'It was everything I thought it would be'
PAUL FITZPATRICK looks back on Cavan's never-to-be-forgotten Ulster SFC success in 1997.
In hindsight, the signs were there. Cavan were coming. The county team had failed to win a match for seven years before Martin McHugh, winner of a Celtic cross in 1992, came on board and they reached the Ulster final in 1995.
The following year, the U21s made it to the All-Ireland final and by the dawn of ’97, optimism was high. Brilliant players such as Larry and Peter Reilly, Terry Farrelly, Mickey Graham, Dermot McCabe and Anthony Forde had graduated from that side and with experienced men of the calibre of Damien O’Reilly, Fintan Cahill, Stephen King, Bernard Morris and Ciaran Brady forming the spine of the team, the Cavan side had a potent look about it.
The league was a little up and down – good performances in defeat, such as against Kerry, were the norm - but Cavan began to come good at the right time, defeating Tyrone in Dungannon – where the Red Hands were traditionally nigh on unbeatable – and then in a play-off in Clones to retain their league status, with Dermot McCabe punching two goals.
A crowd of 10,000, the majority from Cavan, attended that relegation play-off, which was played at championship pace. There was a feeling that something was brewing.
Cavan travelled to Thomond College in Limerick for fitness testing on the last weekend in April. By the middle of May, excitement was building quickly. The Anglo-Celt reported “intense interest” in the opening round of the championship against Fermanagh, which was still a fortnight away.
Cavan were going well on the challenge game circuit, with a useful work-out against Meath in a deluge in Meath Hill and then a 0-13 to 0-12 win over Dublin in Ballyhaise on a Saturday morning at the end of the month.
Confidence was high in the county but things almost came unstuck in the first round against Fermanagh.
“As the unthinkable became a distinct possibility, Anthony Forde, so often the unsung hero, became like the Greek giant Hercules, unchained, and his point will become legendary if Cavan win the replay,” gushed the Celt.
The Cavan team remained in their dressing-room for a long time after the game, with McHugh later admitting to his reporters that his side “got out of jail”.
Cavan were slightly better a week later, with Mickey Graham and sub Terry Farrelly excelling, as they won by three points before 17,752 spectators.
“Fermanagh in the first round was always going to be difficult,” recalled McHugh in a 2012 interview.
“But I remember against Fermanagh, Paul O'Dowd saved my job. Fermanagh were a point ahead, and the game looked over. Liam McBarron went through on goal and kicked a bad wide. He should have put it over the bar.
“But anyway, Paul O'Dowd, just as the ball was going wide, picked up the ball and took a short kick-out to Morris. Morris gave it up the field, Anthony Forde got it and he kicked the equalising point and then the ref blew the whistle and we beat them in the replay.”
Suddenly, McHugh’s home county stood between them and a second Ulster final appearance in three seasons. Cavan were seeking a first championship win over Donegal, who had swept Antrim aside in the first round, since 1976.
A haul of 1-7 from the recalled Ronan Carolan was crucial to Cavan’s victory on the day, earning him a photo on the front page of this paper under the heading “Brilliant Carolan”.
His goal, taking a handpass from Patrick Sheils and blasting home to the roof of the net, was one of the best of the championship, with commentator Jimmy Magee’s reaction – “ohhhh yesss!” – mirrored by the huge Cavan support among the 21,000-strong crowd.
“A couple of weeks ago I didn’t know if I would be playing again. I’m just happy to be back,” was Carolan’s reaction as Cavan won by 2-15 to 1-10 to advance to the final against the winners of Derry or Tyrone.
“In fairness, that week and that day, I always give the players in Cavan a lot of credit for that,” McHugh would remember.
“They helped me that day a lot. They realised that I was under pressure, you know. I give them all a lot of credit, you know, King and Damien and all the lads, young and old.
“They kind of made up their mind themselves, they were going to do it. The second half in that game was probably Cavan's best performance that year. They just came of age. But it was very difficult playing Donegal. I remember going into the Donegal dressing room afterwards and what could you say?”
In the end, Derry trounced Tyrone in the other semi-final. Having played on three successive weekends due to the replay against Fermanagh, there was a break of three weeks before the Ulster final during which the county board managed to get a round of the club championships in all three grades played off.
Derry’s go-to forward at the time was Joe Brolly, who was quoted in the Irish News at the start of the final build-up.
“I’m sure McHugh is delighted with the way Derry played because I presume the media will descend en masse in favour of Derry for the title, which puts pressure on us which will be unusual because we have had no pressure at all this year,” said the Dungiven man, then, as now, always a reporter’s dream.
“At the present time, I think Cavan are better than Tyrone. They are very fit and are not choking the same way they did two or three years ago in big matches.
