Cavan hope to tap into tradition and recapture old glory
Ulster royalty slowly rediscovering their swagger after just one title in last 50 years
Stephen King, Damien O’Reilly and Fintan Cahill celebrate Cavan’s victory in the Ulster football final in 1997. File photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
In their majestic period – which spanned many winters and summers – Cavan footballers could afford to be generous. Paul Fitzpatrick of the “Anglo-Celt” has recounted the gallant moment in a first-round Ulster match against Monaghan, in 1947, when Cavan were awarded a late penalty when the teams were level. The penalty was a new-fangled concept then and many of the players were a bit iffy about its merits. John Joe O’Reilly was the elected kicker and clearly didn’t approve. Rather than try to score a goal, he gently tapped it to the Monaghan goalkeeper. “We won’t win a game like that,” he vowed. Instead, the Blues won the replay – and then Ulster and the All-Ireland for good measure.
Cavan: in GAA terms, the county name is synonymous with the cream of Ulster football as refrigerated and stored in the middle part of the last century. A scant look at Cavan’s football tradition is enough to convince you that something just broke: some vital component of a Rolls-Royce engine stopped and could not be started again. Thirty-nine Ulster titles won up as far as 1969. Just one since then. It is hard to square. O’Reilly is the princely figurehead over Cavan’s football history, accomplishing an absurd number of honours before his sudden death in the winter of 1952. O’Reilly was from Cornafean. The club has more Cavan senior titles – 20 – than any other even though no Cornafean man has lifted the cup since 1956.
“When they won most of those titles, and the older generation would know more, the backbone of the Cavan team were Cornafean players,” says Eamonn Gaffney, the current chairman and former player of the club, which is located in a triangle of townlands around Killeshandra.
“From what I’m led to believe, there was players on the Cavan team then that weren’t fit to get on the Cornafean team.”
O’Reilly had won nine of those club titles, as well as 11 Ulster titles and two All-Ireland championships with Cavan. He died at the age of 33 through complications from an injury he suffered, possibly playing for the Army team where he served as officer in the Curragh. His legacy continues to travel – he is the mythical figure hovering over Tom McIntyre’s 2001 play The Gallant John Joe; he was honoured in ceremony at the Curragh in 2008 and win or lose on Sunday, Peter McGovern’s ballad, the Gallant John Joe, will get a turn on both jukebox and guitar. O’Reilly belongs to the 1940s era of Cavan football that seemed to be teeming with tailor-made GAA football heroes. Cavan effectively owned Ulster football in the 1940s, winning every single provincial final in the decade except 1946. They won three in the 1950s and a further four in the 1960s.
“You were just expected to,” Ray Carolan says matter-of-factly.
“We had a very positive attitude towards it. You wouldn’t be worrying about what was going to happen. You just to be waiting to get out and at them. If you knew you had trained well, then you couldn’t wait to play.”
Carolan played 13 years for Cavan as one of the pre-eminent midfielders of that era. He won his first Ulster championship, in 1962, at the age of 19 under the mentoring of Mick Higgins, a team-mate of O’Reilly’s and a Cavan blueblood. Carolan was a boy when Cavan were closing in on what proved to be its most recent All-Ireland (1952) but if there was local excitement, he allowed it to wash over him.
“I was eight or nine. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was born and raised in the countryside. It didn’t really hit home. And I was unusual in that I had no football heroes or idols or anything like that. I just wanted to kick a ball. Probably going to St Pat’s in Cavan I presume is where it started. Playing for Cavan seniors was just a progression. St Pat’s won a couple of MacRory Cup finals and without having any great ambition it just moved from one to the other. We did kick football seven days a week in football. It was a tremendous relief from the rigmarole of college life as a border. But when I went to play for Cavan, I didn’t see any great difference. I didn’t have to step up a pace. We had to think fast, move fast. Looking back now it wasn’t that big a deal. We were expected to win then. I think we always thought positive. We felt we were capable of beating most teams in the 1960s. Just win an All-Ireland, I suppose, was the only thing we didn’t do.”
We probably should have won something. I can’t put my finger on why we didn’t
They came close, particularly against Offaly in 1969, the summer which brought a shuddering halt to Cavan’s success in Ulster. It is arguable that five All-Irelands is a low return from such an extraordinary harvest of provincial success but if generations of Cavan people had sufficient reason for regret coming home from Croke Park, the local theatres were their playgrounds. There was nothing to suggest that Cavan’s knack for winning Ulster titles would just vanish. But that’s what happened. Carolan retired in 1974, at the age of 31.
