Saturday 13th May 2017
THE summer-like sun is a joy to behold. It instils motivation into even the laziest of people to amble down the town at lunchtime.
Sure isn’t it always sunny when the kids are studying for their exams. It seems as if the sun shines to test their mental resolve... study or bask in the one good week of sunshine.
My work office is based in Newry city. It’s practically my second home ever since I first stepped onto an Ulsterbus at the tender age of 11 and headed for the Abbey Grammar school.
Of course, Newry was only a town back then. I’ve always liked walking the leisurely 15-minute trip from the Mall where the bus parked up to school each morning, past the Cathedral and along John Mitchell Place, home of the great Young Irelander, before hiking up Courtney Hill to school just before the bell chimes.
Unapologetically, the Abbey was a ‘Down’ school, so us boys from across the Canal quickly learned to harden up, stick together and to shine when we were afforded a chance.
We, like many other Armagh boys, chose this school for its academic achievements, but also to learn football from those who were the best in the business – and at that time Down football was much better than Armagh football.
Newry straddles counties Armagh and Down. It is a hotbed of sporting activity with the town’s most recent sporting success being that of Newry City FC gaining promotion to the NI Football League Championship, thanks in no small part to goals scored by some dual soccer/GAA players.
But the one big event on the minds of everyone in this town in the pending GAA Championship first round match between Armagh and Down on the fourth of June.
This is a tie that, in my mind, rekindles one of the great rivalries in Ulster GAA.
My earliest recollection of an Armagh v Down game was in 1991 when they met in the first round of the Ulster Championship. It was a dire game, the only thing separating both teams was a stunning penalty from Mickey Linden and virtuoso performance from Greg Blaney.
When a game was ugly, Greg got stuck in and won the hard balls, and when it was played at its beautiful best, he was the master puppeteer.
He was one of a kind, a player who could be pulled from history and fit easily into today’s game. I remember leaving that match thinking that the pick of both teams team would not beat Derry in the semi-finals, yet three months later Paddy O’Rourke and Pete McGrath were parading Sam Maguire across the border.
THEY say whatever happens on the field stays on the field. This adage is put to one side when you consider these two great rivals.
In my school years, I formed many great friendships with fellow students and teachers alike, some of whom I remain in regular contact with.
Not everyone was so lucky. A misplaced football slagging or a poorly-timed tackle has resulted in school team-mates becoming bitter enemies, with good teachers being labelled as bad. Shared disco venues only served to worsen the disharmony.
In 1999 we met again, only the result was much different. Armagh thrashed Down in the Ulster final on a scoreline of 3-12 to 0-10 in a game where Oisin McConville scored more than the entire Down team.
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.
In the subsequent years, neither Armagh nor Down have been feasting at the top table in football terms so the rivalry has died somewhat – until now.
The pot is slowly simmering, the two sets of supporters are quietly studying each other’s form, they are scanning the local papers to get a feel for who is most confident, whose guard is slipping, which set of players remember the past.
Down might be in the division above Armagh, but the truth is that both teams are batting at the same level.
Early indications from the League performances are that Armagh possess serious firepower and are capable of outshooting Down, but that the Armagh defence lacks consistency in terms of personnel and structure.
A quick comparison of last weekend’s club league fixtures mirrors this assertion.
There were 23 goals and 193 points scored across eight matches in Armagh, with six goals and 115 points in six matches across Down.
Club football in Armagh is currently free flowing and attractive and enjoyment appears to be creeping back into our game.
In reality, this means diddly squat on June 4 because both county teams know each other so well and there is so much at stake that the overriding desire will be to play safe, hedge your bets and win at all costs.
As I walk around Newry, I am reminded that Down are the old masters. Their preparation is low key.
Their League performances when it mattered most were solid. The twinkle in the Down supporters’ eyes has returned for this one game.
Bring it on.