Ulster Championship: Why Donegal just couldn’t get the better of the 2000s Armagh

In a period where Armagh’s rivalry with Tyrone dominated the skyline, Donegal were a third wheel in Ulster football. Five years running, they met Joe Kernan’s side. Across three Ulster finals, an All-Ireland semi-final and a first-round replay, Donegal just could not beat them. Cahair O’Kane charts the story of that forgotten Donegal team…

Raymond Sweeney after being sent off by referee Michael Monahan during the 2003 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi-Final between Armagh and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Raymond Sweeney after being sent off by referee Michael Monahan during the 2003 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi-Final between Armagh and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)
The Beginning

THERE aren’t even three minutes gone in the Ulster final. Diarmuid Marsden swings a leg at one from beneath the fringe of the Gerry Arthurs.

Hesitation. Noel McGinley doesn’t call it. Tony Blake doesn’t call it. They let it bounce. Blake has to put a hand up to stop it hopping over but in doing so, palms it down for John McEntee to steal in and punch it into the net.

It is July 2002.

Joe Kernan had won three All-Ireland club titles in four years with Crossmaglen. This was his first big day on the line with an Armagh team that had already been testing the strength of the All-Ireland’s doorframe.

McEntee’s goal was just enough. Donegal kicked 14 wides. Jim McGuinness’s goal was just that little bit too late for them to pull themselves up on.

Armagh are Ulster champions. Two months later, the All-Ireland too.


The End

ARMAGH have had Donegal in a headlock for five years now. Beaten them every year.

2002, ‘03, ‘04, ‘05 and ‘06.

This is ‘07. It looks no different with 90 seconds to go. Not just Donegal for that matter. They haven’t been able to back up their one All-Ireland but they go to Ballybofey unbeaten in the Ulster Championship since a preliminary round defeat to Monaghan 1,477 days ago.

Donegal were league champions for the first time in their history. Armagh were 7/4 underdogs with the bookies. The once steady ground beneath their feet was cracking with each passing week.

They sent 2,000 tickets of their allocation back to Ulster Council.

“I am very disappointed with Armagh supporters, they should be ashamed of themselves for letting these boys down,” Joe Kernan said afterwards.

But with 90 seconds to go, it looks no different.

The league champions are 1-8 to 0-9 down when Brendan Devenney fires a blind arrow into the sky.

It drops just beneath the crossbar. Kevin Cassidy takes a chance on distraction. Makes no contact with the ball but gets enough of himself in the eyeline of Paul Hearty.

The Armagh goalkeeper loses it in the air, spills it in behind himself and into the net.

The chains of bondage are released. Donegal have finally beaten Armagh. But in an Ulster quarter-final, they’ve done it in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It would be Kernan’s last Ulster Championship match in charge. After four Ulster titles and an All-Ireland, the final bell was rung by Collie Devlin in a qualifier attended by just 500 Derry fans in Clones.

Armagh’s story has been written.

But why did that Donegal team not find a way to win just once?


The Middle

IT was as if gravity had abandoned Raymond Sweeney’s lower lip. He’s standing on the 13-metre line at Hill 16 open-mouthed, just staring at referee Michael Monahan, whose whistle never leaves his lips.

It was the only red card he ever got in a Donegal jersey and it came three minutes into the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final of which they had some small measure of control.

Christy Toye’s goal just before half-time helped them lead by 1-5 to 0-4.

The lead is still four when Paul McGonigle gives the ball away and Donegal are caught scrambling. Oisin McConville turns into Sweeney, puts the head down and takes the space.

“When I seen him reaching for a card, I thought ‘whaattt the f*** are ye doing?’ and next thing he was away with the yellow and obviously I was booked before,” Sweeney recalls.

There are two versions of the truth from that day.

Donegal would look at those first 38 minutes and see how Sweeney and a more commanding Tony Blake were gobbling up the aerial ball, and that Armagh were having serious trouble getting scores.

They still led after 55 minutes. Niall McCreadie had kept Stevie McDonnell on the tightest of leashes along the ground but with Sweeney gone, Armagh preyed on the height differential.

The long ball finally paid off. McDonnell was goalside and grabbed it over McCreadie’s head, turned and finished low past Blake.

For their own contribution, the reigning All-Ireland champions ended up kicking 21 wides. How much of that was poor shooting and how much of it was being unable to get inside and shoot from where they wanted to shoot from.

Speaking to reporters in the tunnel after the game, Aidan O’Rourke summed up where Armagh felt they were at that day.

“At half-time we didn’t need to be told. When you’re playing shite, you’re playing shite and everybody knows you’re playing shite.”

With 90 seconds to go of the three added minutes, Donegal are still level with Armagh.