“The first time I began to doubt my ability, I just said: get out. And that was it. Just as simple as that.”
He was one of the very last figures from the 1960s Cavan teams and when asked why he thinks the county went from 1969 to 1997 without any success, he admits it is hard to figure. Their decline was so pronounced that they appeared in just three finals over the course of those 28 summers.
“It is very difficult to identify it. After I left in 1974, Cavan probably didn’t have enough good players at the same time. The football structure in Cavan had been really good and a lot of people working very hard. It just wasn’t showing at the other end. All the effort put in up along the line just didn’t seem to come through at the top end. And through the 1960s, there were probably 10 guys that played for about a decade with Cavan. I played 13 years championship football. It was probably easier, then, for new players to fit in. When teams aren’t going well, you have a bigger turnover and you are expecting new players to become leaders straight away. That’s not easy.”
Stephen King covered all bases in that regard. Another powerful midfielder raised, like O’Reilly, in Killeshandra, King’s promise saw him rushed through to Cavan seniors in 1980 when he was still a teenager. He was their man for all seasons 17 years later, when the lapse of time lent the aura of apparition to Cavan’s Ulster championship year of 1997. King was a star among a generation of players versed in the omnipotent force of earlier Cavan teams without ever seeing that tradition translate to anything on the field.
“My father was chairman of the club for years and I’d remember listening to Ulster finals on the radio – I think Gabriel Kelly played in eight Ulster finals and won four, they were telling me the other day. So that was an era you’d remember,” King says.
“We had barren spells and maybe we came up against better teams but we had some brilliant footballers in that time. And we probably should have won something. I can’t put my finger on why we didn’t.”
One obvious answer is that in every year, they just happened to meet someone a bit better. King returns to 1992 as an example of that thin line. Cavan drew Donegal in the first round at home that year. Donegal had been routed by Down in the previous year’s Ulster final: Down stormed to the All-Ireland title. Donegal were perceived as aged and vulnerable. “We took them to a replay. And we went up then and played the replay and got thumped in Ballybofey. But we could have had Donegal out in the first round, which would have been a travesty because I have to put my hand on my heart and admit that we wouldn’t have gone on and won the All-Ireland – as Donegal did. That was the nature of the Ulster championship then. Everyone talks about favourites in Ulster but in the 1970s and 1980s the favourite rarely came out. It was very competitive and when you’re out, you’re out.”
And how often they were out. One of the blessings for King is that he had the staying power to keep playing through the dismal years and was captain when the three Reilly brothers and Dermot McCabe, who had won a provincial U-21 title, came in to offer a turbo thrust to a decent senior side. Martin McHugh, Donegal’s former playmaking wizard, had taken over as manager. King has vivid recollections of McHugh’s young sons, Ryan and Mark, at training, in the dressingroom. “They were only up to your knee then.”
And that whole summer became a dream.
“Martin and the backroom team brought in that emphasis of getting the ball into them quickly – and of not giving it away cheaply. We were guilty – including myself – of getting it and hitting it to the high heaven. We were more measured with the ball. And we had more scoring power.”
The midlands exploded in blue and white. The renaissance was beautifully symbolic: 50 years after the Cavan-Kerry All-Ireland in the Polo Grounds in New York, they squared off in the semi-final. Kerry won but that was fine: Cavan were back. Then one season became two. And two have become 22. Mysteriously, another two decades have passed without Ulster football royalty reclaiming the Anglo-Celt.
Yet they remain royalty. Donegal, favourites on Sunday in Clones, may be one of the stronger football counties of the past 10 years. But Donegal would have to win the Ulster championship for the next 30 years in a row in order to match Cavan’s record.
So the blue flags are flying in town and village all week. The elders and youngest are excited. It is difficult to assess whether all of those titles and the attitude – what Carolan describes as “expected to” – is an energy that this year’s Cavan team can use to their advantage. You have to think, though, that it will count for something, when the teams parade and folk memory kicks in and dormant conviction swells.
“I think it can, actually,” King says.
“Stuff like that never wins games. But I think tradition plays a vital part. The scramble for tickets has been created by Cavan people . . . I’m up in Donegal at the moment and talking with people here, we will probably have two to one in support. There is that passion there in Cavan and if they see an inkling of the team doing well. We have gone away from the negative nonsense we had for years. Mickey [Graham] has them using the breadth of the field. He has them well able to defend when they are able to. Twenty-three points against Armagh – we hadn’t been doing that for years. So that traditional thing is there. Donegal are raging hot favourites but I think we will bring something to this final. And don’t be surprised by the performance from Cavan, I would say.”
It never leaves.