Madden looks to the summer after life-changing winter

Interview

In the life of a Cavan footballer, there can only be one feeling worse than being relegated and a week later finding yourself seven points down at half-time and heading for a drubbing against the old enemy in Clones - and that’s being injured and watching all of this unfold from the couch at home.

That’s the fate which befell Conor Madden on Halloween weekend, sitting in Gowna nursing an injury and cursing 2020, when everything changed. Ray Galligan scored that unforgettable late winner and suddenly, the Cavan players sensed the season opening up before them.

Within a month of watching those opening shots on TV, Madden found himself in Armagh’s Athletic Grounds, burying the last and defining score of the Ulster Championship and etching his name forever in the history books.

For a week or so, he says, it felt “surreal”. At a few weeks’ remove, he can now make sense of it all.

“We were probably unlucky in a couple of different stages of the year,” says Madden, taking up the story.

“Pre the Armagh game in the first round of the league, we were destroyed with injuries, we had a lot of lads out and the easiest thing for us to do after losing that game would have been to leave it and fold for the year but straight away there was a bounce back the following week.

“The league turned out sour in the end and obviously we lost our last two games and got relegated but the bounce back from the Armagh game was sort of indicative of the mood of the group. We were suffering setbacks but we bounced back well enough generally.

“Even before the Kildare and Roscommon games again [after lockdown], we were sort of decimated with Covid at that stage and didn’t really get going and looking back on it now, we sort of stumbled into the Monaghan game.

“But once Ray kicked that winner, I think there was a massive realisation in the group that it didn’t matter what sort of adversity we came across, we could overcome it. I was at home watching the game injured, I had got injured in the week leading up to the game and was obviously in foul humour as a result of it.

“The easiest thing would have been to forget about it and dismiss 2020 as a bit of as disaster but that winner gave extra impetus to all of us. Within an hour I was back in the gym and five or six of the other lads who hadn’t been in Clones that day were in the gym as well, we all sensed that there could be something on this year and we needed to put our best foot forward to get there.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Cavan’s Ulster Championship success is a life-changing achievement for the players and management. The game is at the very pulse of the county. Ulster medallists, such as the 1997 team, are lauded and, maybe more importantly for themselves, their efforts are now validated.

Because Madden and his teammates know well that many doubted their sanity, devoting so many hours each week to a cause which more often than not seemed to produce nothing but hardship. Turning the car for Cavan in early afternoon for a match or training session and working late the following evening to make up the time, all the while having nothing to show for it? It grows tiresome after a while. Were there days when he thought things would never turn?

“Ah look, there were plenty of days. Looking back now, there were probably more bad days than good days, on a personal level and for the team. People were probably thinking why do you bother, what are you really getting out of it.

“You sort of had to almost ignore those sort of people and just get on with it because the way we were looking at it was, you probably only have a short enough time span to play county football so we just felt that if we keep persisting with it... The introduction of Mickey and Dermot brought a freshness to it that probably had been lacking up until that.

“They’re Cavanmen at the back of it all and once they got involved, we all sort of twigged that something was changing. It definitely piqued a lot of our interest and we wanted to give it a good crack and I think since that we’ve done that.

“Our strength and conditioning with André coming in… I think everything has just upped a level. Looking back now you would say it was all worth it but there were plenty of days when you’d be asking was it worth this, being in bad form, not just yourself but anyone belonging to you being in bad humour.

“But we never lost sight of what the main goal was and that was to get Cavan into a better position than what we had been for the last number of years.”

After the bad days, he’d find himself narky, snapping at those around him. He’d retreat back to the city and wait it out. Madness, really, but the love of the game has that effect on players.

“There would be something wrong nearly if you weren’t [frustrated]. I was living in Dublin up until last March and generally the way it was, if it was a bad game you’d go back and hide yourself in Dublin until the following weekend. You didn’t nearly want to be associated with anyone who knew of what had happened in the previous match or whatever. I would have been cranky but I think that’s just a natural enough thing.

“You put so much time into it that if you’re not annoyed by a bad performance personally or for the team, there’s probably something wrong there.”

Madden’s season turned in the Ulster semi-final. Trailing by eight at half-time against Down, the management turned to the Gowna man. Cavan were chasing; he hadn’t expected much game time but was happy to grab his chance.

His first contribution was an impossible point from the left wing. After that, he and Cavan soared.

“The way it panned out, we were getting well beat at half-time and we sort of had to come out and go for it in the second half. Even though we were down by eight points, in all our games we generally finished stronger in the second half so as a group we knew we still had a great chance

“I actually wasn’t given much instructions at all which probably suited me as well, when you’re eight points down you don’t want to be going in bombarded with info, it’s simple enough what needs to be done, you need to turn the screw and get some scores on the board.

“The fact that we were eight points down probably played into my hands as well, the fact that lads sort of probably sensed that we had to play with a bit more abandon and go for it and as an inside forward, that obviously suits myself.