Raymond’s brother Adrian, their captain, lodged a free that made it 1-9 apiece right on the 70th minute.

But the rub goes Armagh’s way.

John McEntee is lucky to stay on after lifting his elbow to Barry Monaghan, and luckier still that the referee booked him at the time, saving him a sweat over the All-Ireland final with Tyrone.

“I got a lot of abusive letters [about Armagh’s physicality] after the Donegal game but, quite honestly, I couldn’t see where the grounds for complaint lay. Believe me, plenty of our lads were pretty sore after that game but somehow Donegal were portrayed as being on the side of the angels,” Joe Kernan said in his autobiography, Without A Shadow Of A Doubt.

Armagh boss Joe Kernan celebrates as his Donegal counterpart Brian McEniff looks on
Armagh boss Joe Kernan celebrates as his Donegal counterpart Brian McEniff looks on (Oliver Mc Veigh/Oliver Mc Veigh)

There are 90 seconds left when the ball breaks beautifully into Philip Loughran’s path. Point. With the last kick, a penalty from which Oisin McConville buries some demons of the 2002 final.

What if Sweeney stays on that afternoon?

“It was moreso the disappointment of letting down my team, the guilt of that,” he says.

“It’s not that I looked at the referee and thought he had done wrong, it was just moreso I looked at the team and thought ‘aw Jesus, what have I done to the f***ing team here?’ That’s the long and short of it.

“It was walking off knowing I can’t contribute to what we’re trying to do here. You don’t get to too many All-Ireland semi-finals and being sent off in one like that, obviously it wasn’t nice.

“I don’t really carry any chips on my shoulder, hopefully. It’s just one of those things that is. I always looked at it as a person I was very fortunate to play for my county.

“I would have loved a couple of Ulster titles surely but I don’t look back and say it’s eating me up or anything like that.”


BRENDAN Devenney had struggled that whole year.

He damaged ligaments in his knee in the first round against Fermanagh and was taking injections to get through games.

That semi-final holds a different frustration for him. There are other games his mind goes to first.

But we’ll start at the end, 2007, and finally get one over on them.

Fairly or otherwise, that Donegal team has carried a reputation of being, as Logan Roy might have put it, not serious people.

Nobody would touch the manager’s job after a couple of high-profile incidents during the 2002 campaign under Mickey Moran, leaving Brian McEniff to step back in when he couldn’t get anyone else by Christmas.

But Donegal were easy to disrespect too. They were far from the only team that enjoyed themselves.

For Devenney, who lost four Ulster finals, the partying culture wasn’t the primary reason they fell short.

“I know where you’re coming from on that because that would be my view too if I was outside the county and I didn’t really know the boys.

“But those stories only come out when you lose. You can do whatever the hell you want if you win.

“I’ll give you an example. I remember a session after we won the league final in 2007.

“There was a wee shop next door and for some reason, some eejits brought in stuff from the shop, bread and shit. It was stupid. But this stuff got scattered in your man’s bar.

“Everyone was going mad, there was food everywhere, the place was f***ing wrecked, a serious state. There wasn’t a word about. Not a f***ing word, because we had won.”

That was a month before they ended the Armagh hex.

The idea that they were unserious stretched right out into the 2010 hammering in Crossmaglen, a day when Colm McFadden was picked up by the TV cameras smiling on the bench having been taken off.

That was unfair too on McFadden, who just happened to be making a joke at his own expense having been asked to stay around after the game for a presentation marking his 100th appearance.

He copped a lot of flak afterwards and considered quitting that winter, as others did.

Donegal were an easy target for ridicule. They made themselves so at times, but not always.

Devenney puts it down to a multitude of factors. Not excuses, but what he thinks are reasons why they could get so close to Armagh but never beat them.

For him, a lot of it goes back to that first Ulster final.

Mickey Moran and John Morrison had studied Armagh and came up with a gameplan that involved moving the ball as fast as they could into the spaces Kernan’s men wanted to protect.

McEntee’s early goal rocked them but Donegal took it down the stretch, undermined by their 14 wides.

“After the goal, we played the better football. We were in there fighting, but the forwards, myself included, didn’t take enough chances.

“That was one of the few times I left thinking we could have beat them today.”

He talks of working off a “very low tactical base” in other years, and how that just wouldn’t fly against an Armagh side that obsessed over the details, right down to image consultant Billy Dixon’s influence on their tight-fitting jerseys.

“With Armagh, it was semi-tactical and semi-rhythm for them. A lot of people called them rigid or robotic but in a tight championship game, that’s gonna win.

“If you went three or four up, they played the same way as they were three or four down. With us, you were never sure from each ten minutes to the next. It could be good, it could be bad.”

In his book, Winning, Rory Kavanagh recalls the 2006 final in his debut decider and going up against Andy Mallon.

