View from the summit so sweet for resilient Castlerahan
First-time Cavan champions finally got over the line after losing the three previous finals
Donal Keogan: “We got back together for the first time on Tuesday night. I’d have liked to have done it earlier but look, winning your first one is special and you have to let fellas enjoy it.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The sun is low and bright and short of heat and the club championships are the only bit of fire on which to warm our hands.
Sit around the flame and the best story you’ll hear this winter belongs to Castlerahan, county champions for the first time in their history and the 21st club to be added to the Cavan roll of honour. They got there in the end a fortnight ago, holding out against a young Crosserlough team despite putting up no score in the final 10 minutes.
That’s not the story, though. Not the full one, at any rate.
A first county title is nice and all but hardly cause for much excitement beyond the leafy city limits of Ballyjamesduff. But Castlerahan are no ordinary first-timers. The final was their fifth trip to Breffni Park for a county decider in four years. Their visits had not been happy ones.
In 2015, they lost to Kingscourt by a point. In 2016, they took Ramor United to a replay before coming up a couple shy. Last year, they went down to a Cavan Gaels side that carried on to the Ulster final. Had they found a way to lose to Crosserlough, it would have been four final defeats in four years to four different teams.
That’s enough to break any side.
“Oh yeah, that was there, definitely,” says manager Donal Keogan.
“I remember the semi-final, we were up by 10 at half-time and they came back and got a dubious penalty and got it back to two points. There was two in it with eight minutes left. And you could hear them on the field and in the stands. ‘These boys are bottlers. The Mayo of Cavan. They’ll fold, they’ll fold’.
“People have been very disrespectful to this group. They’ve been up around the benchmark, up there with the best teams in Cavan over the past four, five, six years. To be called bottlers and everything else is just unfair to them.
“Certainly in the final, we didn’t play to our potential and that was the weight of not having done it lying on them. There was serious pressure on them. Even though we didn’t talk about other years, we didn’t have to. It was there. You can’t change the past, it’s about performing on the day.
“But I was thinking about it afterwards, wondering why it took us until we were six points down before we started to play. It just shows there was a huge expectation on them as a group and they were feeling that pressure.
“They felt they had to get across the line this year, no doubt about that. And it did affect their performance. To get it done is a huge weight lifted off their shoulders.”
But even that isn’t the full story either. When the Cavan county championship got underway in early August, Castlerahan started off with a comeback win against Cootehill followed by a comeback draw against Cavan Gaels and a rattling big victory over Ramor. On all three occasions, their driving force was centre-back Oisín Kiernan.
A transplant from Meath club St Brigid’s Ballinkree in late 2016, Kiernan was to many eyes the stand-out player in the Cavan championship across those early games. They got mugged by an injury-time goal against Ballinagh in the fourth game but again Kiernan stood out.
But by the time their quarter-final against Kingscourt came around a week later, he was unable to take his place despite being named on the teamsheet. It would have seemed odd to anyone who didn’t know but the reason was common knowledge soon enough.
Kiernan had found a lump and been diagnosed with testicular cancer. The quarter-final was on a Saturday night – the club Twitter account announced there would be a healing mass for him on the Monday.
“The night we had to break it to the players, the dressing room wasn’t a nice place to be,” says Keogan.
“But look, he’s a very positive fella and please God everything works out and he gets back playing for us and playing for Cavan when he comes out the other side of it. He was togged out for the county final but the medical advice was for him not to play within four weeks of his surgery.
“It was a motivating factor along the way for us too. We had it in our heads to do it for him because he’d done so much for us.
“Last year was his first year for the club, he transferred over from Meath. And before he went for his surgery, he was our best player and probably was the best player in the championship altogether in the early rounds. Last year, we played him everywhere and anywhere but this year we put him at centre-back and he ran the show from there.”
Kiernan will tog out against Coleraine tomorrow for the first round of the Ulster club championship and if they get him on the pitch, it will be a small moment of goodness in a black few months. He has a road to travel yet before he’s in the clear but for here and for now, there’s a golden light. It’s the best he or they could have asked for.
As to the matter of how far Castlerahan will go before the music stops, Keogan isn’t exactly bullish. He won’t say this is bonus territory but he will state that they’ve done the double in Cavan and leave you to draw your own conclusions. Let’s just say the celebrations took on their own momentum.
“They went on longer than I’d have liked but they’re over now and we got back together for the first time on Tuesday night. I’d have liked to have done it earlier but look, winning your first one is special and you have to let fellas enjoy it. Let them go and do their thing. The weekend was for their girlfriends and partners – they’ve put their lives on hold for months as well as the players so we let them off.
“We’ll see how it turns out or what effect it has. Obviously, you’d like a big serious run-in to an Ulster campaign and maybe if and when it’s our second or third title, we’ll shut everything down after a couple of days and concentrate on trying to win a provincial title. But when it’s their first, you have to let them go and do their own thing.”
Good on him. The first one never happens again, after all.