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‘IT didn’t matter how many All-Ireland titles Down had in the past; we just had in our minds total focus that we were going to win the Ulster Championship.
“Nothing was going to stop us. The guys put a lot of effort in and they had real pride in the jersey that hadn’t been there for a while’ [said Brian McAlinden].
That effort belonged not only to the players, with the management doing everything in their power to ensure that they were ready for the big occasion too – including enlisting the help of some of the GAA’s most noted personalities.
‘We had dinner with Ger Loughnane, who was over the Clare hurlers at the time, and that was just inspirational,’ said McAlinden. ‘His presence even in the hotel, he attracted a lot of attention. He’s a great character; you could have sat there all day.
‘We drove down the next day to Larry Tomkins’s pub and met Larry. Just listening to those people was such a help.’
Loughnane stressed the need for winning sides to possess internal steel. This was music to the ears of the management.
‘One thing Ger said to us, and it’s something we put into practice, was that he refereed all in-house games himself,’ says McAlinden. ‘If some guy got hurt during the course of a game, the physio came on but he didn’t stop the play, he just played on. There was a hardness about Clare at that time.
‘He started the match and he stopped the match at the end of it, and that was it. That produced a steeliness, it made the players harder. The players played around, under, over injured players, and we tried to do that ourselves.
‘In our in-house games, we let them play to just inside the law. We let them bend the rules of the game to breaking point and slightly beyond. There was a fierce rivalry there and a fierce will to win.
‘I remember Kieran McGeeney and Justy McNulty fighting one night when they were both playing for Mullaghbawn, and I just let them finish it because there was no point in stopping it. We played on while they were buffing each other on the ground. That was the sort of intensity that was there in those in-house games.’
It wasn’t just GAA legends that the pair sought counsel from. It may surprise a few to learn that former Rangers manager – Glasgow, not Crossmaglen – Dick Advocaat offered the two Brians a few hints and tips while he was in charge of the Ibrox club.
A Lurgan contact, John Byrne, had helped arrange for Armagh to travel to Celtic’s training ground at Barrowfield. He was friendly with a golfing buddy of the Hoops’ majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond.
The team were booked into The Crutherland House in East Kilbride, where Martin O’Neill was staying. The two Brians headed over a few days early to see if they could get a chat with the Derry man.
‘Canavan had checked with Martin’s brother, Gerry, to see where he was staying. Gerry would have been the Armagh manager when I played in ’77 and he was obviously very familiar with the Gaelic scene,’ said McAlinden.
‘We booked in the Wednesday before we went. Martin O’Neill had to move out for a few days, because Rangers were there – they were playing in a European game.
‘Dick Advocaat was the manager of Rangers, and we asked the general manageress would there be any chance of getting a chat. She said she would email him, and we got a response saying, “Yeah, no problem.”
‘He gave us an itinerary for what to do pre-match – meals and that sort of thing. It wouldn’t have been much different from what we were doing.
‘We had a chat with him. He wasn’t totally familiar with Gaelic, but he would have been aware of Croke Park. It was nice to switch codes and see what others were doing.
‘The following week, we met Martin O’Neill and myself and Brian had a bite of lunch with him.
‘We had a couple of good sessions in Barrowfield. The Celtic senior team, Henrik Larsson and all, were coming off the field as we were coming on, and they couldn’t believe that we were amateurs.’
Everything that happened on and off the pitch in the lead up to the 1999 Ulster final convinced Armagh that defeat was essentially impossible.
The Mourne County did manage to play a trump card in the warm-up. Captain James McCartan had been ruled out by manager Pete McGrath due to a disc issue in his back in the days beforehand. But, wearing the number 25, he took part in the pre-match kick-about before coming on for the last ten minutes. By then, the game was long gone.
Armagh had spent the weekend before the match in Sligo. One can only assume they resided in the spa, given how relaxed they appeared about the decider.
Oisín McConville and Diarmaid Marsden combined for a stunning 3-9. ‘That’s the day we also realised the genius of Messi and Ronaldo,’ Jarlath Burns said of their performance.