“Cavan is a county with a massive Gaelic football tradition. They are football mad and in football, you just don’t know from game to game what is going to happen.”
And for those couple of weeks, they were indeed football-mad. The Celt reported on a “ticket frenzy” and the county board actually issued a statement requesting of supporters “not to ask members of the panel for tickets”.
The Irish Independent described the panic as “ticket hysteria” which was “reaching record levels”. And as the days ticked down, the hype grew.
Derry named their team on Tuesday night and manager Brian Mullins made no changes from the side which destroyed Tyrone by 2-15 to 2-3, with their starting team including nine of the 15 who lined out in their All-Ireland final win four years earlier and four of the All-Ireland-winning U21 side from that Spring.
Cavan named theirs the following evening, with one change – in came Philip Kermath at corner-back, with Damien O’Reilly, regarded as one of the finest defenders in the country, moving into the attack (the first time he would start up front for Cavan since the drawn game against Donegal in 1992) and current manager Graham the unlucky one to lose out on taking his place behind the band.
Nine of the Cavan team – Paul O’Dowd, Damien O’Reilly, Gerry Sheridan, Bernard Morris, Stephen King, Dermot McCabe, Peter Reilly, Ronan Carolan and Fintan Cahill – had started the 1995 Ulster final. In a piece in the Irish Independent two days before the game, Damien referenced the semi-final win over Donegal and mirrored Brolly’s comments.
“We will have to play like that again if we want to beat Derry. Up to that, we were lucky to get out of the two games against Fermanagh.
“It has been a difficult season for us. For years we went into championship matches as underdogs yet we were favourites in the two matches against Fermanagh and also Donegal.
“That can create a bit of pressure. Judging on the performance against Tyrone, Derry will be favourites on Sunday. It should result in some pressure being removed from us.”
Stephen King was very much in demand among the media. In many ways, the Killeshandra man, in his 18th year on board, was the public face of the Cavan team.
In the programme for the Donegal game, northern journalist Michael McGeary reckoned it would be “hard to imagine a Cavan teamsheet without him”. King handled his media duties in his usual genial manner, joking with an Irish Times reporter that he hadn’t had time to take his fishing rod from under the stairs since the defeat to Down the previous year.
“I haven't had a chance to go fishing this year, we haven't been beaten yet. Mind you," he added with a smile, "the weather hasn't been great either."
But while optimism was high in Cavan (“No-one can think of them getting beaten here. The craic has been good. If Cavan win I won’t come back for two weeks!” joked Derryman Eamonn Coleman, then based in Gowna), further afield, scarcely any pundit gave them a chance.
“After Derry’s impressive outing against Tyrone, they are now All-Ireland favourites,” wrote former Dublin player – and , like Coleman, future Cavan manager - Tommy Carr, who reckoned Derry, who were 4/7 with the bookies for Ulster and 5/2 favourites for the All-Ireland, would win by “three or four points”.
Colm O’Rourke in his Sunday Independent column warned a fairytale was unlikely in Clones.
“In many ways, natural justice would see Cavan win at least an Ulster title, particularly for Stephen King, but justice has no place in championship football. The best team will win – and that will have nothing to do with who will be more deserving.
“Cavan have to improve a lot to win today. For my money they have too many forwards who will run up blind alleys when the pressure is really on. Derry have a very good, well-balanced team who seem totally united and fully motivated to go further than Clones. Derry to win with a bit in hand.”
The only national pundit who gave Cavan a chance was Larry Tompkins in the Irish Examiner, who wrote that he would “not be surprised” by a Cavan victory.
And then it happened.
It was an extraordinary few weeks in general. The IRA declared another ceasefire, the sod was turned on the Cavan Town bypass. Even Belturbet got an ATM. “Important places, times when great events were decided,” as Kavanagh said. And in St Tiernach’s Park on July 20, to quote the Inniskeen man, Gods made their own importance again.
The match itself, a sell-out (naturally), was played at a blistering pace. Cavan won the key battles. King, despite straining a hamstring after 15 minutes, battled manfully around the middle where Dermot McCabe was sensational as they managed to thwart Anthony Tohill and Dermot Heaney.
Ronan Carolan vied with McCabe for the Man of the Match award while Larry and Peter Reilly ran the Oak Leafers ragged. At the back, Gerry Sheridan made sure enfant terrible Brolly was totally subdued and would not be blowing kisses on this occasion.
The sides were level at 0-9 apiece at half-time but Cavan had squandered a lot of good chances. But three quick points on the restart got them ticking over and Jason O’Reilly’s goal 10 minutes from time, after a typically superb piece of ball-winning from namesake Damien, plus Paul O’Dowd’s heroic save, sealed the deal.
