'To experience this just once' - Cavan's long road to vindication

Cavan's magnificent success is a decade in the making, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.

There’s an iconic photograph from the raucous aftermath of the 1997 Ulster final which shows some of the Cavan players, arms draped around each other in celebration, as they ascend the steps of the stand in St Tiernach’s Park.

The backdrop is a series of clenched fists and clapping hands, their owners unidentified.

In the foreground, future GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghaíl is easily recognisable beside the captain, Stephen King. Damien O’Reily is in the centre, holding the match ball. To the right, Fintan Cahill has both arms around Ciaran Brady, who has his back to the camera.

Cahill has two fingers strapped together and is wearing a curious expression for a man who has just achieved a great sporting goal. Where others are clearly overjoyed, the Cuchulainns man’s eyes are narrowed and stern. Vindication, they say. At last.

Cahill had been part of a brilliant crop of young players who struggled to even win a game when they first broke through. He knew the pain, wore it like a badge.

“We’ve been listening to talk of old Cavan teams all our lives,” Cahill would tell reporters after the game. “Hopefully now we’ve started a new era. An era of our own.”

It didn’t happen. The new era stalled. There was an Ulster final appearance in 2001, a close enough game against Tyrone, and a league final, but gradually, the heroes of ’97 faded away.

King and O’Reilly went first, others from that photo followed. The fists and clapping hands behind them were kept in pockets for the longest time.

By 2011, there were none of the Class of ‘97 left. The following year, Cavan bottomed out, surviving in Division 3 thanks to a freak result elsewhere and picking up a couple of what had become routine tankings in the championship.

The new era Cahill had spoken about had gone horribly wrong.

But something was happening. Mickey Graham managed a minor team in 2008 who lost an Ulster semi-final in heartbreaking fashion against Tyrone.

Two years later, Terry Hyland was in charge when, as U21s, they beat a fancied Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final. We still recall the sneers in the press box at the resulting pitch invasion.

In the final, Michael Murphy was at full-forward for Donegal and dismantled Cavan. Still, it was a start.

A year later, Cavan won it on a wet night when tears fell in Enniskillen. A few months later, the minors followed up with a first Ulster success since the free love era of long sideburns and flares. It was trippy stuff, man. Supporters dared to dream - or even, knowing Cavan fans, hallucinate about what might be.

And when the U21s won again, and again, and again, they were hooked. A social media mantra started – “the future is blue” – and it seemed only a matter of time.

By then, Hyland was over the seniors and immediately set out to make a leaky team hard to beat. They progressed from Division 3 to Division 1, reached an All-Ireland quarter-final but when punditry’s influential enfant terrible Joe Brolly called them ‘the Black Death’, the name stuck.

By 2016, they were the highest scoring team in the country, losing the highest scoring match in Ulster history in a replay against Tyrone, but it didn’t matter. Cavan were regarded as the team of blanket defences and black cards.

Hyland and some players moved on. Progress stalled. Mattie McGleenan came and went. Next up was Graham, with Dermot McCabe, the young and imperious Man of the Match in that 1997 final, riding shotgun.

The day before they played Monaghan in the Ulster Championship, Donegal All-Ireland winner Eamonn McGee, one of the good guys on the media circuit, put pen to paper in his column in the Irish Daily Star.

“Cavan,” he wrote, “I just couldn't respect. I heard so much noise from them...

“You didn't have to scratch the surface too hard to find the softness underneath and they'd quickly fold. I don't see any change in that either. Cavan have tons of ability but the majority of their players just lack the inherent toughness that's required to be a top team.”

Graham’s lads beat Monaghan and made it to the final, the first in almost a generation. The county decamped en masse to Clones; the sun was shining and Donegal were partying after 20 minutes.

And when Tyrone repeated the dose in the qualifiers at the same venue, McGee seemed to be right.

They started 2020 in Division 2 and down a few players, 10, in fact, of those who togged out in the Ulster final. Starting again, as usual. Always starting again, always feeling next year will be the best year.

A few good wins had them top of the table going into round 5 but on the first day of March, it was draining. Clare ruined the party.

Covid intervened. On their return, the backs seemed to be marking their men on Zoom - remotely. By the time they reconnected in the final quarter against Kildare and Roscommon, they finished well but ran out of time.

Then came the championship. At half-time against Monaghan, Conor McManus – Cavan’s kryptonite for a decade – had helped his team go seven clear but Cavan sprung Thomas Galligan from the bench and went for it and his cousin, netminder Raymond, booted the winner from a couple of townlands away.

Ray’s nickname around Lacken is ‘Hollywood’. That afternoon, it was apt but the Antrim game a week later was panned by the critics.

Then came Down and in a heartbeat, Cavan were ten down. The long-suffering Cavan fan, at home, invoked the Lord – “curse of Jaysus on yiz!” – and in the third quarter, they rose again and rode the momentum to the finish.

The most topsy turvy season in the county’s history had, suddenly and unthinkably, produced another Ulster final appearance.

In the build-up, all the talk was about Donegal. On The Sunday Game, analyst Sean Cavanagh openly referenced their semi-final against Dublin.

On local radio, a Donegal man asked a Cavan reporter would there be any disappointment if Cavan lost the game. Donegal were the joint-shortest odds in history to win.

And yet, in Cavan, something strange and unsettling was going on. Speak to a player privately and they told you what was going to happen.

There was no “please God” or “hopefully”. We will win, they said. Your correspondent fired off a text to one player this morning, offering good luck wishes.

“Thanks,” came the reply. And then, a starting suffix. “Today,” he said, “is the day. I promise.”

As for the match itself? Sure you know about that already. Cavan delivered the performance of a lifetime. They came of age. As we write, they are in their home stadium, treading sacred ground.

The same grass John Joe O’Reilly, who died 68 years ago today, strode. The same field Edward O’Hanlon, who first presented the Anglo-Celt Cup 95 years ago today, first covered games at.

Brady, Smith, Faulkner, Buchanan, Graham, Clarke – they now have the set of minor, U21 and senior Ulster medals, the first Cavanmen in history to do it. The Galligans look like All-Stars in waiting. Gearoid McKiernan, for so long a king without a crown, is, like Cahill, not jubilated but vindicated.

The boys of last summer are the men of this winter.

Speaking of McKiernan brings us back to that picture from 1997.

Three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of that match, Brolly, who was playing for Derry in that match, posted the picture on social media. Most unusually, Gearoid replied.

“To experience this just once,” he typed, with an accompanying downcast emoji.

The towering McKiernan, famously shy off the pitch, was clearly weary. Weary of the battle, of the hope and expectation and resulting crushing disappointment. Weary of losing. Weary of doing everything right and getting the wrong result.

Tonight, that cycle has been broken and, here and now, the present is blue. Gearoid got his wish and in his 10th season, played the football of his career.

Twenty-three long and hard years on and Cahill’s words come whispering again on the breeze: a new era has begun. And this time, it’s for real.

Up Cavan!