“Cavan are like plenty of small counties out there, aching beyond articulation for one day different. Their football is bound up in them, tied with strings of local pride, desperate longing, fierce and genuine partisanship. If you are a Cavan GAA supporter, you see this thing as an extension of you. The hope. The fatalism...”
- Malachy Clerkin, The Irish Times, April 2014
A moment in time. A moment when all the hours of speculation and rumour and interviews are distilled, when it's there for this football team if they can reach out and grab it.
Cavan and Tipperary are level and 6,589 diehards are on their feet, baying for blood and thunder and everything in between.
More than anything, they are screaming for a blue jersey to conjure up just one more score. The ball is in the hands of a Cavan player and he picks out Dara McVeety, who has been scorching the old sod all afternoon, burning defenders alive.
This time, again, the captain is out in front but, from nowhere comes a hand. It belongs to Alan Campbell, the Tipp corner-back. He breaks the ball from the forward, Tipp gather it and bound away like they’ve been sprung out of jail. They win a free, Conor Sweeney taps it over the bar and, his body language seems to say, we – not you – are winning this one.
But language is a funny thing. It can be deceptive, it can be twisted and shaped into anything we want it to be. In football, what matters is winning matches – everything else is lost in translation. Forget the chatter. To win is the thing.
Think back to the start of the league in Ennis, Cavan chasing shadows, Clare six points up and moving through the gears. Or the ill-fated McKenna Cup match against Tyrone, when even their ultra-positive manager Mattie McGleenan was lost for words, in public anyway.
The Tyrone man came in for plenty of criticism during his first 18 months in the bib marked bainisteoir. Cavan followers had grown used to winning titles at minor and U21 and schools levels and they wanted more at senior level and they wanted it now.
Maybe they got too used to it, took it for granted. When Mattie arrived, promising “fun with this football team”, the senior side had just been promoted to Division 1 and the next couple of years opened out before the supporters; at long-suffering last, our day would surely soon come around.
Instead, they seemed to slip back in 2017. They found the air at the summit too thin – they coughed and spluttered their way back down the slope. The fans shook their heads and wrung their hands. The hope, as Malachy Clerkin wrote, the fatalism...
And 2018 threatened to be worse. In the dog days of winter, there was a mini exodus of players, good footballers in their prime deciding to exit stage left. Was that an indicator of something more? A lot of us suspected it was.
Stories swirled around of outdated training regimes, marathons through dimly-lit forests. The McKenna Cup seemed to confirm the suspicions.
And then the league threw in and after the draw in Ennis, Louth arrived under the Saturday night lights. Aside from one spell before half-time, Cavan were irresistible, new men like Magee and Kiernan finishing with impressive numbers after their names at the bottom of the report.
Were Louth bad or were Cavan good? We'd need a wider sample. Meath were slaughtered then but still, many supporters – and this column – were not convinced. The Royal scalp is not as prized as it once was.
The Cork match was where things changed. On a freezing day by the Lee, Cavan tore into them, Dara McVeety conducting the orchestra. Their belief was the thing; they didn't take a step back. Afterwards, Cavan fans scratched their heads and wondered when was the last time the team had gone to deepest Rebel country and plundered a win.
McGleenan's attitude after that game was telling, too. The manager was bullish, expressing annoyance that Cavan had been rated as underdogs. It was a curious bone to pick after a win but shone a light on how he was thinking. Language, again – sending out a message.
Down were next and were mauled in a dogfight. Cavan rode their luck, Ray Galligan saving them on a couple of occasions. To Roscommon then, beaten by a neck. Asked, in the biting cold, about Tipperary, McGleenan again bared his teeth – they ransacked our house last summer, he said, and we can't stand for it.
And that brings us back to Sunday evening as the word was made flesh. Sweeney had put Tipp in front but Cavan dug in and won a free of their own. McKiernan converted - but a draw was no good. And then, in one last, desperate attack, Madden cut in from the right, looked at the posts and let fly.
Thousands rose together and roared it over the bar. One day different at last, as the man from the Irish Times wrote.
How did we get here? There were inklings, in hindsight, that the footballers themselves would rage against the perceived dying of the light. Dara McVeety, talking to this newspaper a few days before the league threw in, dismissed idle chatter about players not making themselves available or the team not going well.
“If you don’t want to play for Cavan, we don’t want to play with you,” said McVeety. It was strikingly blunt but the Crosserlough man backed it up, turning in a sensational league campaign, leading the line.
And another who has developed into a go-to man has been Ciaran Brady, whose rabble-rousing runs out of defence and composed finishes, just as on Sunday, have become a trademark.
Back in January, Antrim cut through Cavan like a hot knife through butter, bagging four goals when they could have had eight. For the handful present, it seemed ominous – routed by a Division 4 team on a plastic pitch before a smattering of the hopelessly addicted who had ventured north in the chilly winter air seeking their fix. After that one, Brady spilled his thoughts into a Dictaphone.
“It doesn’t happen over night. It takes time and a winning mentality. One thing I’d ask from the rest of the lads is to believe in the manager,” he implored.
“We just have to buy into it and buy into it and buy into it and it will come through.”
For the man they call ‘The Holla’, the return on that investment has arrived. Buy low, sell high. Payback time, at last, for all concerned. Bravo.
See this Wednesday's print issue for a 12-page special on promotion to Division 1 and next Sunday's Allianz League final.