The baking heat, ham sandwiches, ice-cold finches and a packed out Clones, the Ulster final is a day like no other.
My first taste of Ulster final day coincides with my earliest memory of following Armagh. The year was 1999 and a youthful, yet fancied Armagh side went in search of their first Ulster title in 17 years where they faced arch-rivals and winners of two All-Ireland’s that decade, Down.
Backboned by the experience of Jarlath Burns and Benny Tierney coupled with 1992 All-Ireland minor finalists Paul McGrane and Diarmuid Marsden and the McEntee twins from Crossmaglen, who were influential in Armagh’s breakthrough U21 success in 1998, the men from the Orchard County blitzed their rivals on a scoreline of 3-12 to 0-10 to leave this little seven-year-old absolutely hooked.
However, one man stood taller than the rest that day and he would continue to shine the brightest on the biggest of days throughout that golden age of Armagh football. Oisin McConville bagged 2-7 in that 1999 Ulster final (more than the entire Down team), a record that still stands today.
McConville smiles as he reflects on that win two decades ago but admits that the nerves were very much there. They were playing Down, of course, who brought that natural swagger and had a reputation for winning finals.
However, at the end of the day, it came down to the fact that Armagh simply had to win one. They had to make that breakthrough, otherwise, the Ulster minor wins of ’92 & ’94, the maiden U21 title in ’98 and Crossmaglen’s still relatively new, club scene dominance would’ve counted for nothing.
“Personally, I was very nervous going into the game because it was Down. When I grew up, I went to school in Newry and all the talk was the history of Down and everyone was on about the swagger at that time and how difficult they were to beat in finals. We expected to play Tyrone in that Ulster final and Down just blew them away but we were confident going into the game albeit you still have to perform.
“The nerves are always there. For me personally, I was still fairly young at that stage but I think we’d confidence in our own ability, I think at that stage we needed to win one and that was the driving force behind it.”
Had they not made that breakthrough, who knows if 2002 would have even happened…
Anyway, Armagh’s provincial dominance came slap bang in the middle of a golden period for Ulster football and indeed the Ulster Championship. The ten campaigns between 1990-1999 saw six different winners; Donegal (’90 & ’92), Down (’91 & ’94), Derry (’93 & ’98), Tyrone (’95 & ’96), Cavan (’97) and Armagh (’99).
Even though the ‘noughties’ were dominated by Armagh and Tyrone, the provincial competition still threw up plenty of shocks (Monaghan v Armagh 2003, Antrim v Donegal 2009) and was largely the most competitive province which is highlighted by the fact that all nine counties competed in at least one final between 2000-2009.
The last decade though has seen the province become fairly stagnate. We’ve had fantastic teams in that time with Donegal probably being the standout but in truth, Ulster’s competitiveness almost seemed to catch up on itself as defensive systems and a fear of losing took over which made for plenty of boring spectacles, particularly on final day.
Because the last ten years has seen the Ulster Championship kicked so much, it’s extremely heartwarming to see the provincial competition end the decade on a high. No matter what the result between Donegal and Cavan (obviously it’ll go down in folklore if Cavan win) the 2019 Ulster Championship will be remembered for all the right reasons. High scoring, free-flowing, hard-hitting, nail-biting. All the traits we associated with the competition during those two golden decades.
And with a cracking final in store this weekend, who better to let us preview the match than the man who has attended every single game to date, that man McConville.
“This year, the Ulster Championship has been nothing short of phenomenal.
“I’ve really, really enjoyed it. Different styles of games, different styles of football. A lot more tactical awareness, the tactical nuance that we haven’t seen in Ulster. It’s not just people getting behind the ball so that’s improved. The provincial championships were big time on the ropes but they have come out fighting in the last three or four weeks. The Ulster Championship, in general, has been very good and I’ve been lucky enough to be at all the games.
“Mickey Graham has a great way of tweaking what he’s doing. When you open it up I think they have spectacular footballers and they have serious pace. Defensively I think they give up chances the last day but they might tighten things up at the back. Because they are playing Donegal they might have the opportunity to play a sweeper so they might revert to that.
“I’ve been very impressed with them so far. It’s just nice to see a team like Cavan who have been a lot more defensive in the last couple of years to actually open up.”
“Donegal will be put under plenty of pressure this weekend. I still think they’ll win, I don’t see them capitulating the way Galway did. Donegal will be put to the pin of their collar to get past Cavan.”