The sight of Armagh running out onto Croke Park tonight – their blazing orange is the promise of summer – will evoke memories of their dark and imperious and sometimes hateful best, when they changed the game.
The football parishes around the Orchard County aren’t disguising their excitement about this evening’s assignment: a league-season curtain raiser, under lights, live on television, against Dublin. Oisín McConville, who glided through over a decade of sublime service for the county, this week reckoned he couldn’t remember as much talk in Armagh about a football game for 15 years.
This is partly down to the anticipation of returning to the terraces and stands again; the thrill that children feel when allowed out after dark.
But there was a time when the Armagh crowd would have found the idea of their turning giddy over a league game amusing. In their pomp they set the tone. At their best they were the boys of summer.
We are talking about the Armagh vintage of the early to mid 2000s. Kieran McGeeney was their spirit-guide then and remains so now in his role as manager. Under former Crossmaglen supremo Joe Kernan, the Armagh of 1999-2007 looked deep within and recast themselves as a new kind of football entity: austere, fearless, teak-tough, sometimes cynical, supremely well-conditioned, physically intimidating and capable of playing spellbinding football.
They were self-possessed, indifferent to the outside world and arrogant only in the sporting sense.
History will record that, though they won seven Ulster titles from 1999-2008, they claimed just won All-Ireland in the 2000s even as as Kerry bagged four and Tyrone three. That rankles.
They should have won two; they were possibly the best team in Ireland in 2004. And they could easily have won three-in-a-row, with just a kick of the ball between themselves and Tyrone in the 2003 showdown, when the century-old mid-Ulster street fight was staged in front of the Ard Comhairle for what was regarded by the cognoscenti as the All-Ireland final from hell. They didn’t care.
Plenty has been said about Armagh’s epic tussles with Tyrone during those years and the significance of the way they almost thoughtlessly strong-armed Dublin hastened the realisation in the capital that things had to change.
The Tyrone-Kerry All-Ireland semi-final of 2003 is rightly identified as the day when an upstart Ulster team dismantled the Kingdom’s mythology.
But it was Armagh who started the revolution by shocking the world the previous September in their All-Ireland win against Kerry. They bust through the impossible.
But the most memorable example of Armagh’s dark excellence is also the most obscure. It took place in 2005 in Clones in one of the wildest Ulster championship games ever – which is saying something.
It was only a provincial quarter-final between Armagh and Donegal but RTÉ, who broadcast the game, gave it title-fight treatment. By then, both counties were in the thick of a needling rivalry which tended to finish in the same way.
In 2003, the teams met in a bruising All-Ireland semi-final. Brian McEniff had returned to manage Donegal because nobody else wanted the job and he kind of coaxed and cajoled a scattershot group of disparate talents into a team who knocked on the door of an All-Ireland final; it was arguably the finest of all his hours with Donegal.
That semi-final was distinguished by a flamboyant Donegal goal which was voted the goal of the year that Christmas. Asked what went through his mind just before he finished the sweeping move, scorer Christy Toye memorably replied: “I just thought: I might never be back here again.”
Just making it out of Ulster in that decade was a kind of Russian roulette. In 2004, the Armagh-Donegal Ulster final was moved to Croke Park. 60,000 turned up to watch Armagh sweep Donegal aside. So by 2005, the atmosphere was testy. The first game finished in a draw – a late McConville free saved Armagh. But a strange energy flowed through the replay. The day was overcast and breathless and the athletes tetchy.
Much ire was directed at the referee afterwards but in hindsight it’s clear that the teams couldn’t stand the sight of one another.
Donegal were down to 13 men early in the second half and a Malachy Mackin goal made it 3-9 to 0-7 to Armagh. It sounded like a drubbing and all energy should have left the field, left Clones. But for those of us present, it felt anarchic.
“There are two Armagh players on the ground,” called out Darragh Maloney. “Things are starting to boil over,” said Kevin McStay, his co-commentator.
Minutes later, Armagh’s Francie Bellew and Donegal’s Adrian Sweeney were sent off: it was now 14 playing 12. Donegal did not score from play until the 60th minute – and that score was a goal from Brendan Devenney. The Letterkenny man spent half his football life wriggling like Houdini as he tried to escape Armagh headlocks so he could play ball. When he hit the net that day, he lifted his head to the skies and emitted a long, slow howl at the gods.
Afterwards, Joe Kernan seemed agitated in his television interview and McEniff was saddened.
“Never in my life did I hear of three Donegal men sent off,” he marvelled.
It was as though both men sensed nothing good could come of this. And they were right; Fermanagh sent Donegal packing in the qualifiers and then executed the great shock of the young century in the quarter-final against Armagh.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Many Donegal players of that day were chubby-cheeked and skinny-armed versions of the players on whom Jim McGuinness would work voodoo. The painful lessons Armagh inflicted did not go unheeded.
Tyrone and Kerry responded to the ferocious nature of the challenge set by Armagh and football pushed the boundaries of amateurism further and further. When Dublin got serious, the old championship entered a new realm.
Past and present mingle for an intriguing season-opener tonight in Croke Park. Plenty of Armagh folk will remember the splendid years when the place felt like home. But that’s the thing. You never know when you’ll get back there.