'Hands quivering, teeth rattling - and that's just in the press box'

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The phrase “a New York minute” needs to be updated. After last Saturday, a “Clones moment” seems a more fitting way to describe a short flicker of time in which so much happens, so fast, that it’s impossible to keep up.

That last 60 seconds in St Tiernach’s Park will be spoken about by supporters in decades to come. The crushing disappointment of Rory Beggan’s point, which brought with it the inevitable, sickening feeling, rising in the pit of the stomach: We’re going to lose to these hoors on penalties.

And then Ray Galligan testing the 5km restrictions (credit Mark Farrelly for that one) with a kick halfway from Lacken. Gerry Smith leaping into the air, Ray galloping back with a grin for the cameras and it’s game over. You could not write it, even if you had to try.

A couple of months back, I was of the opinion that if no supporters were present, the games should not go ahead. That was dead wrong; Cavan fans watched the game on television in their thousands and the lift it has given the county is indescribable.

And while I’m not complaining about being there, it must have been nice to watch it in the comfort of a living room all the same.

Around 2.15pm, hands were quivering and teeth rattling - and that was just in the press box. It was, I deduced, a combination of the biting cold and the nervous tension.

Maybe that sounds unprofessional, for a sports journalist to be so invested in the fortunes of a football team they are expected to cover with the detachment of a neutral. I get that but you must remember this: the fact that there is a responsibility to report evenly and critically on the team you grew up supporting creates a strange situation for regional journos across the land.

Putting to print a negative comment can feel like a betrayal; not doing so, though, would be a dereliction of duty.

It’s probably easier for the big hitters from the nationals, who dip in and out and cast a cold eye on the whole thing. Those on the local beat tread a fine line through a foggy sort of Limbo, where, uniquely, both sides of a debate can usually agree on one thing – their disdain for the bozo reporting it.

Still, there are times when all is harmonious in this little world. And such days must be savoured because following Cavan, whether from the press box or the terrace, is a thankless job a lot of the time.

As Cavan supporters, fatalism is our shield. When something like relegation happens, then, we can brush it off. “Ah sure, they’re useless anyway,” we’ll remind each other with a shrug of the shoulders. “Sure didn’t I tell ya that?”

And then they go and spoil it all by (deep breath) doing something stupid like dumping Monaghan out of the championship in the most memorable finale in decades a week later… and we love them.

Not far away from my position in the gantry on Saturday were the radio men. Damien Donohoe’s whoops of delight echoed around the banks of empty concrete.

By his standards, Damien was fairly even-handed on the day, just about stopping short of “Barry McGuigan, Patrick Kavanagh, Kevin McBride… Big Tom, can you hear me? Big Tom, your boys took one hell of a beating!”

And why not? This football rivalry has sustained two counties for, what, eight generations now. When it’s your day, it’s worth getting excited over. In fact, that’s the point of the whole thing.

Oisín Pierson sends the ball to the back of the Monaghan net. Photo by Adrian Donohooe Photography

If an alien ever lands from some other-worldly place and wonders what all the fuss is about, why the people of Cavan and Monaghan get so “het up”, as we say, about this game whenever it comes around, here’s what you tell them. Tell them it’s about tradition and family and local bragging rights (which are, incidentally, legally enshrined in the Cavan-Monaghan constitution).

Tell them about one passage of play last Saturday afternoon – and not the obvious one, the late free, the sweetest knockout blow Sugar Ray ever landed – which summed it all up.

The clock shows nine minutes. Cavan work the ball down the centre and Gearoid McKiernan manages to get a hand to it and divert it towards Cormac O’Reilly. The 21-year-old Mullahoran lad is faced by that fearsome, battle-hardened sheriff Drew Wylie, shoulders like drumlins and many young corner-forward-shaped notches on his pistol.

O’Reilly takes him on and knows that Oisin Pierson is storming through the centre. Under pressure from Drew, Cormac dives full-length and releases the handpass. Pierson gathers bravely and threads his finish low to the bottom corner.

This was O’Reilly’s first contribution of note in the Ulster Championship yet it was hard to shake the feeling of Déjà vu. Where had we seen it before? In exactly the same place.

Cormac’s Dad Damien made his own debut against Monaghan, marking the great Nudie Hughes. That was the start for Damien but in his very last game in Ulster, he delivered, yes, that’s right… A diving handpass at the town end goals in Clones for Jason O’Reilly, who “left it on the carpet” in an unforgettable Ulster Championship win.

Back then, it was the final. This time, it was only the preliminary round but it felt as if there was almost as much riding on it. Had Cavan lost heavily, as looked likely at one stage, some of those players probably wouldn’t have worn the jersey again.

Maybe it would have been the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end but, either way, it would have been the end of something. Instead, the winter opens up in front of Mickey Graham and his men now. Anything is possible.

As for Monaghan? They've been a great team and without a doubt, they’ll be back. Just don’t tell them that…