2015: Behind the scenes on the Breffni beat

It was another busy year on the Cavan GAA scene.
PAUL FITZPATRICK brings us behind the scenes on the Breffni beat in 2015.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Stones were playing and the joint was rocking. I was in a pub in Virginia, not exactly Vegas but not the worst bar in which to ring in the New Year all the same. The Heineken was flowing – down my shirt, on to the floor. (I’m joking. A little bit).

Around two o’clock, I gathered up the posse – or rather, they gathered up me - and walked through the glue to the street. The air hit me first, then the thought. I’m up in a few hours to drive to Belfast for the first football match of the year. Damn it.

So, 11 hours later and 100 miles north, here I am on a balcony at St Paul’s for the Ulster club minor tournament final.

St Paul’s is a wintry spot at the best of times. The pitch is perched on the side of a hill in ‘Andytown’, a nationalist stronghold in the west of the town.

Space was so tight when the Catholics were hemmed in here, back in the day, that three GAA clubs sit back to back. A wide left can end up in the Rossa pitch; go right and you’re into St John’s.

There’s a steel fence surrounding the grounds, spiked at the top, the red and white paint flaking.

I’m standing on a balcony which is groaning more than me. And the wind is howling in from the mountain, carrying with it that skite of hard rain that’s not enough to force me indoors but just right to make any notes I take illegible.

The people are friendly but, in case you ever wondered, the west Belfast accent is no balm for a hangover, either. I meet Aisling Reilly, the best female handball player in the world, no less, and she clocks my pale complexion, zombie eyes and the mid-90s indie band hairstyle that only sleeping half-cut on half a tube of Brylcreem can perfect.

Straight away, Aisling bursts out laughing.

“Sick head, Moe?”

“You don’t want to know,” I mutter.

“Hard lines, big mawn,” I hear a man beside me say. I don’t know if he’s talking to me, but I’m sort of consoled by it all the same.

“Hard lines”, I’ve learned on handball trips to the city, means the same thing as “hard luck” everywhere else. After many years playing handball up here, more Belfasters have told me my lines were hard than have bid me good day.

At half-time, we – Damien Donohoe, who is commentating for local radio, and myself – are ushered inside to a function room of sorts.

“Gey-a-gulp-a-tay-in-till-ya,” a steward directs me. Strangely, the club have decided to put on garlic mushrooms along with the sandwiches. Normally, I would stay well clear but while the headache is strong, today, the flesh is weak.

I wolf into one and, huzzah! The gooey sauce inside the plastacine-textured shroom is icy cold. With Jagermeister belches and luke-warm tea, this is a heady concoction.

Were it not for the cold, which is occupying most of my attention, I think I’d be sick.

And then the ball is thrown in for the second half and the teams – Cavan champions Southern Gaels and the exotically-named, and supremely-talented, Derry side Watty Grahams – bite on their gumshields and go at it.

They produce a cracker. When Daryl Buckley pops up from defence to nudge our boys in front with time as good as up, the unthinkable – a win over the three-in-a-row-seeking machine from south Derry – looks probable, but Grahams hold their nerve and sweep the length of the field to produce an equaliser.

There’s some confusion, as there always is in these situations, before it becomes clear that extra-time, rather than a replay, will be the denouement.

Another 25 minutes and I think frostbite – which I’m fairly sure has already claimed at least two toes and is slowly gnawing its way towards my ankles – will overcome me.

And, inevitably, the favourites find more off the bridle and ease to the finish line. I look at my notes, the words dripping down the page like faces in a Picasso, and stuff them in my pocket before trudging back to the car.

Once there, I realise I’ve given my keys to one of my passengers, who had the crazy idea, given that I am a professional journalist, that I’d be delayed doing interviews after the match. (That’s temperature dependent, hombre).

Parked beside me, in a BMW with a personalised number plate containing the letters GAA, is firebrand pundit Joe Brolly. I stamp my feet against the cold and watch him, a little Mona Lisa-style smile spreading across his face as the Beemer’s sophisticated in-seat heating system warms his radical rear end.

I know how Mick Jagger felt now. If I can’t get some shelter, Lord I’m gonna fade away...


Thursday, January 22

To Dernakesh NS, where the old GAA President, Liam O’Neill, is meeting the new, Aogan O Fearghail. The kids are lined up, smiling, reciting little pieces they have prepared before a Q&A session with O’Neill.

A hand shoots up.

“Yes?” says Liam.

