Kings for a Day: 20 years on, Armagh's rocky road to glory captured in new book
THE memories are hazy 20 years on, but then the day itself was a blur at best - so much excitement after the rollercoaster ride that delivered them to that point, yet internal warfare inescapable as hope and longing battled the ghosts of past hurt.
September 22, 2002 was the day those shackles were shaken off, Armagh’s emancipation finally achieved as the Kingdom was stormed on sacred sod. Every Orchard man, woman and child inside Croke Park that afternoon has their own story to tell. Niall McCoy is no different.
The Dromintee man, a journalist with RTE and Gaelic Life, was there every step of the way. Sixteen at the time – “the perfect age to experience something like that” – he was surrounded on Hill 16 by those with whom boisterous bus journeys had been shared all summer.
Best mates Ruairi Murphy and Miceal O’Rourke stood either side, just as they had when the going wasn’t so good.
“I would have gone with my da and my uncles to Sligo, Leitrim for a League match, anywhere in the country, when I was really young. My granda would’ve come along as well if it wasn’t too far away.
“That was our Sunday tradition. You went to Mass, came home, found out who was driving to the match and off we went. Later on then me, Ruairi and Miceal would’ve went to matches in parents’ cars, heading off anywhere together.
“In ’02, the same group of us would’ve got a bus to every match, stopped in the same shop, got the same carry-out… Armagh were winning, and it was just the best craic ever.”
With brothers Aidan and Cathal involved, the youngest of the O’Rourke clan was more invested than most when the biggest day of all came around.
McCoy doesn’t remember the whistle sounding to signal the end of the Orchard’s wait for Sam, it’s moreso the mayhem that followed which remains two decades on.
Parents Desy and Annette, who had been seated in the Upper Cusack, were among the first familiar faces he met once those contained in the Hill were finally released. McGeeney’s speech, the colour as the field found itself awash with orange, the strange, almost out-of-body feeling as Sam was held aloft… it seems surreal, even now.
McCoy always had designs on writing a book and, as a significant anniversary loomed, the perfect subject matter was staring him right in the face.
‘Kings for a Day’ – published by O’Brien Press - was a labour of love from beginning to end, the title perfectly encapsulating a journey that, while glorious at its peak, was beset by heartache and frustration during the years before and after.
Having spent months talking to so many of the main protagonists from that period, this is something that grabbed McCoy when he came to pull everything together. It reminded him of standing on the Hill once more, this time waiting for Dublin’s Ray Cosgrove to take a free in the dying seconds of the ’02 semi-final.
Score, and the game goes to extra-time. Here we go again, same old story. Miss, though, and Armagh were in an All-Ireland decider. The latter didn’t enter McCoy’s thoughts for a second, the pain of the past leaving him in no doubt what way things were about to go.
“I was so angry,” he says, “just thinking ‘why does this always happen?’
“Because the book is from 1997 onwards, bar 2002 the Armagh story is really one of tragedy. You had Ger Reid ’99, Barry O’Hagan dropping it short against Kerry in 2000, Justin McNulty 2001, Enda McNulty sent off against Fermanagh in ’03, the Philly Jordan incident, the McGeeney substitution… there always seemed to be a headline moment.
“But then, amazingly, Cosgrove’s free came back off the post and Armagh are through to a final against Kerry. Even watching that final back, I couldn’t believe how much Kerry dominated the first half.
“There were plenty of other times it didn’t happen, and you could very easily be sitting here talking about a Mayo story. But to come away with that one… the Gods were smiling on Armagh that year.”
Yet it is a victory that was hard-earned both on and off the field, the evolution from also-rans to ones to watch to All-Ireland champions requiring clear heads and compromise along the way. Crucially, club rivalries could no longer be allowed to fracture ambitions in the way they once had.
“Jarlath Burns talks about Diarmaid Marsden and Paul McGrane preaching this message about ‘club Armagh’, where you leave club stuff at the door once you come into this dressing room. Obviously McGeeney is seen as the spiritual leader of that group, but boys would’ve run through walls for Marsden and McGrane, so that stuck.
“And then Oisin McConville tells the story about him and Enda McNulty fighting in training one night, Aidan [O’Rourke] came in and busted Oisin, and then Cathal O’Rourke came in and busted Aidan, his own brother.
“At that point Oisin said he remembered thinking ‘yeah, we’re going to be alright here’. As though everything was starting to fall into place.”
Under the two Brians – Canavan and McAlinden – Armagh ended the wait for Ulster glory, but Joe Kernan proved to be the missing ingredient as the search for Sam was cranked up.
Twenty-five years after leaving Croke Park a loser following the Orchard’s 1977 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, nobody wanted it more than the Crossmaglen man – and he would do whatever it took to get there.
Kernan’s decision to take the team on a warm weather training camp to Spanish sports resort La Manga ahead of the 2002 Ulster Championship opener against Tyrone was widely lampooned.
Having lost to Laois in a Division Two semi-final weeks earlier, it was suggested in some quarters that they might have been better going to Lourdes than La Manga.
Yet it turned out to be a masterstroke. In one section of ‘Kings for a Day’, midfielder John Toal recalls a conversation with Aidan O’Rourke as the pair headed back to Belfast after returning home.
“I said ‘we are in some shape here, we’re going to beat these Tyrone boys’. Aidan looked at me and said ‘what are you talking about?’ I said ‘I think we’ll beat them’ and he said ‘we’re not going to just beat these boys, we’re going to win the All-Ireland’.
“It was the first time it had been mentioned. I probably didn’t respond but I remember just thinking that he was right.”
“If a team went away to Spain now it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow,” says McCoy, “but 20 years ago that was something very new.
“They opened themselves up to so much abuse, and it became a stick to beat them with all year. Because by doing that it put even more pressure on Armagh to walk the walk that year - and they did.”
The fact that no others followed ’02 will forever be a sore point in the Orchard. It was Kernan who created the mantra that good teams win one All-Ireland, great teams win two, those words carrying greater weight with every opportunity that passed them by.
Sometimes, though, you simply have to step back and appreciate what was achieved and what was an unforgettable period for Armagh followers. ‘Kings for a Day’ is the perfect way to relive it all.
* 'Kings for a Day', the story of Armagh and their 2002 All-Ireland triumph, is available for pre-order now at https://obrien.ie and will be in bookshops from October 3