Back from the brink... Diarmaid Marsden recalls Armagh's coming-of-age victory in 1999 Donegal double-header
Seven minutes into their Championship summer of 1999, Armagh looked destined for a place among the alsorans. Two early goals put Donegal in the box seat in Ballybofey but the Orchardmen fought back to force a draw and despite falling behind again in the replay a week later, Armagh rallied to win and went on to end a 17-year wait for an Ulster title. Despite being hampered by injury, Diarmaid Marsden was pivotal to both comebacks, he looks back on a coming-of-age victory for his county with Andy Watters…
ARMAGH were regarded as an emerging force in 1999 but optimism was tempered by the fact that the county had gone 17 years without an Ulster title and had been involved in just five Championship matches in the previous four seasons.
The Orchardmen reached the National League semi-finals in 1999 and had taken Dublin to a replay before they eventually bowed out and turned their attention to Donegal and the Ulster Championship.
“We would definitely have been confident,” says Diarmaid Marsden.
“There was an Ulster title up for grabs and that was always in the back of your mind but we needed to beat a few of the established teams before we could really start thinking that way. The year previous we had beaten Down in Clones and, after going through '95, '96 and '97 without a win, it was a massive step forward for us.
“Derry caught us in the (1998) semi-final but in 1999 we had a really good League. We beat a few half-decent teams and gave a good account of ourselves against Dublin so we went into that Championship very hopeful and confident of doing well.
“But Donegal were, and still are, one of the established teams in Ulster and to win Ulster Championships you're going to have to beat those teams. Derry had beaten Donegal in the final in 1998 so both those teams were flying high. We went to Ballybofey with confidence but we knew nothing was going to come easy.”
Nothing did. MacCumhail Park was packed to the rafters on June 6 but Marsden hadn't fully recovered from the groin injury he'd picked up against Dublin in the League semi-final replay. When the ball was thrown in at Ballybofey he was sitting on the bench, but not for long…
Tony Boyle and John Duffy scored early goals and Armagh found themselves facing an abrupt Championship exit just seven minutes into their campaign. Half-a-dozen more minutes passed before the Orchard county management decided to act – if Marsden had a game in him, even at 70 per cent, his county needed it now. His introduction after 13 minutes helped Armagh turn the tide.
“I just remember going on and getting into the action,” he says.
“It took us a while to regroup after that and the management made a few changes.
“There was a bit of reshuffling and slowly but surely we got ourselves back into it. We got the momentum and got a grip of the game towards the end of the first half and continued right through the second half.
“They got a couple of scores on the break but we controlled the game and got ourselves into a position to win it.”
Paddy McKeever's goal levelled the game with three minutes remaining and Marsden's second point meant Armagh got their noses in front in a helter-skelter climax. Brian Roper levelled, McKeever replied but then Michael Hegarty's last-gasp point meant Donegal, managed then by current bainisteoir Declan Bonner, lived to fight another day.
“We actually came out of it disappointed,” says Marsden.
“But, when we looked back, considering the start we gave Donegal we would have taken a draw after 10 minutes. It was typical Ulster Championship fayre, I don't think the conditions were that great – it was a cold, gloomy day and Ballybofey is always a tricky place to go to and get any sort of result so getting the draw wasn't a bad result.
“We knew there was a bit of fight in the team and a never-say-die attitude. Even though we conceded those early scores, we knew we had a bit of resilience and ability to get back into it. When you're building a team, the more of those games that go right down to the wire you can play in the better so we went into the replay as confident as the previous game.”
Towards the end of the dramatic first game, Marsden felt his groin pull again and so when the sides met for round two the following weekend, this time at Clones, he was among the subs again. But he was relieved even to be there.
“I had to go to St Colman's College in Newry for something to do with work between the two games and I remember saying to Ray Morgan: ‘The groin's gone, I don't think I'll be figuring on Sunday',” he recalls.
“He said: ‘Don't rule anything out' and I remember sort of taking that with me. I didn't kick a ball that week but I was able to run.”
The replay followed the same pattern as the first encounter. Once again Armagh started sluggishly and were soon 0-7 to 0-3 in arrears and they lost Oisin McConville to a red card. Marsden was introduced after 42 minutes and he scored one goal and created the other for Cathal O'Rourke as Armagh cut loose, out-scoring their opponents 2-7 to 0-5 in the second half to win at a canter.
That victory was a coming-of-age moment for Armagh. With the wind in their sails they went on to dethrone Derry in the semi-final and then outclassed Down in a one-sided Ulster final. Although Meath halted their advance in the All-Ireland semi-final that followed, Armagh defended their Ulster title the following year and, two seasons later, were All-Ireland champions.
In total, Clan na Gael clubman Marsden contributed 3-7 across Armagh's five games and his partnership with Crossmaglen's McConville in the inside forward line was electric.
“The two Brians (McAlinden and Canavan) were keen to have me in close to goal and I enjoyed that role in there – winning ball and setting up or scoring,” he says.
“In my later years I was more of a half-forward but playing in close to goal was a role I enjoyed and it worked out well in 1999, it was probably when I played some of my best football for Armagh in the League and Championship.
“It was a big, big year for us and the fact that we beat Donegal, Derry and Down, who were the kingpins of Ulster football throughout the '90s made it all the sweeter.”