“Do you want to stay on as GAA President till you’re 90 or till you’re 99?”

We all laugh. Brilliant.

Later, I interviewed Conor Moynagh, who was also in attendance. I asked him about the latest Brolly-related controversy, after the pundit described inter-county players as “indentured slaves”. He dismissed it.

“I got sent the link a couple of times but I haven’t read through it yet. Joe Brolly is a journalist, he gets paid to make headlines and get people to read his stuff.”

I head home wondering how I will convince my bosses to pay me as much as Joe...


Saturday, January 24

At half-time in the Athletic Grounds, Cavan are beating Tyrone in the McKenna Cup final. In the press box, Cavan selectors Kevin Downes and Liam McHale are imploring the team to let the ball in quickly to the inside men.

It works brilliantly in the first half but the Red Hands, boosted by the arrival of reinforcements such as Sean Cavanagh, hunt the Blues down and swat them aside in the second half.

It’s a terrible shame. This Cavan team have lost two McKenna Cup finals and a Division 3 league final. They’re not premier competitions in the GAA calendar but they’re worth winning and would provide a terrific shot in the arm.

The next morning, I write the preview for the opening round of the league against Roscommon in Kiltoom the following Sunday. I’m tipping a draw.


Sunday, February 1

Cavan and Roscommon draw. Both sides seem happy enough - both could have won it. I corner Terry Hyland after the game and after the usual questions, ask him has he a special word for the correspondent who predicted this result. Terry’s too cute for that.

“Did ya back it?”

“No, I didn’t,” I replied sheepishly.

“Well what are ya on about!”

1-0 to Terry.


Wednesday, March 10

I’m working on a piece about the 1972 MacRory and Hogan Cup-winning St Pat’s team. I get on to my clubmate Ollie Brady and he gives me some numbers.

I spend the morning chatting happily to the likes of Ollie, Ciaran O’Keeffe, Eamon Gillick and a man I have heard a lot about, Paddy McGill, a soccer player who came as a boarder from Coventry and within a few years of first kicking a size five O’Neill’s football, was lining out in an All-Ireland colleges final with St Pat’s in Croke Park.

I also spoke to Hugh Reynolds, the team’s full-forward and one of its most popular members.

Later in the day, I listened back to the tape of our conversation.
“Ciaran O’Keeffe told me you weren’t a great footballer but the team would never have won anything without you,” I told him (Ciaran had said as much, in a very complimentary way, stating that Hugh was so strong and brave and capable of mustering a goal from nothing).

“That is the hoor!” Hugh replied, howling with laughter. “Wait till I get that fella!”


Tuesday, March 17

Word arrived a couple of days ago. Hugh Reynolds had passed away. Even though I had never met him, I was saddened to the core.

And I know from talking to Ollie that his old team-mates had never received a shock like it. I don’t know did he read the piece I wrote about the great team he starred on.

The MacRory Cup final, then, was an emotionally-charged day. St Pat’s had worked so hard for this one and had been waiting so long. The link with the 1972 team was strong - I recognised a lot of them, including the captain back then, Niall Brennan.

It was the last ten minutes before the Cavan boys put the game to bed. It was clear once Thomas Edward Donohoe banged home his second goal that Dungannon were dead and buried. What a release - to paraphrase Paul Durcan, the footballer strikes and man is free.

St Patrick’s Day fell on a Tuesday which meant that The Celt was about to go to print a couple of minutes after the match. Miraculously, the wifi was working in the press box.

I had the report written and “topped and tailed” it in a few seconds at the end. In these situations, tight games and late, match-defining goals are the enemy of journos. It’s called filing “on the whistle”, something I haven’t had all that much practice at.

Thankfully, we got the report over in time and photographer Adrian Donohoe was on hand with the snaps. It was worth it to see the report in on Wednesday morning - it was the least the players and management and their familes deserved.

And, in a way, it was honouring the gentleman Hugh Reynolds, too.

Tomorrow night we’re in Ballybofey for the U21 first round. Sunday, Salthill for a league game. Great.


Wednesday, April 15

I’m sitting on a plane, somewhere high over the Atlantic. To my left is Martin Dunne. To my right is Niall McDermott. In front of me is one of those tiny screens in the back of someone else’s head rest.

I’m not a movie buff at the best of times - no patience - but the selection is bad here in any case.

I’m reading when Dunne nudges me. He’s watching a documentary about the Everton and Republic of Ireland full-back Seamus Coleman. An image pops up of Coleman playing Gaelic football for his home town team, Killybegs, and he’s being tackled by a Four Masters defender.

