GAA Football

Diarmaid Marsden & Eamonn O'Hara reflect on memorable Armagh v Sligo ties

Diarmaid Marsden celebrates during his playing days with Armagh 

WHEN Dara McGarty got married recently, his best man flicked on the projector at the reception and up flashed a video of Benny Tierney.

In his own inimitable way, the former Armagh goalkeeper, with his framed jersey from the All-Ireland final in the background, told the ex-Sligo forward: “On behalf of all the Armagh ’02 team...it’s a wee bit emotional this…I would like to thank you personally for what you did in the All-Ireland quarter-final that day in Croke Park.”

When McGarty burst through on goal in the dying moments, he had the chance to add Armagh’s scalp to the mantelpiece that held Tyrone’s from a fortnight previous.

With his side a point down, he fisted the sides level rather than take a shot at goal. The final whistle sounded to leave their foot off the throat of Joe Kernan’s side.

It would be grossly unfair on McGarty to put Sligo’s failure to beat Armagh in either that game, or the replay down in Navan, solely down to that one incident.

Indeed, it seemed the sensible option at the time. And while the ascendancy was with the Yeatsmen, they had come from seven points down in the second half.

Eamonn O’Hara prefers to reflect upon the failings of the replay, which were far more evenly spread and far more costly: “You’ve no real regrets in football or anything like that. Everything you do, you throw the chips out and wherever they land, they land. But that was a game we should have won.”

Armagh travelled to Croke Park with a long-standing and unwanted record hanging over them. Ulster titles in 1999 and 2000 had been followed by All-Ireland semi-final exits, the latter at the hands of Kerry after a replay.

It left them waiting for a first win at the venue since their 1977 All-Ireland semi-final win, and that loomed even larger over them as they squandered a seven-point lead to Peter Ford’s side.

“You probably always had that feeling of going to Croke Park and at that stage there was all the talk of a hoodoo,” recalls Diarmuid Marsden.

“Drawing with Sligo had everyone talking about it even more so. We should have [been warned] considering they had given us a wake-up call by beating Tyrone.

“They gave us everything we wanted in both games. We took most games to the wire that year but we should have closed that one out a bit earlier.”

The bus journey north was a deflated one. But just as they were pulling into the Carrickdale, Joe Kernan started the healing process with what became a very valuable soliloquy.

“The temptation might have been to feel sorry for yourself at not getting over Sligo in an All-Ireland quarter-final, but it was a nice reminder,” says Marsden of their manager’s assertion that self-pity was uncalled for in light of them surviving in the All-Ireland series.

The replay in Navan followed a strikingly similar pattern to the drawn game. Stevie McDonnell, having been wasteful in the first game, was unstoppable in the second.

Poor Niall Carew, who would end up as Kieran McGeeney’s assistant in Kildare, endured a torrid opening as the Killeavy man helped himself to five points from play.

A strong surge just beyond half-time left Armagh seven points clear again, 1-12 to 0-8, before Sligo mounted another recovery to lose by just two.

Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney takes the Sam Maguire from captain Kieran McGeeney in Croke Park in 2002
Picture by Ann McManus

At the very end, with the All-Ireland that they would go on to win dangling precariously off the edge, Sean Davey burst into the Armagh square and went to ground. All of Navan held its breath, but so did referee Seamus McCormack. No penalty. Relief for Armagh.

Eamonn O’Hara offers light some 15 years on, agreeing that a penalty would have been harsh on Armagh, but his and Marsden’s recollections of the afternoon as a whole differ.

“For us, for me personally, the replay was the chance that we had,” said O’Hara.

“We had chances to win the game, to take the initiative. We probably didn’t have the experience. I just put it down to myself and three other lads had shots in front of goal from 30 yards out, bread and butter stuff, that we didn’t score. We kicked them wide.

“If you’re going to win an All-Ireland, and you look back at teams that have, those are the scores they get. Armagh took their scores and we didn’t take ours.”

Marsden, though praising the quality of Sligo’s challenge over both games, had a slightly different take on it: “My recollections are sketchy at this stage, but I thought we were the dominant team. I remember Stevie McDonnell scoring for fun in the first half, he scored five or six points from play.

“We probably weren’t playing that well but we took it into the second half. Ronan Clarke got a goal and we were sitting there comfortable before we took our foot off the gas, as we did in the drawn match, and allowed Sligo to come back at us.”

Sligo would struggle to meet those highs again and O’Hara has said previously that the 2002 side was a stronger team than the one with which he would eventually win a Connacht medal in 2007.

It’s not exactly a case of what might have been for them, because to face a side with the tradition of Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final might have overwhelmed Sligo.

“Armagh beat Dublin with [Ray] Cosgrove hitting the top of the post – now that might have been completely different for us. You can only speak hypothetically after that,” says O’Hara.

But had Dara McGarty gone for goal and taken it, no matter what form history would have taken, it would have been written differently.

Instead, as Benny Tierney cruelly and comically reminded him, “we are heroes, icons, with untold wealth, thanks to your acts that day.”

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