At the tail end of last season, the rumours began to swirl. Work was taking Cian Mackey to London and, some reckoned, he could have played his final game for the county.
It was around Christmas when the news emerged that the Castlerahan man, maybe the last of the throwback ball artists to emerge in this county, was home. He'd enjoyed the time out but Ballyjamesduff was calling and, more than that, there was the lure of that blue and white jersey, the same one he’s been wearing all his adult life.
So, the return of the Mack was on and was welcomed by supporters. And then, on his first night back at training and mad for road, he injured his groin and was out for six weeks.
It was was more a case running repairs than a complete refit but all of it meant that it was “the end of February or the start of March” when Mackey returned properly to county action.
For someone who has been there as a boy and a man, beginning the journey at 17 and still there at 30, the trek surely can get weary. What brings him back?
Is it just the fear of missing out – of Cavan finally getting over the line a year after he hangs up the boots?
“Well you would be sick,” he says, “but I wouldn't think like that. If I'm still feeling fit and I'm able to go and able to put the hard yards in, I'll come back. If you were sitting at home and not able to play with an injury or something, then you'd be sick.
“There's [Emlyn] Mulligan from Leitrim, he's after doing his cruciate again – he's sitting at home and he'd love to be playing. I think as long as you're able to play and give the commitment and giving something to the squad, I think you should be coming in and trying your hardest for your county.”
When he looks around the dressing-room now, only Sean Johnston remains from the Class of 2005, when Mackey was plucked from the minor team and thrown into a forward line brimming with his boyhood heroes.
“We played Meath in Clones that year and that was an amazing day, beating Meath in the qualifiers, that was to get us to the last 12 and we ended up losing to Mayo over in Roscommon. There was a good buzz about the place, getting to play with the likes of Larry and Jason, it was good to learn from lads like that.
“We had a couple of down years after that, things weren't going according to plan. Then when Terry took the reins, it lifted things back up – we didn't have the best of championships every year but always had good leage campaigns. In 2013 we had a good run but we need to be getting silverware, there's no point in talking about 2013 because it was only a run in the qualifiers, there was no silverware.”
At this stage, he would be forgiven for growing impatient. In any other era, a player with as long a career as Mackey would have lined out in an Ulster final but it hasn't happened yet on his watch. There's still time, though. He believes it. And he has to.
“Without a doubt, you want to be playing in Ulster finals. When I came in first I probably thought I could be playing in a few. But football and sport, it's a cruel enough thing.
“We had chances over the years, we lost to Antrim in a semi-final, we lost by a point against Monaghan. You just have to get that slice of luck – a couple of years ago Monaghan got theirs and they've kicked on something serious. Yeah, I'm hoping to get into an Ulster final and hopefully get my hands on the Anglo-Celt Cup.”
In hindsight, the extended break – a couple of months across the water and even the injury lay-off – has done Cian good, he reckons. A few months off is almost unheard of nowadays and he's feeling all the fresher and fitter for it.
“Sometimes you need that extra time away from the game, you start to get stale. If you're in the county final and you don't get a break before you go back in with Cavan, you can need it. It was good to get that extra couple of months to chill out.
“You wouldn't get much of a break usually to be fair. It's a good thing Castlerahan usually go well in the Senior Championshup but it's not a good thing when you're nearly going straight back into Cavan training, you don't get a chance to relax.
“It was good to get that extra wee break and it probably did do me the world of good.”
Cian in action for Cavan minors in 2005.
Last season, it seemed written in the stars for Cavan. While Tyrone beat them in a replayed Ulster semi-final, a kind championship draw had supporters plotting a course to Croke Park. It didn't happen. What did he say about it being a cruel game?
A year on and there's a sense Cavan missed a trick. Mackey, understandably, disagrees.
“I don't really know now. When you lose the likes of Keating, Givney, Feargal Flanagan, they're all massive losses. But you unearth the talent of Niall Clerkin, Caoimhin O'Reilly, Ryan Connolly, those boys are all coming in and getting a chance and it brings a different dynamic to the whole system that Cavan are playing.
“We'll only know come the end of the summer if we were stronger or weaker than last year.
“We had a couple of chances to win games, against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final we could have, against Derry we probably could have and should have but that's in the past now and we have to kick on and hopefully right the wrongs maybe of last year.
What were the wrongs?
“Maybe when we did get a chance against Tyrone in the first half, we took some silly shots and stuff like that instead of sticking to the game plan, maybe that comes with experience. The stronger teams just keep chipping away and scoring.
“Maybe this year if we're in that position we'll have learned not to try for the fantastic shot that might get you the score of the week but won't get you into the next round of the championship.”
Mackey is smart enough to know that in terms of his career, he's turned the bend for home. He has a few years left in him but when he's finished, he fancies a crack at coaching - something to fill the void that playing the game will leave.
He's played a decent standard of soccer and lined out as an out-half for Virginia RFC years ago but Gaelic is where it's at for him. It has to be to survive this long at the top.
“It's a lot to do, you don't really have a life outside of football for nine months of the year. You go back and play with your club - and you always want to play with your club - but it's not ideal not having a break between the county and the club.
“But that's just the way it is, it would be different if you were sitting up in the stand wishing you were playing. You only have a certain amount of years playing football. I suppose you have to look at it that you either want to play or you don't want to play and if you're not willing to commit, just step aside. There are loads of young lads that are hungry to commit.
“At times it does be tough, working in Dublin and travelling up and down all the time, but if I wasn't able to play football it would be worse.
“When I had the break, I was trying to figure out what to do with all the time I had. In general you don't have that much time to yourself.
“It probably has been a massive part of my life but I'm sure when I finish up in a year, two years, three years, I'll play with the club and maybe get into management or coaching. I like the game too much not to be involved in it.”
That's all in the future. For now, the focus is on Sunday and the noisy neighbours. Needless to say, there is no love lost.
“They dislike us and we dislike them, that's just the way it is and that's the great thing about GAA – you hate each other when you're playing and then you talk away off the field. And that's the way it should be.
“It's hard hitting, it wouldn't be cynical. Mouthing? I haven't got it to be fair. I don't give it unless I get it, that's a motto.
“But there's a lot of passion involved in a Cavan v Monaghan game. They're flying in Division 1, they were unlucky not to reach the league final and we got relegated so it's up to us to close that gap that has widened between us in the last couple of years.”
Is there some jealousy there too on the part of the Cavan players?
“Without a doubt, yeah,” he says honestly.
“They're doing what we want to do. You can't just be jealous and not do anything about it, you have to train harder and try to bridge that gap.
“We got ourselves into Division 1 and they were at the top and we were at the bottom so there's still a gap there but hopefully next Sunday we'll be able to give a good account of ourselves and cause them a bit of trouble.”
A final question, then, seeing as soccer has been mentioned. Is he still an Aston Villa fan?
“Yeah, I am,” he grins.
“And how's that going?”
“It's not going hectic now. It's the ups and downs, a good couple of weeks and then a bad couple of weeks.”
“Does that remind you of any other team?” you joke.
“It's a bit like playing for Cavan alright,” he laughs. “Ah, I started following them in the days of Staunton and Townsend and all those Irish lads, there's no point in changing when a bit of money comes into the league. I'll stick with my own.”
As he always has done.