“That’s Martin Cassidy!” says Dunne.

And so it is. The Cavan Gaels goalkeeper is a Donegal man and happened to be caught on camera tackling this millionaire international soccer star. And now I’m in the clouds and Dunne is showing me and we’re laughing at the good of it.

It’s true what they say - Gaelic games bring everyone together. If there are only six degrees of separation in the world, then there are only two or three on Planet GAA. We’ll learn that when we land in the Big Apple, too.

Paddy Sheanon, the vice-chairman of Cavan county board, knows everyone. That’s Paddy’s thing - he’s a great raconteur and he can tell yarns about everyone he meets.

When we land in JFK, for example, Paddy immediately recognises the Aer Lingus employee who greets us and asks about her brother. They played football together, or worked together - I forget which. Big city, small world.

I doze for a while and wake up with a jolt. I’m determined to send back as much copy as I can from this trip to show the kind folks back in the office that this isn’t some big jolly. The problem will be in not sending too much - there are county footballers everywhere and my dictaphone has a full battery.

So, I turn to Niall.

“Well,” I say.

“Well,” he says.

“How’s the leg?”

“Ah, not too bad. Physio says I might get some game time the second day, definitely not the first game,” he says, giving me some extra detail then on the injury.

“No hassle. I’ll stick that online.”

Within a couple of minutes, I’m on the wifi and have filed the story for anglocelt.ie.

“The Cavan senior football team are somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean at present as they make their way to New York for a five-day training camp,” reads the piece.

“The team flew out this morning [Tuesday] at 11am and are scheduled to reach their base in Suffern, upstate, this evening.

“Cavan play New York tomorrow evening in the first leg of the Mick Higgins Cup series.

“Definitely out is Ballinagh’s Niall McDermott, who has a shin injury.

“‘I picked up a stress fracture earlier in the league, I played on it but I got it checked out and I need to rest it for two weeks now,’ said McDermott.”

That story was clicked on almost 3,000 times. That’s how online journalism works!


Sunday, April 19

The sun is shining in Gaelic Park and the small stand is a sea of Cavan jerseys. They’ve come in their hundreds from all over the east coast and beyond and Cavan are turning on the style.

The conditions on Thursday night couldn’t have been much different. Three feet of snow, yet to thaw, was heaped on the side of the artificial pitch. New York were ready for Cavan and threw everything they had at the visitors. Elbows and fists flew at various stages but Cavan came good in the end, Michael Argue punching the winning goal.

We made our way back to the city on the train with Barney Cully, Tom O’Reilly, Barry McHugh, Elaine Cully and Gerry Brady. Gerry was on fire. The craic was good.

The team were staying upstate in Suffern (“Sufferin’ is right”, Mossy Corr joked) and the rest of the party were billeted in midtown Manhattan, a good kick of the ball from Madison Square Garden.

The night we arrived, we went wandering and ended up in a karaoke bar in Greenwich Village. Mickey Brennan, former Cavan forward and crooner extraordinaire, soon had the joint eating out of his hand with a rousing take on Pearl Jam’s Alive. Drink was taken.

The next morning, jet-lag had me up at 5.30am. I headed across the road to a coffee shop to send back a story for the website before returning to bed.

I woke at 8am and opened my email again. Scanning the piece, it felt like the first time I had read it...

In it, I mentioned the clientele around me as I was typing.

“At the next table, a model is meeting with her agent and discussions are growing heated. Across the way, a hipster is tapping away on an ancient looking laptop, while two schoolkids are giggling their way through their cappuccinos.”

My phone beeps. A tweet. It’s Cliona Foley of the Irish Independent.
“You’re a bit of a hipster yourself, Fitzpatrick, filing from Starbucks!” she said.
“Just putting the Miracle-Gro on my beard,” I replied.

I wasn’t joking. And chances are, here in the city that never sleeps, I could get my hands on some.


Friday, May 15

The championship press night. It’s like speed dating. We all swap partners and exchange sweet nothings with each of them for five or 10 minutes before we move on to the next.

The Kerry press night has been called the ‘Festival of Yerrah’ – the Cavan one could be called the Carnival of Cuteness.

Every opposition side are the favourites and the impression given is that Cavan will be doing well to keep the ball kicked out to them. In fairness, I’m sure it’s the same everywhere – no-one wants to hand the team they’re facing any kind of edge.