“Against Down I had space. Against Derry, I had the freedom of the pitch…Andy Mallon was a whole different proposition. I had never met a marker as tight,” he said, adding that Armagh were “cynical, aggressive, sickeningly assured right to the very end.” Raymond Sweeney puts the same words another way.

“There were times we went out and from a team perspective, sometimes it nearly looked like it depended what part of the bed we got out of, what humour we were in.”


JOE Kernan once said that the 2004 Ulster final win as the single best performance of his entire reign.

Donegal got torn apart, weeks after they’d been brilliant themselves in dumping All-Ireland champions Tyrone out.

Armagh became everyone’s favourites to win a second All-Ireland that day.

Then along came Fermanagh.

Having ended Donegal’s year in the qualifiers, Tom Brewster’s winner against Armagh was like an earthquake hitting Gaelic football.

Things weren’t always particularly jovial in Armagh-Donegal games but a lot of it was either side of the noughties.

In more recent times, the fallout from the league game in 2022 and the fractious 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final were spicy.

Back in November 1997, Armagh full-back Colm Hanratty suffered a bad leg break in Lurgan on a day when everyone went to war.

In Niall McCoy’s fine book, Kings For A Day, now-GAA president and then-Armagh midfielder Jarlath Burns recalled how Brian McAlinden had made him march into the Donegal huddle after the incident.

“’McAlinden came on and said, “Are you going to let those boys have a talk on our f***ing pitch?” I said, “What do you want me to do?” “Get into the middle of them; this is your pitch.” ‘I went into the middle on my own and the row started again. “Get the f*** out of here!” “I’m going nowhere.” Juvenile stuff – a fully qualified teacher at this nonsense.

“Cormac McGill, father of Fergal McGill from Croke Park, wrote in his match report that ‘Jarlath Burns, who spends his summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht, walked into the middle of the Donegal team and promised them a watery grave.’ I laughed out loud when someone sent that to me.’”

The noughties games almost always contained red cards and yet never really spilled over either.

“Because you were looking at the same players all the time,” says Raymond Sweeney, “whether it was Marsden – who was a strong c***, so he was – or it was Ronan Clarke who was awkward, Steven McDonnell was a brilliant player, the McEntees and Paul McGrane…

“I remember meeting Paul McGrane away from it and they’re all sound fellas. But when we were looking at each other, we were f***ing taking the heads off one another.

“That’s the way it was, that was just part of the game.”

On one weekend in 2005, ten Ulster players were sent off.

Four of them were in the Donegal-Armagh replay, yet there was hardly a hand raised.

Kevin Cassidy had been sent off in the drawn game, as was Paddy McKeever late on.

Another chance missed in an absorbing 0-12 all draw.

Before the replay, Brian McEniff had his players in the hotel in Lisnaskea and said to them to keep their mouths shut and their hands down.

It didn’t matter. It was still 15-a-side at half-time but even by then, both managers felt the need to intercept Maurice Deegan’s exit from the pitch.

In the space of 13 second-half minutes, Eamon McGee, Brian Roper, Adrian Sweeney and Francie Bellew – hardest done by of all, in fairness – got their marching orders.

Armagh scored a goal a minute after McGee’s dismissal and another two minutes after Roper got the line.

Devenney rifled home a late consolation and let a roar of sheer frustration and anger out of him that looked out of kilter for a goal that cut a ten-point deficit to seven.

“I’ve pushed it all down. The one we drew, I would say in the first game I was one of the few players didn’t play well, and then the replay I was one of the only players that did play.

“I remember being so f***ing angry with myself because I hit 1-5 and all I could think was if I’d done that in the first game, we’d have won it.”

Raymond Sweeney was sat at home that day watching on TV. He’d struggled to shake a chest infection in the lead-up to the drawn game.

“We went back to Rossnowlagh to do a recovery session and I knew, I thought ‘aw I’m f***ed here’. There was green phlegm coming out of me.

“I remember watching in the house, Eddie [Adrian] was sent off and the red fella…Francie, they’d have been battering the shite out of each other.

“Thanks for that, I didn’t really think of that one! ‘02, ‘03, 04, ‘05, ‘06…” he rhymes off.

Too many to remember, evidence were it needed of the mental scarring left on that Donegal team by Armagh.

It would have been different if these were all hammering matches.

2006 hardly gets a mention anywhere yet only a point-blank Hearty save from Stephen McDermott in the 71st minute preserved Armagh’s winning three-point lead.

Yet it is perhaps a throwaway line about that game from Oisin McConville in his book that is both the sharpest barb and the most revealing insight.

“In the end, we did win another Ulster but by then it wasn’t a real Ulster if we didn’t beat Tyrone.”

Donegal were never far away.

Just never close enough.