn’t in from the start after his appearance in the win over Monaghan.
“Before be left (for Boston), he was in the top three players in Derry. It’s hard to know what a year out can impact.”
There is added carrot of the winners avoiding Tyrone and Galway in the All-Ireland group stages, but McEntee backs both Armagh and Derry to make the last eight of the race or Sam.
As for Sunday, McEntee spoke of Armagh playing in “fits and starts” and their path has taken them past Division Three sides Antrim, Cavan and Down.
“It is hard to raise yourself to the standard you need to be at, but on each occasion, they have executed the gameplan and got through,” he said.
“They only need to play one good game to win a provincial title and they do need to win something.”
The county is in need of silverware, but while McEntee’s heart says Armagh, his head tilts towards a more consistent Derry. The Orchard County have the talent, but aren’t playing well enough.
“The team they are up against are as talented and are playing well,” McEntee adds of Derry. “They seem to have bought into their manager’s gameplan. Whatever you say about Rory (Gallagher), his enthusiasm shines through and I think it is infectious with these guys.
“At this moment in time, I think they are the better team. Armagh could still be in the top four (of the All-Ireland) whereas Derry might not be.”
Check out Thursday’s Gaelic Life (www.GaelicLife.com) for interview in full.