An overnight success, 10 years in the making

OPINION: Paul Fitzpatrick looks back on Crosserlough’s ascent to the throne in Cavan senior football.

No sooner had the final whistle sounded on the Senior Championship final replay than winning manager Jimmy Higgins was being asked for his thoughts. While all around him was bedlam, Higgins, who had just become only the second manager this century, after Joe O’Connor in 2011, to manage his home club to the Senior Championship title, was the calmest man in the stadium.

Where had this success emanated from?

“It’s no different than any club but I suppose we had a batch of players coming through… We probably had four U12 teams where the likes of myself, Philip Smith, Pauric Lynch, Donal Smith, Breen Smith, a lot of us helped out. We had a way we wanted to coach them, a way we wanted them to play,” he said.

“It was hard work, it was years upon years of work. Three, four nights a week for maybe nine or 10 months of the year training underage teams. And it’s always in the back of your mind, you’re thinking ‘these lads are good enough, these lads are good enough’ and then you’re coming to another stage where you think ‘right, what else do we need here?’.”

For many of a certain vintage, in the breathless aftermath of the replay win over Kingscourt, thoughts would have been turning back to September 17, 1972 when Crosserlough last got their hands on the Oliver Plunkett Cup, beating St Brigid’s by 3-8 to 2-6.

That win was the apex of that team’s stunning run of success, a seventh title in a row.

“The success story of the Crosserlough team continues unabated. They hold a proud and deserved record which may never be equalled or surpassed. They accepted the challenge to their title with typical zeal and never panicked, even when the tide was seemingly turning against them,” read the match report on those pages.

In time, though, the tide did turn. The following year, they were stunned in the quarter-final, as documented in a column in this paper last week, and, unthinkably, the famine would last 48 years before ending on the weekend before last.

There were many strong Crosserlough sides in that period but none could get over the line. At one point, the club even dropped down to intermediate ranks, losing the final in that grade in 2011 to Drumgoon and the semi-final, after a replay, to neighbours Lacken the following year.

That winter, there was a reshuffle going on and Crosserlough decided to seek re-admittance to the Senior Championship. A vote was taken at a county board meeting; they were up.

In hindsight, it was a ballsy move. Some could even have perceived it as arrogance but within the club, they knew that the cavalry were coming and the higher level of adult football they could be playing when that wave of young players arrived, the better.

When the senior side were at their lowest ebb – and, to be fair, many clubs would love to be reaching the business end of the Intermediate Championship so it wasn’t that low – simultaneously, the juvenile system was beginning to really crank into gear.

The U16s won the Division 2 league in 2009 and reached the championship final in 2011. The minors also reached a Division 1 league final that year, and the following year they lost the semi.

But it was U14 class of 2012 who turned out to be a special crop of players. They were the ones, we presume, Higgins was talking about, the group who were versed in the house style from day one.

A clipping from this newspaper eight years ago.

In June of 2012, they defeated Cavan Gaels by a point in the U14 Division 1 final. That October, they beat Gowna in the corresponding championship final.

Of the players who featured in those two finals, nine were on the field in the recent Senior Championship success – Patrick O’Reilly, James Smith, John Cooke, Conor Rehill, Shane McVeety, Brandon Boylan, Stephen Smith, Peter Smith and Patrick Lynch, while several others were part of the senior panel.

That year’s U16 side, who lost the Division 1 final to Bailieborough Shamrocks, produced Mark Stuart, Darren Gaffney and Pierce Smith, then, as now, the captain.

Crucially, they were kept together. The likes of current selectors Higgins, Philip Smith and Lynch among many others were involved in those sides and moved through the ranks with them.

More success followed behind but they were the golden generation, a group of winners who would win a first Minor Championship for the club in 21 years in 2016.

That year, as an U14 player, Stephen Smith scored the winning free in that U14 league final against Cavan Gaels and the winning penalty in a soccer shoot-out in the Kennedy Cup in Limerick as the Cavan-Monaghan squad secured their best-ever national finish.

For good measure, he captained the St Pat’s handball team to an All-Ireland Féile title. His success was indicative of that of a group of winners with the medals to prove it; in hindsight, it’s clear to see that their breakthrough at senior level was a matter of when and not if.

The next challenge will be to take it to the next level. Good teams win a championship; great ones retain it. Crosserlough are young enough to string together several titles now and history suggests the way is clear for a new superpower to emerge but there have been a few outstanding young teams who have won Senior Championships and not backed them up, too.

The first one is the hardest to win but the years to come will be no walk in the park. In no order: Kingscourt are going nowhere, Gowna are coming, Castlerahan will surely be back. Ramor will feel they are a match for anyone and Cavan Gaels retain enough quality to match most on their day.

Crosserlough has always been a football-mad parish but their glory days – nine Senior Championships in 14 stellar years – seem like Cavan’s, a long time ago. Pierce Smith said as much when he remarked that they now had a colour photograph for the wall of the dressing-room.

The area which produced Cavan greats like Mick Higgins, Peter Donohoe, Gene Cusack and John Joe O’Reilly now has a team to be truly proud of again and that can only be good for Cavan football, too.

It’s a shame that there is no Ulster Club competition which would have been an opportunity to take the temperature of the Cavan championship again and see where we stand. Regardless, Crosserlough are top dogs now and, especially if they can get Dara McVeety back, they have the potential to remain so for a while.

After the darkness comes the dawn. Every championship win is special but for Crosserlough, this provided validation and balm for decades of sores. Tears were shed.

After a long-awaited moment, Barry McKiernan, the veteran of the team who had soldiered through the lean times, the intermediate years and the early-round senior losses, was asked to describe what it meant. His late father had captained a team in the final nearly 40 years ago. Now his son had got that medal for him.

“I’m lost for words,” he said.

“There are so many people here that deserve this, it’s unbelievable. Our own chairman was the first one who took us on at U8s level and he’s there and he’s in tears. It just goes to show what it means to everyone. My own family…

“it just means the world. It just means the world. It really does.”

Whether we have witnessed the dawn of a new era of dominance or a one-off, time will tell. But after an ‘overnight success’ a decade in the making, it’s hard to see Crosserlough loosening their grip easily.

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