Paul McGrane gathers the ball about 30 yards from his own goal on the Canal End side of Croke Park. His attempted clearance is smothered by Michael Donnellan and Paul Clancy collects the ensuing loose ball. With a swing of his right leg, Clancy strokes the ball over. The final whistle is sounded upon Benny Tierney’s kickout and Galway have advanced to the next round of the qualifiers.
The date is July 7th 2001. Just over 14 years to the day since Galway defeated Armagh by a single point in a Round 3 qualifier in Croke Park, and the counties square off this Sunday in Round 2. Galway were then gathering momentum en route to a swashbuckling annihilation of Meath in the All-Ireland final to earn their second title in four years; while Armagh went away, licked their wounds, replaced Brian McAlinden with Joe Kernan as manager and, as the old adage goes, the rest is history.
In the early years of the last decade, Galway and Armagh survived at the highest level of what is a mostly stagnant feudal system which exists in Gaelic football. Galway’s two All-Irelands in four seasons and Armagh’s successive Ulster titles and eventual inaugural All-Ireland hoisted to them onto the top table of football. But, each sides decline since then has been reflective of the other. Yes, Galway’s fall from grace came sooner than that of their northern counterparts but Armagh were not far behind.
Galway won Connacht titles in 2002 and 2003 before entering the qualifers in 2004, where Tyrone ended John O’Mahony’s reign as manager. A further title in 2005, pre-empted the era of agonising narrow defeats in crucial games, which was to be an all too familiar experience for Galway football, in the latter part of the last decade. Westmeath in 2006 and Sligo in 2007 were the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The Galway footballing public are a fickle bunch and these defeats signalled to them that the era of Michael Donnellan, Jarlath Fallon, Padraig Joyce and their contemporaries, earning major honours in late September were truly over. A final Connacht title came in 2008 but, since then, Galway have slipped further and further from football’s hierarchy. The lack of a Connacht title in that time has now equalled the much maligned period between 1988 and 1995, an era spoken of in whispers in Tribesmen footballing circles.
Armagh meanwhile are often said to have never truly fulfilled the potential of their sole All-Ireland winning side in 2002. The McNulty brothers, Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane, Oisín McConville, Steven McDonnell and their teammates never reached those dizzying heights again. So it could be said that their fall from grace was not as stark as that of Galway’s, who outnumbered them two to one in the All-Ireland stakes. In a provincial sense, Armagh dominated Ulster in the middle years of the last decade. They doubled their Ulster title count from seven to fourteen between 1999 and 2008 and were habitual All-Ireland semi-finalists, in their pomp. However, in 2007, signs of a decline began to appear. Defeat to what was then an average Donegal side was followed by a loss to Derry in the opening round of the qualifiers. Out of the championship in the first round of the qualifers was a heavy blow to take for the orchard, despite the opposition.
Yes, redemption was achieved in 2008 with another Ulster success but since then, more qualifier knockouts have been the staple diet of the Armagh player. Like Galway, the lack of any All Star selections has also been indicative of their place amongst football’s elite. The All Stars are more often than not, chosen from those teams who are still in the hunt as the leaves change colour.
Success breeds senior success is the de facto phrase uttered ad nauseum by hopeful supporters and ill informed commentators alike. In the case of both of these sides however, this is most evidently not the case. Galway’s underage record in the last ten years is well known. Three All-Ireland under 21 titles and one All-Ireland minor along with numerous provincial successes in both has not led to the revival which many had, and still do, hope for. Yes, the most recent crop of champions are still learning their trade in the senior game but, for the under 21 winners of 2005 and the minor victors of 2007, the time has come to prove if those accolades were reflective of something afoot at the highest level.
Armagh’s track record in the under 21 and minor grades, while not as gold plated as their western counterparts, holds strong against the majority of others. An under 21 All-Ireland in 2004 was followed in 2009 by a minor title, in amongst a smattering of Ulster titles and, although players from both these sides have gone on to backbone recent senior sides, like Galway, the question is why haven’t they achieved similar success? Expectation? Distraction? A levelling of standards across the game? The reasons for the absence of a smooth transition from underage champions to senior winners is the GAA’s million dollar question, the quest for an answer of which would lead even the most logical of men to baldness.
Galway and Armagh both rose and fell in a rhythmic movement with each other. The early 90’s were pithily unsuccessful for both, before the arrival of talented managers paved the way for a period of unsustainable success with outstanding teams, coming to a withering end in recent seasons. Could Meath and Kildare be compared in a quadruple examining of the falling of standards? Both counties, Meath especially, have undergone similar trajectories in their development as footballing sides, in terms of the rise and fall of great teams with great expectations, with great managers at the helm. Their decline has arguably had more of a knock on effect on the greater footballing world, as Dublin have come from behind and completely dominated Leinster in their absence.
On that fateful day in 2001, it is fair to say that 2015 was a long way off the minds of those present in Croke Park. Both sides still had great days to come but, in the longer term, those days became less frequent for their senior sides. Two of the opposing protagonists of that final play in front of the Canal End; McGrane and Clancy, have gone on to work with underage sides and develop the future in their respective counties. Is it under their influence the next rise of both will come? For now, they live in hope to stave off the fall further down the feudal system. This Sunday is massive for both.