All-Ireland SFC: Six times Ulster counties challenged the status quo

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Tom Brewster celebrates after hitting what proved to be the winning point for Fermanagh against Armagh in the 2004 All-Ireland Football quarter-final
Fermanagh fans will never forget Tom Brewster's late winning shock in the shock 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final win over Armagh

Nothing encapsulates the excitement of sport like a good underdog story - and it's no different in the GAA.

Luckily, the All-Ireland championship, like any major sporting tournament, has had its fair share of unlikely stories down the years, with Louth in 1957 and Offaly in 1982 immediately springing to mind.

However, not all captivating stories produce a fairytale finish, not least for Ulster counties.

Tyrone, Armagh and Donegal have given Ulster All-Ireland triumphs in the past 20 years, but they were far from being out of the blue.

It is easier for near-misses from the province's surprise packages to be consigned to history.

With that, BBC Sport NI look at six Ulster teams who defied the odds to make a memorable run into the latter stages of the All-Ireland.

Down 2010

As Tyrone, the Ulster superpower with three Sam Maguires in the previous seven years, limped out of the quarter-finals, Down made an improbable surge towards the holy grail.

An Ulster semi-final defeat by Tyrone did little to curb the Mournemen's rise in 2010.

After that provincial disappointment, James McCartan's men set about upsetting the championship status quo, recording impressive wins over Longford, Offaly and Sligo to reach their first All-Ireland quarter-final since the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001.

Their real statement of intent, however, arrived in the last eight, downing the mighty Kerry with a virtuoso display at headquarters during a 1-16 to 1-10 win.

My Greatest Game: Mickey Linden

The tempo and intensity of Down's forwards proved too much for the defending champions as the Ulstermen maintained their perfect record against the Kingdom, making it five wins from as many meetings.

That brand of enterprising football lifted them to another famous Croker win four weeks later, this time holding off Kildare in a nerve-shredding game to reach their first final since 1994.

And while their journey ended in agony, with a one-point loss to Cork, Benny Coulter, Martin Clarke and the rest gave their county a summer to remember in 2010.

Fermanagh 2004

It remains one of the finest moments in Fermanagh's history. Tom Brewster, four minutes into injury-time, splitting the posts to send the Erne county into their first All-Ireland semi-final at the expense of much-fancied Armagh.

That score would prove the exhilarating apex of Fermanagh's whirlwind 2004 campaign, that started with a surprising managerial change and ended with them rubbing shoulders with the footballing elite.

After Charlie Mulgrew replaced Dom Corrigan as manager, there was a sense of uncertainty around the Erne county ahead of the '04 season.

However, Mulgrew's style combined with a team that boasted an effective blend of youth and experience propelled Fermanagh to their greatest championship summer.

After an Ulster SFC quarter-final defeat by reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone, Fermanagh found themselves in Round 2 of the qualifiers after a walkover victory over Tipperary, whose players made themselves unavailable for selection following manager Andy Shortall's resignation.

But any doubts over their credentials were soon quelled with three stirring wins over Meath, Cork and Donegal.

It was Fermanagh's second quarter-final in a row. However, while 2003 ended with a crushing 19-point loss to Tyrone, '04 produced a much happier outcome, edging Ulster champions Armagh in nail-biting fashion.

In the end, Mulgrew's men were to be undone in their semi-final replay against Mayo, wilting in the final minutes to fall to the Connacht giants.

Derry 2004

Of course, Fermanagh were not the only Ulster county to mount a shock charge towards Sam in the summer of '04.

When Derry, All-Ireland champions in 1993, suffered a 11-point shellacking at the hands of Tyrone in that year's Ulster having already failed to secure promotion from Division 2B, 2004 looked like being a long year for the Oak Leafers.

However, Mickey Moran's men capitalised impressively on a year of surprises, defeating Wicklow, Cavan, Wexford, Limerick and Westmeath to put themselves within 70 minutes of another final.

The only problem was the team standing in their way: Kerry.

Despite a defence led by influential captain Sean Marty Lockhart, the Kingdom ran out 1-17 to 1-11 winners to crush Derry's hopes of reliving their '93 triumph.