“I was roaring and shouting at Damien for the ball,” ‘Jayo’, described by one prescient commentator as ‘a goalsmith’, would say afterwards. “It seemed a long time. He eventually passed to me and I left it on the carpet.”
On The Sunday Game that night, Pat Spillane would joke “Ravanelli gets £42,000 a week for doing that, this man should get just as much” – and if the 21-year-old butcher from Belturbet had asked for it that week, some Cavan benefactor probably would have stumped up.
Cavan got a little bit of luck, with a wide from 23-year-old Kingspan employee Raymond Cunningham registering, but it was generally agreed they were the better side.
The celebrations were extraordinary. King’s speech, including the iconic line “The Anglo-Celt Cup is coming home”, will never be forgotten. After a few minutes, the thousands of Cavan people on the pitch broke into a sustained chant: “We want Sam!”.
And the newspaper coverage swooned over Cavan’s re-emergence.
“History rhymed and Cavan became the Ulster football champions for the first time since 1969, crowned on a day which book-ended 28 turbulent years,” wrote Tom Humphries in the Irish Times.
“On this extraordinary afternoon a match report would be superfluous if noise could be translated to newsprint. To hear the monstrously happy din kicked up by the people of Cavan late yesterday afternoon as they danced on dusty Clones turf was to understand the relief that attends the end of famine.
“To hear the thousands sing and holler and hoot was to know the great visceral joy which football can bring.
“Yesterday afternoon was heroism followed by delirium. What remains on the morning after is the forensics, the nitty gritty dissection of the best Ulster final in many years.”
Vincent Hogan’s colour piece in the Irish Independent, meanwhile, was even better.
“Tanned old men in turn of the century suits wipe their eyes and jab twig-like fingers into the sticky air. The noise sucks decorum from them. They spill down across the stand seats, craning their thin necks for a glimpse of Stephen King.
“Only the old ones remember Cavan in their pomp, the sepia-tinted days of Gunner Brady, Mick Higgins and John Joe O’Reilly. Mid-century days when Cavan swaggered.
“King knows their mindset, the tyranny of their talk. For 18 years, he has played and listened to them. Old men lost in a time warp, bleating endlessly about the past. Cavan were the displaced gentry of Ulster football. ‘Pull up a stool son. You’d be too young to remember this but…’
“King lifts the silverware now and bellows ‘The Anglo-Celt Cup is coming home’. A great shudder vibrates across St Tiarnach’s Park. Whole families quiver with emotion.
“In this tumult, the wonder is that the window panes aren’t cracking, light bulbs aren’t disintegrating. Twenty-eight years of emptiness spill from them now. Old and young are liberated.”
After the game, the players spilled their thoughts to the pressmen.
“We’ll head to Croke Park now and hopefully do a Clare or a Wexford on it,” grinned Larry Reilly, still a teenager.
Said Carolan: “Every year you try brain-washing yourself that you can do it. But at my age (29), you start to think maybe, just maybe, it’s not going to happen.
“If anything our hunger has almost been the problem. In some respects, it got in the way. The desperation overtook us.
“Even today, you were almost talking to yourself in the dying seconds. Just had this feeling, ‘it’s there in front of us, don’t throw it away’.”
His clubmate Fintan Cahill, meanwhile, was looking to the future.
“We’ve been listening to talk of old Cavan teams all our lives,” he said. “Hopefully now we’ve started a new era. An era of our own.”
For full-back Ciaran Brady, it was a big summer.
“There were blue and white flags flying everywhere. I’m getting married in two weeks’ time, we were afraid if there was a replay that our arrangements would have to be altered.”
Cavan Town was thronged as the team arrived home, with county manager Brian Johnston having put a plan in place for the homecoming should victory come to pass. An estimated 20-25,000 fans turned out. For many, it was delirium.
The precocious McCabe said: “The reaction of the supporters is the best way to describe what it means… I never knew there were so many people in Cavan.”
It's hard to describe exactly what it meant to the people of the county. In Ballinagh, 102-year-old Bernie Cusack from Garrymore listened to the match. During the game, it was reported, he repeatedly asked his family how long was left “because he knew he had not long to live himself”.
When the game was over, his last words were “thanks be to God”. He passed away at 5am the following morning. He died, his family said, a happy man.
An entire tribe rejoiced. The Celt’s page one headline that week smacked of pride and almost disbelief: “WE HAVE WON!”
At long, suffering last Cavan had landed their 39th Ulster senior title. Asked in one interview how it felt, Ronan Carolan summed it up.
“It was,” he said, “everything that I thought it would be.”
And it still is. For a generation of Cavan supporters, ’97 will never be forgotten.