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Cian Mackey joins Cavan fans hoping team outperforms Division Four billing

Former Blues forward gone from the panel two years but keenly watching Donegal clash

Former Cavan footballer Cian Mackey. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Cavan football carries indelible associations with classic forward play; dashing, tidy attackers in royal blue. Cian Mackey belongs to the first rank of that tradition.

In the 16 years he played for the county, he established himself as a competitive, strong ball winner and as a true craftsman – a score-getter who also possessed a natural playmaking facility.

He’s gone from the scene two years but you’ll spot him in the crowd in Clones on Sunday. And like most Cavan football people, he is optimistic that his former teammates can show that they were never truly a Division Four team.

Mickey Graham's team took promotion and the division final this spring and are now poised for an Ulster championship reunion with Donegal, the county against whom they enjoyed their finest hour.


“Definitely. When I was looking at the Division Two final between Galway and Roscommon, that is where I see Cavan. Maybe not as good as those two at the minute but the potential to be as good. For the last 10 years we have been to-ing and fro-ing between Division Two and One.

"And Mickey (Graham, the senior manager) was unfortunate then that we slipped from two to four over the Covid period. But I'd say if you asked him if he would change that and not have that Ulster championship, I am not sure he would.

"It is all about building for (the) championship. He blooded a lot of young players this year. In Division Four, I know, but it is still football at a high level and you have to find out if they are going to be up to the task of intercounty football at all. If you can't do it in Division Four, they won't be able to do it over on. And he has done very well, I think. They have gone on a winning run, steamrolled Antrim. Winning is a habit and it seems to be working well for them."

Mackey made his championship debut in 2005, a fortnight after his minor team had been knocked out. Cavan won that game against the Royals: it was Sean Boylan’s curtain call. Through enduring excellence and enthusiasm, he became a source of constancy in a turbulent period for the Blues.


His game seemed to improve with time: in 2019, he hit three massive scores as the county edged Armagh to contest his first ever Ulster final. But when he thinks about his playing career as a whole, he feels Cavan travelled well in the league without ever getting the breaks that Monaghan concocted for themselves.

“In around 2013 we really started to motor well. We lost to Monaghan by a point and they won Ulster that year. We saw ourselves on a par: the same style and the underdog. And we were probably envious of them for a few years because they were just getting over the line.

"They just showed that bit of class and experienced heads like Paul Finlay and Dick Clerkin. We achieved lots as in promotions. But never silverware. We lost McKenna Cup finals to strong Tyrone teams. We were in league finals against Tyrone, Roscommon and lost tight games.

“We just never got over the line. But championship? We lost to Monaghan by a point twice and they won Ulster both years. We drew with Tyrone in a semi-final and they won Ulster. Football is fickle. You need that slice of luck. And look, Cavan had their slices of luck the year they won Ulster and then in the final they were just brilliant. And now they have two bits of silverware in three years, which is more than Cavan has done in 20 years.”

Cavan manager Mickey Graham celebrates against Donegal in 2020. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Making it to the 2019 final was, Mackey says "like a dream." Clones was in Truman Show mode: the sun shone, the ground was full. Donegal just had too much for Cavan that day. The losers scored 2-16 but Donegal defended their title with ease.

“To kick that score and lose is tough but it shows the quality Donegal have in that squad.” In January 2020, he decided to retire. When the pandemic occurred, it seemed like a perfect time to exit: for months, the idea of any kind of championship seemed remote. But that December, on a strange, magical evening in Armagh, Cavan and Donegal met again under a winter sky and in an empty stadium.

What happened that evening was one of the more fabulous stories in championship history. Mackey was there, working with BBC television. He was delighted for his county and naturally would have given anything to be part of that dressing room.

“Ah look you would be envious of the whole thing. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. The beauty of it is that you are still a Cavan man. So you are still a huge supporter. And to their credit, a lot of the lads did send text messages to me to say you are just as much a part of this. Even though you know yourself you are not.

“They know that an Ulster title is won over the course of a few years. But when you are not there, you are not part of it. But at least the lads took time out to send a text. And that means a lot. It just shows the respect that was there. As a supporter, it was unbelievable. It is just a pity the crowd wasn’t there. But maybe that played into Cavan’s hands too. Everything fell right. It was brilliant.”

Mackey lives in Longford and transferred to Mullinalaghta after retiring from Cavan and promptly won a senior championship medal with the club last autumn. As in Cavan, he has seen many excellent club players in Longford who for one reason or another aren’t committing to the county team. In his years of service with Cavan, he has seen the evolution of the game and increasing time pressures and can understand that it is not for everybody.

“It’s a huge frustration in Longford and it is a problem for the GAA. But the shorter season does make it easier for county players so you’d hope it might encourage them to go for it.”

Forewarned is forearmed so Donegal will prepare for Sunday’s semi-final aware of the athletic and tactical threat Cavan present. It may be too much for lightning to strike twice. But Cavan are a very tough read: they disguise themselves and are capable of gargantuan one-off performances. Mackey will be keeping his fingers crossed that it can become one of those days.

“When you are an underdog, you can’t just sit and wait to be beat,” he says. “And Cavan pushed up and won a lot around the middle. The year before, Donegal cleaned us out around the middle and Cavan looked fatigued because we couldn’t get our hands on the ball. That was a huge point. And I hope Cavan are just as brave this Sunday.”