The photographers hover around and try to get some interesting shots of the players holding an O’Neill’s ball. It’s hard to get a different one every year but in the name of their art, they soldier on.

This year, a picture arrived back from the open night showing, if you can imagine it, four or five players lying on the ground with the ball between their heads. The shot was taken from above, like an aerial view of five drumlins and a huge snow-covered peak. I decide not to use it.

The feeling is that there’s a big performance brewing. Cavan will need to come to the boil at just the right time but it’s always close against Monaghan.

In the paper, I tip Cavan by one. Mickey Hannon, who is never far wrong, goes for the opposite result.


Sunday, May 24

Hannon was right, as usual – I hate when that happens. The game is there for the taking but Conor ‘Mansy’ McManus (amazing footballer, atrocious nickname) is the difference.

Cavan have performed very well but, trudging away from the stadium after the game, the gnawing feeling is that this one got away. It feels like a defining game.

How many more blows can this Cavan squad take? They’ve come so close on a few occasions now. It’s going to take a massive effort to pick things up for the back door.

In the meantime, the players are let off the leash, free to have a social life again, and it’s back to the clubs for a couple of rounds of league matches.

That’s got to be deflating. Championship is not just a big thing in the life of an inter-county Gaelic footballer – it’s the only thing.

I think as much as I write a strong defence of the team and the management for the following Wednesday’s paper. “Life begins at 40,” I write, referring to Ulster titles and recycling an old line I’ve used a dozen times before, “but Cavan are stuck on 39.”

“All told, as Hyland said, Cavan were in a good place before the match and after losing by the odd point in 31, they should still be.”

I really, really hope they are.


Saturday, June 20

International duty calls again. This time it’s London. I get the red-eye flight to Luton and get picked up by my brother, who after seven years in west Lahndan is almost a local.

The match is at 2pm in Ruislip. Emmett lives in Wealdstone – about a tenner in a taxi. It’s roasting hot but, he informs me, there’ll be a marquee there selling cold beer after the game. Lovely jubbly, I tell him, in my best Cockney accent.

The taxi driver is from Bangladesh and doesn’t have great English. He also has no opinion on the quality of ball Cavan have been sending into Michael Argue. I know because I asked him.

On the way to this little Irish Mecca, he gets lost. Soon, the meter is over the £10 mark and we, the passengers, exchange furtive, suspicious glances like the foreigners wondering if we’re getting ripped off that we are. Eventually, he gets us there and tells us 10 quid will do. Good man, Hasan.

I’m commentating on Northern Sound with Damien today; we set up a perch on the balcony of the clubhouse and get to work.

Commentary is great fun. Donohoe did the play-by-play and I analysed it.

Some listeners would probably have preferred the views of the cabbie from Dhaka, but beggars can’t be choosers.

In the end, Cavan win it easily. London, our own Lorcan Mulvey aside, are poor but it’s a professional job from our boys, led by Gearoid McKiernan, who looks every inch one of the best midfielders in the country.

The only sore point from a Cavan point of view is when Killian Clarke limps off in the first half and Rory Dunne, our princely full-back and in my unbiased view the best number three we’ve had in a generation, goes down with a suspected broken leg.

Rory is younger than me but I remember him coming through the ranks in Redhills. Once, he scored 5-10 in an U12 match I was at; actually, he probably did that a few times before he was converted into a defender.

His injury occurs just below our position and, for a few minutes, the sun seems to disappear behind the clouds. What impact will this have on our chances for the rest of the summer?

Later, in the bar, I talk about it with a few Kingscourt lads who are over for the weekend. All agree that while the team played well – just as they did against Monaghan – the loss of two of our best defenders is a sore blow, literally for them and every other way for the rest of us.

Hopefully that’s not the case...


Sunday, July 4

The Ros game took place on July 4 and I desperately try to come up with a really cool, fresh Independence Day-related metaphor. But it isn’t happening.

At half-time, Cavan are beating Roscommon. By full-time, Cavan have conceded 3-16 and the Rossies are rolling into the next round. So, the county jerseys are back in the kit bag for another nine months.

And that, as Forrest Gump said, is all I want to say about that.


Tuesday, October 1

To Kingscourt for the pre-county final press night. The Stars are old hands at this craic and don’t get too carried away.

Alan Clarke – always a good man to drop a little grenade in an interview and walk off while it explodes – is behind the recorder. We enjoy a lively chat. He takes aim at the much-maligned Breffni League (“not the way forward”) among other interesting comments.

