Remembering the summer of '69

Continuing our series, PAUL FITZPATRICK looks back on Cavan’s Ulster Championship success in 1969.

Continuing our series, PAUL FITZPATRICK looks back on Cavan’s Ulster Championship success in 1969.

By the dawn of 1969, Cavan were still ranked among the leading sides but were unsure of just where they were at. The previous summer, they had beaten Antrim and Monaghan comfortably but, with key midfielder Ray Carolan on the injured list, went down by five points to Down in the Ulster final.

The Mourne men went on to land their third All-Ireland of the decade and Cavan, who had beaten Down in three of the previous seven Ulster finals but handed got over the line in the All-Ireland series, were left to lick their wounds and go again.

League form was patchy, culminating in a fiery play-off against Donegal in Dungannon in late March, with a ruckus erupting after Donegal kicked a late winner which the Cavan players and supporters believed was actually wide.

"That's the hardest match I have had in seventeen years as a referee,” was the reaction of Tyrone whistler Patsy Devlin immediately after the game.

On April 20, Cavan beat Down by a point in the delayed final of the 1968 McKenna Cup in Ballybay, giving the county cause for optimism again but there was a real sense that time was running out for some of the Breffni county’s long-serving stalwarts.

“This is probably the last chance that such great players as Gabriel Kelly and Charlie Gallagher have of winning an All-Ireland medal,” warned a letter-writer to the Celt that very week.

A week later, the first round of the 1969 McKenna Cup was played and again, Cavan lost by a point to Donegal and surrendered a trophy they had held for just seven days.

Fermanagh were first up in the championship in Irvinestown and Cavan just about came through, Gene Cusack the top scorer with 1-1 as they held on to win by 1-9 to 2-4, with one report lashing them as "ill-prepared, ill-conceived and certainly ill-equipped".

After the match, county chairman TP O'Reilly let rip in the dressing-room. Expectations were always high about Cavan at the time; winning a championship match against one of the weaker teams was not enough in itself.

And yet, before the semi-final against red-hot favourites Derry, the Ballyconnell solicitor was more upbeat, referring to the close shave in Irvinestown as “the best thing that ever happened to us”.

And it probably was. For 10 successive evenings after that game Cavan trained. Fitness and confidence improved, although team captain Charlie Gallagher still found himself dropped for the next round against Derry.

Whatever the best-laid plans of manager Mick Higgins and his war cabinet were (“they had no alternative,” reckoned the Celt, “but to drop Gallagher”), they were torn apart when Cavan came out flat and lifeless. Well before half-time, Charlie was thrown into the fray and seemed to have rediscovered that old zip. Towards the end of the game, he laid on a goal for Phil Murray as Cavan hung on to draw, 2-3 to 0-9.

The headline in the Irish Press – “Derry kicked victory away” – told its own story, with reporter Peadar O’Brien saying “not for a long time have I seen a team play so badly and unintelligently as Cavan and yet manage a draw”.

A goal from Cusack, after Declan Coyle’s shot hit the upright, made it 1-1 to 0-3 at half-time and another from Phil ‘Lightning’ Murray near the end proved crucial, with O’Brien singling out centre-back Tom Lynch as the only Cavan player to shine on the day.

Cavan won the replay by 1-8 to 0-6, 19-year-old Cusack finding the net for the third game in succession, with Hugh Newman and Ray Carolan dominating at midfield and the recalled Gallagher contributing 0-3 from frees.

"Derry really should have won that game in Clones, but they kicked an awful lot of wides," remembered Declan Coyle, a young seminary student from Mountnugent, who had broken into the team at full-forward.

"They simply didn’t have the belief that they could actually beat Cavan. I remember talking to [Derry’s] Tom Quinn and Malachy McAfee afterwards. They knew they let it slip but I re-assured them that there was no way that they would beat Down in the Ulster final – that we would not only beat Down but we’d hammer them. They agreed. Belief is a powerful thing."

Meanwhile, the holders had swept Monaghan aside by 10 points in the other semi-final. So, the stage was set for yet another Cavan v Down Ulster final.

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Charlie Gallagher with the Anglo-Celt Cup.