“Lads realise that the ball needs to get to the scoring area, there’s no need to be holding on to it. One ball Oisin Kiernan got around the middle in the second half and he just launched it in from 60 yards out and we probably hadn’t been doing that very much up to then, so that was probably indicative of the way we went for it in the second half and thankfully enough a couple of the scores went over and we got a run on Down.

“And once we got a run on them, we felt we were sort of rising to the occasion and they were starting to crumble. That just probably worked in my favour, we had to go for it and that’s the sort of game that suits not just myself but most inside forwards. Players had to play a bit off the cuff.

“Tactics are all well and good but you have to stand up and be counted in those sort of games and be brave enough to put yourself in the firing line. The easiest thing to do would be to step back and hope we could construct some sort of scores but in those sort of games generally something needs to happen that’s not scripted.”

That suits him. Madden has always been a man for the spectacular intervention, from scoring a 50-metre free as a 17-year-old to keep his club senior to firing the point to get Cavan promoted to Division 1 to his unforgettable volleyed goal against Crosserlough in the club championship this year.

When a situation opens up, he says, you sometimes just have to go with your gut.

“That goal against Crosserlough, as much as it was off the cuff, I remember having a conversation with André in the gym one day, we had played some game the previous week and the ball had come across the box. Him coming from a non-GAA background, he said to me, ‘why don’t players pull on that ball? You’re wasting so much time catching a ball and putting it to your foot, you could be eliminating the opportunity of potentially getting a goal.’

“What I said to him was ‘yeah, but if you miss it, you’ll be shot!’ So as much as it was off the cuff, it probably did resonate in the back of my head that if an opportunity like that did come up, the best thing to do could be go for it and just trust your instinct.”

In the days leading up to the Ulster final, he could sense there was something big brewing.

“Mickey didn’t need to say it, we all knew exactly the situation. Donegal were being talked about not just for Ulster but potentially being a team to stop Dublin, we were sort of an after-thought.

“But we just felt something after the Down game. Against Monaghan we came back, against Down we came back. Sometimes it’s just written in the stars and you feel something is on.

“That got us back to training on Tuesday night, we prepared and that’s probably where Mickey, Dermot and Martin [Corey] came into their own. We were so well prepared coming into the Donegal game that we didn’t see it as the challenge everybody else saw it as, we saw it as another game and a great opportunity to win an Ulster Championship.

“We were written off but I think if you asked all the players, and I know it’s easy to say it now, but leaving training on Friday night, we felt there was something up, that if we weren’t going to win, we were going to give it our best shot and that’s how it panned out.

“In comparison to the week before, I knew I was going to see a good bit of game time and I knew I would hopefully be on in the second half, then the way it panned out I was in earlier after a few minutes as a blood sub.

“To be honest, it worked in my favour in the sense that you could come in to games and be quite cold but the fact that I got in so early and back off, it meant that the next few times I came back in, I was up to the pitch of the game straight away and I still had that extra energy in the legs coming down the home straight because I had got a substantial bit of time off the field as well.

“Going into the game, if you had said that scenario would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you. Even the black card, as annoying as it was at the time, I was so eager to get back on at that stage and I felt I still had something left in me.

“It might have been easier for Mickey to leave me off, there were only a few minutes left, but thankfully I got back in. And the rest is history I suppose.”

By “the rest”, he means the match-winning goal. Once it left its boot, he lost sight of the ball but the ripple of the net told him all he needed to know.

Conor Madden gets a fist to Cian Mcakey's cross and puts it into the Donegal net in the 2019 Ulster final. Photographer: Copyright Adrian Donohoe Photogr

“The ball landed in my hands fairly quickly but when I had it in my hands and realised a goal was on, from when I kicked it until the net actually rattled, it felt like an eternity. I kicked the ball and the two Donegal players came across my body so I couldn’t actually see where the ball had gone to. When the net rattled, it was such a relief more than anything.

“I know there were a few minutes left and against Donegal, they are always dangerous, but I think that was the sense we all got, that we had it won there and then.”

Soon, the final whistle sounded and the dream had become a reality. That night and the following day, the players celebrated together. While it would have been nice to soak it up with supporters, it was better that way, he felt.

“People said to us that we must have been disappointed that we couldn’t go to the pubs and be amongst everybody else after the game but I thought the opposite. It was such a nice feeling that you were surrounded by the same 30 or 40 lads that you had been training with for the last few years.

“It was a nice feeling to be as one for those two days. We had great craic for those two days and I definitely would be of the opinion that it actually made the whole thing a bit extra special that you could surround yourself just with the lads that you had done it with.

“I’d like to experience the opposite, an Ulster final day with 20,000 Cavan fans, and hopefully we will in the future but I don’t think the lack of fans for the celebrations took away from it in any sense from any of us, and I don’t mean that as a slight to any of the Cavan fans.

“There was such a great bond between all the lads, by being amongst ourselves for the day after, I think it makes it more memorable for us all. There are great stories from it and it was just great craic but the Tuesday, we were back training.”

The Dubs proved a bridge too far this time but Cavan enter the new year on a high and looking forward.