A mere 24 hours after Fermanagh fell to Mayo, Derry exited to end Ulster's impressive involvement in one of the most unpredictable championships of the last 20 years.

The Tyrone team which rattled Kerry in the 1986 All-Ireland Final
Tyrone led by seven early in the second half of the 1986 All-Ireland Final but the Kingdom fought back to clinch a third successive title

Tyrone 1986

While Tyrone, then under legendary Red Hand boss Art McRory, were building an impressive team in '86, it would have taken a brave soul to predict just how close they would come to capturing a first All-Ireland that year.

McRory's side had conquered the provincial landscape with their Ulster win in '84, bringing a first Anglo-Celt since in 11 years. However, their subsequent 2-11 to 0-8 loss to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final demonstrated the gulf between Tyrone and their southern counterparts.

But after a disappointing campaign in '85, Tyrone reaffirmed their rising status by taking on the big guns in '86, clinching an Ulster title before overcoming Galway to set up an All-Ireland final with three-in-a-row chasing Kerry.

Having established a seven-point lead 10 minutes into the second half, the 30,000-strong Tyrone support packed into Croke Park began to dream.

But football is a cruel game, especially for opponents of Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry in that era.

After Kevin McCabe failed to score a goal from his penalty, Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy, two talismanic Kerry figures, both hit the back of the net during a comeback that culminated in a flattering 2-15 to 1-10 scoreline in the Munster juggernaut's favour.

Following that devastating denouement, Tyrone continued as one of gaelic football's great underachievers - losing the '95 final to Dublin - before they final got their hands on the holy grail in 2003.

Archive: Preview of Armagh's 1977 All-Ireland Final against Dublin

Armagh 1977

No matter where Armagh looked in 1977, the odds seemed stacked against them.

The Orchard County, led by Gerry O'Neill, thrived as underdogs, downing Derry to win their first Ulster title since in 24 years.

Into the last four of the All-Ireland, Armagh defeated Connacht champions Roscommon by one point in the replay after a thrilling first encounter finished 3-9 to 2-12 to reach their first final since 1953.

• My Greatest Game: Jimmy Smyth relives 1977 Ulster Final

In the showpiece, despite 2-1 from future All-Ireland-winning boss Joe Kernan, Armagh were no match for a free-scoring Dublin, who were powered by Jimmy Keaveney (2-6) and Bobby Doyle (2-2).

The Dubs were simply too hot to handle, winning 5-12 to 3-6 on the day.

Armagh were made to wait a quarter of a century before they climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand, winning their only Sam Maguire in 2002 by beating Kerry in the final.

Donegal's Adrian Sweeney battles with Armagh's Francie Bellew in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final
Adrian Sweeney's sending off was a huge moment in Donegal's All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Armagh in 2003

Donegal 2003

Long before Jim McGuinness transformed Donegal into a championship force, Donegal upset the apple cart by reaching the All-Ireland semi-final in 2003.

That season fell at the midpoint between the county's two All-Ireland titles in 1992 and 2012.

At that stage, Tyrone and Armagh were very much considered the two Ulster heavyweights.

However, after the return of Brian McEniff as manager following Mickey Moran's departure, the Tir Chonaill men began to dream of an unlikely championship success.

With their provincial involvement having been ended prematurely by Fermanagh, Donegal dispatched Longford, Sligo, Tipperary and Down from the qualifiers to launch an unlikely run to the business end of championship summer.

An expressive, attack-minded outfit with a dream forward line that featured Brendan Devenney and Adrian Sweeney, Donegal outlined their lofty ambitions when they surprisingly swept past a talented Galway team 0-14 to 0-11 in a thrilling last-eight encounter in Castlebar.

Ultimately, their aspirations of a second final under McEniff were shattered by Armagh who, despite hitting 21 wides, set up an unprecedented all-Ulster final with Tyrone.

Hurt by Raymond Sweeney's dismissal four minutes into the second half, Donegal bowed out after a 2-10 to 1-9 defeat.

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