“Will you go back into the county panel?”


“Definitely not?”

“No, definitely.”

“How’s married life treating you?”

“Very hard!”

And away he goes with a laugh.

Will 'Toasty' be lifting the cup on Sunday evening? I’m not sure.

The following Saturday night, I’m in McCabe’s friendly hostelry in Ballyjamesduff for an Up For Ther Match event. Castlerahan heroes of the past - Patsy Wright, Dessie Cahill, Tony Brady et al - are on stage. To a man, they are all behind the team. The whole parish is.

But Padraic O’Reilly, Ballinagh’s Man of the Match in the 2013 county final, happens to be in the bar too, enjoying a drink and gets corralled to the mic to give his thoughts.

He warns that “Kingscourt are a hard, hard team to beat”. Hmmm.

I’m leaning towards Castlerahan but I just don’t know. Just don’t know.


Sunday, October 13

A few minutes into the second half of the county final and my money – I backed Castlerahan at evens – is looking safe. They lead by 0-7 to 0-4 and they’re starting to purr. A three-point lead doesn’t sound like much but it suits a counter-attacking team like Michael Reilly’s.

I write on my notebook - “Castlerahan will lie on the ropes and pick Stars off”.

And then it happens. Niall Lynch springs Philly Smith and he conjures a goal from nothing and suddenly the horseshoe above Castlerahan’s door has spun off its axis and all the luck has spilled out.

They push till the end but Kingscourt prove they are what ‘Podge’ said they were. The cup is theirs. Shows what I know.

So much for my prediction, so much for Castlerahan’s dream. Here in Breffni Park as the “champione, champione” chant echoes around the terraces, it seems further away than ever for the men in the maroon jerseys.


Tuesday December 15

The internet has changed the way we – newspaper people – look at the world. We’re old media now; a story that breaks on a Wednesday morning is positively ancient by the time The Celt hits the shelves again the following Wednesday.

So, we must “move the story on” for the paper while breaking it on our website. That is, unless we get wind of it on a Tuesday before we go to print.

Then, we hold it and hope it doesn’t get out before the next morning. And if it does, we stick it online and harvest the traffic it brings to the site.

Why? Well, drive up the traffic and advertisers should be willing to pay more to get their message out on that medium. That’s the theory anyway.

But keeping the online gun in its holster is not easy – it requires self-control. Because journalists love a scoop.

It reminds me of the scene in Shane Connaughton’s book, a Border Station, when the author’s father, a Garda sergeant ardent on promotion, repeats his desire for “one good murder and me the only one that can solve it”.

It’s the same in reporting - “one good story and me the one to break it”.

There was a perfect storm today. The biggest possible sports story in this county would probably be a return to the county colours by Seanie Johnston, whose acrimonious, convoluted transfer to Kildare three years ago kept the papers going all winter and right through to the summer, by which stage the sod was dry, the sun was shining and he was – improbably – featuring at corner-forward for a hurling team in deepest short-grass country.

I heard a whisper over the weekend that ‘Jelly’ was coming back. This time last year, I wrote something similar but nothing happened and I ended up feeling foolish. So, I wanted to be sure.

I sat on it Monday and made a few calls and eventually, on Tuesday afternoon, it was confirmed. I took a call out in the car park and raced back into the office exclaiming (I’m not making this up, by the way) “hold the front page!”.

Seanie is back – and me the one to break it.


Wednesday December 16

Wake up and turn on the radio – they’re discussing the news on RTE Sport. They hardly read The Celt in Montrose, do they? I grow suspicious and turn up the dial on the volume.

In the battle for a scoop, instead of routing the opposition, it looks like a stalemate. Surely not?

Yes. I log on to Twitter and there it is – Gordon Manning from The Sun has the story too and it’s plastered across the back page of his newspaper with the tag ‘exclusive’ underneath.

Gordon has gone one better than me and got quotes from Terry Hyland confirming it. I’m glad now that we ran it – but a part of me is raging that we aren’t the only ones. A very big part of me, if I’m honest - but then, that’s the game we’re in.

When two newspapers have a story marked ‘exclusive’, well, it ain’t. Still – we weren’t far off the scent and there’s consolation in that

So, the week ends on the 3G pitch at Kingspan Breffni Park, where there are six finals down for decision. One more paper to sign off on and then it’s time for the turkey.

And I might even ring in the new year in Virginia again.

The wheel keeps on turning...