“Since the Dublin game, when you have a bit of time to reflect on the whole thing, you sort of start to realise how great of a year we did have and it sort of makes you extra eager to look forward to 2021 and getting going again. And it’s cool that it’s such a short turnaround.

“If that was other years, you’d be going back to play your club championship and there’d be a bit of a lull period in between but thankfully that’s not the case this year, we are already back doing our own bits and on the 15th or 16th we’ll hopefully be back together as a group.

“The biggest thing is now that we’ve tasted a bit of success, you want to taste it again. It would be easy to rest on your laurels and say ‘look, we’ve done that and we’ll never really experience that again’ but I honestly think that the fact that we have a young enough group and there are a lot of lads with a good few years left in them, it would be foolish on our behalf not to try and kick on from here.

“Winning breeds success so we are hoping that it’s only the start of it. Nothing is guaranteed, you still have to come back with the same hunger, if not more, because you’re being chased now as the champions.

“I definitely think, just from the group itself and the feeling amongst us, that we are not going to just park that and be happy with our lot. We want to kick on.

“It’s testament to the boys that the week after we played Dublin, things were back to normality. We were all back to the gym, we were all back doing our running. That’s a good sign, that we aren’t just happy with our lot. We experienced that bit of success now, I don’t think we will be hit with retirements and hopefully all the management stays on.

“We’d love to be able to get three or four years out of this group. You don’t play county football for too long, we have a perfect opportunity to kick on. If we can lay the blocks in the next three or four years of Cavan competing regularly with the top teams, the lads coming into the panel this year and next year, they are experiencing that from the get-go. It just creates a legacy, it’s not all about the team of 2020 but hopefully the team of 2020 will have laid the foundation blocks for what’s to come for a number of years.

“We firmly believe that as a group now, the culture is good, there is a serious team ethos. We’d look back and have a lot of regrets if we didn’t kick on from this.”

The life of a Cavan footballer? Yeah, it’s a different one these days alright.

Conor Madden on...

Playing in empty stadiums…

On game day, the only times you’d notice the difference is before and after the games. Generally in the game itself, I don’t think the players really notice. You’re so tuned in to what’s going on in the game, you wouldn’t be paying attention to anything else.

The whole lockdown maybe worked in our favour because you weren’t bumping into as many people during the week, you weren’t coming across people asking you 100 questions, which is understandable, everybody wants to speak to you and they’re doing it out of niceness.

But that probably worked in our favour, we weren’t being mentally exhausted with people contacting us or whatever, we could treat it as another game.

The county management…

The boys just bounce off each other fierce well, the three of them. They all have serious experience to bring to it, Mickey and Dermot especially to us as Cavan players and Cavan lads, you grew up watching them, especially Dermot in our case with Gowna. If you’re not taking instructions from them, there’s something wrong.

They all bring something different and it’s the combination of the three of them and obviously Andre in the backroom as well, they all bounce off each other. They are such good friends and there is such a buy-in from them together as one. They work very well together.

His new business...

I had a website ready to launch as well and I had to put that on hold. In October, I moved into the Cavan Digital Hub and I wasn’t far off launching, it was a matter of waiting for the right time. Obviously at the moment there isn’t much sport happening but in December I decided I’d launch it, obviously it was a good time off the back of us winning Ulster.

It’s a sports apparel brand, it ranges from any type of teamwear to hopefully societies and corporate wear. We’re hoping that with the vaccine being rolled out, things will return to normality and the business will continue to grow and by the end of 2021 it will be somewhat well established. It’s exciting and hopefully it’ll grow from here.

Being based at home…

It reduces the level of stress in terms of always asking your bosses to get off early and making up that time the following evening. The work-life balance is very hard to maintain for a footballer living in Dublin or a good distance away from home.

As a result of Covid, lads were able to have that bit more extra time. It just meant you could do other things outside of football as well, you’re not clawing back hours at work.

With traffic coming out of the city, you were spending a long time in cars in the evenings and even the quality of training probably wasn’t as high but you might have had 12 or 15 lads coming from Dublin. We used to train in Abbotstown as well but that also meant that there were lads travelling the other way.

Travelling for an hour, hour and a half, you’re quite stiff and probably haven’t the same enthusiasm and energy and that all sort of impacts as a whole. This year you were training more with the club lads than you’ve ever done and around the club more. There was an extra special feel to the club championship this year.

Playing Dublin…

The biggest difference I noticed was their sheer intensity in the tackle, especially around the middle third. The ability to get two or three men around an opponent in literally a split second. Their ability to get around you in numbers and choke you… You weren’t able to see 20 or 30 yards as you could in other games.

That’s probably a result of their playing at that top level for a long number of years now. The big thing with us is that if we can kick on now and face those top teams on a more regular basis, starting with getting out of Division 3, we can get to that level of intensity on a more frequent basis, we can surely become more accustomed to it too.

The sheer intensity in their tackling. They have some brilliant footballers but they work as hard as anyone, or maybe harder.

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