The beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as a golden period for Gaelic football in Armagh.
The Orchard County were arguably the nation’s most successful side throughout the noughties.
A plethora of Ulster titles through the century’s opening decade were wrapped nicely around All-Ireland titles in 2002 (senior), 2004 (U21) and 2009 (minor).
While the 21st century ushered in a period of unprecedented success for Armagh the foundations were being laid towards the end of the 20th century.
When the early 1990s heralded an era of Ulster dominance as Sam headed north four times in a row from ’91-’94, Armagh were seemingly left behind. However, they eventually ended their days in the doldrums, landing a first Ulster title in 17 years when defeating their more successful rivals, Down in the 1999 Ulster final.
Almost 20 years to the day from that breakthrough success, Armagh take on their local rivals in the opening round of this year’s provincial campaign.
In honour of this Sunday’s derby clash, we take a deep-dive into the archives and relive that classic Ulster final in this week’s, Forgotten Friday.
It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative that a youthful Armagh side appeared from nowhere in 1999 to sink a Down team boasting plenty of All-Ireland winners but in truth, their big breakthrough win came a year prior in the opening round when Armagh defeated their rivals by five points in their first meeting since 1992 when Down were the reigning All-Ireland champions.
The two counties renewed their rivalry in the 1999 Ulster final in a game that is still remembered by many as somewhat of a coming out party for Oisin McConville.
The Armagh ship was steadied by the experienced Benny Tierney in goals and Jarlath Burns, who captained the side from midfield, but the backbone of the team was made up of a gang of youngsters who would go on to etch their names into Armagh GAA folklore.
Names like; Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane, Diarmuid Marsden, Paddy McKeever, Oisin McConville, John and Tony McEntee, who would become the spine of Armagh’s All-Ireland triumph in 2002.
Armagh trounced their neighbours on a sunny July afternoon in Clones coming away with a 3-12 to 0-10 victory. Oisin McConville managed 2-7 on the day while Diarmuid Marsden grabbed 1-2 on a day where the youthful Armagh full-forward line pulled Down every which way.
Reflecting on this victory in his column for the Irish News, John McEntee, attributes Armagh’s win in 1999 as the catalyst to go on and dominate Gaelic football over the next decade.
“It was as if revenge for the previous countless hidings were repaid all at once and a signal that Armagh were no longer the poor neighbours.
“The feeling of euphoria and the belief Armagh got from beating the five-time All-Ireland champions was immeasurable and I am certain it contributed to Armagh’s decade of dominance.”
The reason 1999 was so special is that it was Armagh’s first piece of silverware in what proved to be an era littered with trophies.
Not only was it the platform that the McConville’s, McGeeney’s and McEntee’s needed to go on and become household names but for long-serving players such as Jarlath Burns, Neal Smyth and Ger Reid it was a deserved provincial title following years of pain and anguish watching on as all their Ulster rivals made headlines.
Armagh’s time had arrived and boy did they make the most of it.