'A brilliant time to play football' - Peter Canavan and Oisin McConville reflect on 2005 Ulster final

Peter Canavan
Peter Canavan was Tyrone's 2003 All-Ireland winning captain
Sport Re-run: Highlights of the 2005 Ulster SFC final between Armagh and Tyrone
Venue: Croke Park Date: Sunday 10 May at 20:15 BST
Coverage: Highlights and interviews on BBC Two NI and the BBC Sport website

When Armagh and Tyrone took their local spat to Croke Park it became a rivalry that transcended the borders of Ulster.

The ferocity of their battles and quality of those dramas gripped a larger audience, who watched on fascinated as the two dominant teams in the country went at it toe-to-toe in the early part of the 'noughties'.

The zenith of that rivalry was 2005.

The score read one All-Ireland each - Armagh winning in 2002 and Tyrone in 2003 - and, while both took their eye off the ball in 2004 and messed up on a crazy Croke Park double-bill with shock defeats by Fermanagh and Mayo respectively, these northern rivals were at the peak of their powers.

Both knew the only team that could stop them winning a second All-Ireland was the other and, when they met in the 2005 Ulster SFC final in Croke Park, the stage was set.

"You were just consumed with getting the better of them," said Tyrone's 2003 All-Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan.

"Even in the late 1980s we had a couple of serious tussles. I recall a game in Omagh in '89 where Armagh were leading well at half-time and there was an incident in the tunnel... John Lynch came out with a black eye and didn't resume.

"I joined the senior panel the following year and we played them under lights in Castleblayney that didn't finish, so there was always an edge from that point on."

Mickey Harte
Mickey Harte has won three All-Ireland titles as Tyrone manager

In the 'noughties' the stakes were so much higher because both had All-Ireland winning potential and they both had All-Ireland-winning managers.

"We were coming with a young team of lads who had won minor and Under-21 All-Irelands under Mickey (Harte)," said Canavan, "while Armagh were older, a more physical team and Joe (Kernan) had won All-Irelands with Crossmaglen. So there was a real good vibe that he would lead them to greater things, and the same with Mickey."

"The quality of the football we both played then was of such a high standard."

Living in Cross, Oisin McConville grew up in the shadow of Down, the team with tradition and swagger who had won five All-Irelands in the 1960s and 90s.

"Down were our traditional rivals but probably around 1999 and 2000, Tyrone came on the radar," says the 2002 All-Ireland champion.

"In 2002 we beat them in a replay and you could see the fruits of what they had done at underage level.

"It became intense pretty quickly because we both thought we were realistic alternatives to the Kerrys and Dublins in terms of winning All-Irelands.

"People thought that was a pipe dream but by the time we played Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland final, the rivalry was claustrophobic. Any game against Tyrone brought an extra edge because it was them.

"We didn't like each other that much and we were starting to go at each other in a real way.

"We were dominating Ulster football and beyond, and familiarity was starting to breed contempt."

There were 60,186 fans in Croke Park watching the 2005 Ulster final which Stephen O'Neill threatened to win on his own, scoring a majestic 10 points, but McConville and Steven McDonnell scored second-half goals as Armagh clawed their way back to earn a 2-8 to 0-14 draw.

"The last thing either of us needed was a replay," concedes McConville.

Oisin McConville
McConville won the All-Ireland with Armagh in 2002

"They had played the better football for the first 35, 40 minutes but the goals took us out of a hole. We were fairly lucky to get back into it.

"By the time the replay came around.... well, you can see how it played out!"

The replay was held on a Saturday which resulted in a poor attendance of just over 30,000, but no-one who was there felt short-changed.

In a chaotic and messy second half, Canavan was sent off just seconds after coming on. Ciaran McKeever also went for his part in the ugly brawl on a second yellow.

O'Neill, whose stunning form would see him crowned Player of the Year later on, was also harshly dismissed by referee Michael Collins. Both Canavan and O'Neill's red cards were later rescinded but it all added to the game's rich tapestry.

"The replay was very tactical and the intensity of the tackling stood out," reflects Canavan.

"It's a sign of a good game when there is plenty of talking points and there was no shortage of those.

"None of the three players who were sent off should have been, while Paul McGrane managed to get away with a bad tackle on Philly Jordan and likewise Ricey (Ryan McMenamin) should have gone in the incident with John McEntee.

"We were leading 11 points to seven when I came on. My sending off was bad, but Stevie's was a big turning point because it gave Armagh a numerical advantage and they really made us pay."

McConville felt Armagh's fitness got them over the line that day, winning the replay 0-13 to 0-11 to become the first team since Cavan in 1945 to win an Ulster title via the preliminary round.

"It was one we wanted to win badly after losing the All-Ireland final to them in 2003," admitted McConville.

"There was so much stuff going on in that replay. How Ricey wasn't sent off I don't know - nowadays it would be a three-match ban.

"I had a poor enough game and didn't score from play until the 73rd minute, but the free and the point at the end got us over the line.

"The supporters really enjoyed it but when we came off the field that day we didn't over celebrate it. We honestly had a fair idea they were coming down the track again."

Canavan and McConville are in agreement about one thing - Tyrone were the better team in the drawn Ulster and replay, which Armagh won - and that Armagh were the better team in the All-Ireland semi-final, which Tyrone won.

Joe Kernan
Kernan was the Armagh boss when they lifted the Sam Maguire in 2002

"It was a disaster for us really," admits McConville.

"They had all the ammunition, us having beaten them in the Ulster final replay and it was fresh in their minds.

"We kicked enough wides to win two games and when Peter had the ball in his hands to take that free at the end, you knew it was over.

"It was absolute devastation. If you gave me the choice again I would go back and give them that Ulster Championship to have won the All-Ireland semi-final, because 2005 was when I felt we were at our best."

The respect was always there but friendships have been easier to hold down as the intensity of those epic battles faded.

Two of the leading characters remember that era with a mixture of delight, regret and pride to have been a part of it.

"They were three quality games with virtually nothing to separate the teams in any of them," Canavan says.

McConville added: "Both teams were in the business of winning All-Irelands then and it was a rivalry that sparked the interest of the whole country."

"It was just a brilliant time to play football."

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