The Ulster final was down for decision on July 27 and the Ulster, All-Ireland and National League champions were red-hot favourites to retain their provincial crown, with one bookmaker pricing Cavan as 4/1 underdogs.

But Down were quietly worried. On the Thursday night at training, Sean O’Neill sensed it and gathered the players together in a circle. O’Neill gave that famous steely look and stared into each player’s eyes.

“Who are we playing on Sunday?” he asked. His point was made.

On the Sunday, a crowd of 45,000 flocked to Casement Park and Cavan tore into the holders. Ten minutes before half-time, they were 0-7 to 0-2 up when Cusack, who was marking the legendary Tom O'Hare, scored a brilliant goal.

At the back, Kelly – then regarded as arguably the greatest right corner-back in history, who played his 17th match for Ulster the previous February – was on fire and Carolan and Newman dominated the midfield battle with McAlarney and Jim Milligan, as Cavan ran out 2-13 to 2-6 winners.

"We should have known the history because Cavan were going to be truly, truly set for us and they certainly were. We were demolished in the sunshine in Casement Park that day,” recalled Down player Colm McAlarney.

“It was a typical tigerish Cavan team that lined out that day. In those days you just got your one chance and if you weren't set for it, you were gone. In those days, you had to be set for your first-round match because you knew it was going to be a war. We were caught cold.”

“We could always rev up for Down in an Ulster final,” stated Kelly.

And Cavan had. “Down didn’t know what hit them,” reported the Celt.

“Brendan Donohoe at full-back had a rewarding hour and kept Sean O’Neill curbed… Wing-halves Enda McGowan and Pat Tinnelly showed their class. Ray Carolan at centre-field was never ruffled and his fielding was flawless. Cusack was Cavan’s outstanding forward. Goalkeeper Paddy Lyons brought off three great saves and was very sound under pressure.

“Gabriel Kelly and Andy McCabe tackled hard and efficiently and were rarely beaten. Tom Lynch cut out any danger from the middle, Hughie Newman fought tenaciously and in attack, Hugh McInerney, Steve Duggan and JJ O’Reilly used their speed to great effect while Declan Coyle and Charlie Gallagher also put in some good work.”

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TP O'Reilly (left) and Mick Higgins.

"On this form,” wrote Peadar O'Brien in the Press, “the unpredictable Cavan side will make a tremendous bid in the All-Ireland series."

Offaly reached the All-Ireland final in 1961, which they lost by a point to Down, and had a number of survivors from that team – including the 'Iron man from Rhode', Paddy McCormack – and those veterans had been bolstered by graduates from their All-Ireland minor-winning team of ’64.

They had beaten Kildare in the Leinster final and had been in fine form all season. Opinion was split as to who would advance to the final.

For one thing, there was little in the way of head-to-head meetings to go on. Cavan and Offaly had never met in the Championship, nor in a league game of any consequence since 1952. Even on the challenge game circuit, opening club pitches and so on, they had rarely, if ever, faced off.

The Faithful had torn through their province, racking up 3-14, 3-9 and 3-7 respectively in wins over Westmeath, Wexford and Kildare.

The national press was busy in expectation. County chairman TP O’Reilly reckoned the omens were good.

“Cavan have won an All-Ireland in every decade since the 1920s and this is their last chance to win one in the sixties,” he said, getting ahead of himself.

The big question posed by the pundits was whether Cavan could reproduce their Ulster final form. In their previous three All-Ireland semi-final appearances, having trounced Down, they had failed to progress.

Kelly, for one, didn't buy it.

"There's no doubt,” he said, “but that the Down jerseys seem to bring out the best in us. But I believe we can be as good against anyone else. We're a far better balanced side now and in the Ulster final all six forwards scored.”

One of those, Gallagher, was still box office; three of the national papers illustrated their previews with his photo. In the Press, he was asked if the trend of previous years would again prevail. His response was succinct.

"No," he said," it's far different this time."

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Cavan trained in Virginia in the lead-up to the All-Ireland semi-final on August 24.

When the teams arrived at Jones' Road for the match, which was televised live by RTÉ, they were greeted by torrential rain, which ceaselessly continued throughout the first half. The pitch was compared to an ice-rink.

The exchanges were ferocious, bone-shaking. Offaly's defenders were renowned for their physicality, while Cavan played for their lives.

“At times, there was an almost alarming recklessness in the furious struggles for possession and an explosion always appeared to be imminent,” reported Mick Dunne. “There were times when the onlookers were amazed that the tackling did not leave a line of cripples in its wake.”

Offaly raced into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead but a goal from Hugh McInerney helped leave the sides level at half-time. Tony McTeague, whose father was from Corlough, kept Offaly in the match and finished with a tally of 0-10, nailing every free-kick that came his way.

At the other end, Cavan were fluffing their lines. With eight minutes to go, Charlie Gallagher was replaced by young attacker Micheál Greenan, who subsequently was off target from a free-kick.

Cavan trailed by a point and launched a furious onslaught on the Offaly goal, missing two more gilt-edged chances, but Cusack conjured an equaliser from nothing.

Much of the post mortem surrounded Cavan’s decision to substitute Gallagher.

"Cavan must have mourned the replacement of their free-taker-in-chief and captain Charlie Gallagher in the closing stages,” said the Indo.

"Five minutes from the end, with Offaly leading 0-12 to 1-8, Cavan were awarded a free, which the Derry resident dentist would surely have pointed. In his absence, his replacement Micheál Greenan took the kick but his effort was doomed to failure from the moment the ball left his boot.

“Later, the Cavan selectors recanted their decision about Gallagher but another free did not come their way."

Said Paddy Downey in the Irish Times: “Cavanmen will regret the decision which removed Gallagher from the field, for he would surely have scored from the free which Greenan missed.”

Higgins was quoted in one newspaper explaining the logic.

"Charlie kept wandering out to the middle and was bringing his man with him,” he said. “The trouble was that Paddy McCormack was doing the damage with his long ranging kicks."

Curiously, though, the manager said that he had not made the call to re-introduce his captain.

"I was down near the goals urging the boys on and I don't know whose decision it was."

Steve Duggan, not long out of his teens but close to Gallagher, could scarcely believe what he was seeing. And to this day, he still doesn't believe it was Higgins' doing.

“There were people shouting, and they weren't even selectors, to take off Charlie. Some of the ex-selectors and other people. And, by Jesus, Charlie was taken off and I don't even think Higgins knew about it.

“It was a huge decision. He might not have been having his greatest game but he would point frees from fifty yards out, no problem.

“He should never have been taken off. But it wasn't Higgins that did it. Higgins came down the line afterwards and said: 'Who took off Charlie?'

“It was a huge talking point at the time. Sure, how was he taken off? No-one knows who took him off. It was people shouting from the sideline and I remember that well.”

Speaking in 2019, Greenan, who was 22 at the time, said: “I still hear about it. It was my first kick of the ball and I slipped on my tail end. It was an awful wet day.

“The ball didn't go over the bar. People were saying Charlie would have scored it... and he possibly would have.

“It would have been a big decision at the time. I think what Higgins had in mind when he took Charlie off was that if there any frees, I might score them. But it was my first kick and my feet went from under me.”

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The All-Ireland hurling final took place the following Sunday and then came the replay. Cavan were confident.

Said Carolan: “I said to myself: 'We'll bloody beat these fellas the next day'. But it was another fierce wet day and we got beaten again.”

Offaly banged in three goals and had the game won by half-time. The final scoreline was 3-8 to 1-10, with that man Cusack again finding the net for Cavan, his fifth goal in six matches in that campaign.

“We took that defeat very badly,” said Tom Lynch.

“It was the end of the road. It was like a morgue in Croke Park. Before that, it wasn’t as bad but after that replay... To be beaten by not as good a team. Fellas were crying in the dressing-room. It was going to be very hard to pick it up.”

The team quickly began to break up. That loss – 22 years to the day after TP O’Reilly and Mick Higgins had lined out together in the Polo Grounds – stung Cavan to its core. Both men subsequently stepped down, Kelly and Gallagher retired and Lynch emigrated to Canada. Cavan have not come as close to an All-Ireland final since.

An unfair sense of failure surrounded the team, whose goal had been to win an All-Ireland, but history has judged their efforts very kindly. A record of eight Ulster final appearances in 12 years and four wins marks the 1960s side as the best Breffni team since 1952.

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