After the Roaring '20, came the Great Depression

Cavanman's Diary

Seven months have passed since the standing army of Cavan supporters sat down to watch their heroes in an All-Ireland semi-final, drunk on life after the win over Donegal, at least half of the rank and file convinced that, with a bit of luck, they could beat Dublin and the other half more concerned with what the winning margin would be.

What goes up, though, must come down. Fast forward to July and Cavan find themselves relegated to Division 4 of the National League for the first time in their history and out of the championship in the first round with a whimper of acceptance rather than a roar of defiance. The hangover from hell is now upon us.

How could this even happen? In any other county, it would be GUBU territory. In Cavan, it’s part of the natural order of things.

It comes from an altered sense of reality. In the same way they say the Queen of England thinks every room smells of fresh paint, so a Cavan fan, regardless of what sort of a team we have, views every match as one in which defeat spells disaster.

It’s a curious mindset: in the eyes of the fans, Cavan are either in their rightful place as rulers of the Ulster football universe or we are deposed, penniless, a Royal reduced to a humiliating stint on Big Brother to ward off the bailiffs.

The modern history of Cavan is a sorrowful one, a tale of new lows, The Worst Evers, punctuated by the odd burst of promise and, occasionally, a team that delivers on it.

Our football economy is a basket case; a couple of wins and inflation goes through the roof; one bad day out, then, and the whole thing inevitably falls asunder.

We would advise thinking of these events as more diplomatic incidents or government scandals than the result of a football match or two. So, we had the Waterford Crisis, Longfordgate… You get the idea.

Coming down the M3 from Navan after the Wicklow Affair, a text arrived from a fellow sufferer. “Don’t say it,” he said. “Don’t say it… That’s The Worst Ever!”

Truly, few counties do boom and bust like Cavan. One minute, Conor Madden is racing on to a break from Shaun Patton, the net is billowing and you’re googling the price of investment properties in Bulgaria; the next, the ball bounces over Padraig Faulkner’s head, Seanie Furlong is through and you’re cancelling that direct debit for the dogs charity and sombrely telling the kids to make sure to turn off the light whenever they leave a room. Sorry, Fido…

Sometimes, it literally is the next minute. Cavan played Derry in round 3 of the league this year and lost by two points. As they came off the field, 76 minutes had elapsed in Brewster Park, Longford were beating Fermanagh and, as it stood, Cavan were through to take on Offaly in a play-off for promotion to Division 2.

God was in his heaven and the kings of Ulster, having overcome injury and adversity, were heading for Croke Park. And then, we refreshed Twitter and discovered that Sean Quigley had punched one over the bar with the last play. Draw game.

Suddenly, the skies darkened. Around the county, like a scene from the Angelus on RTE, Cavan people stopped what they were doing. Phones were laid down, Communion-money counts were paused, buck rakes grew still. The silence was broken only by anguished wails and expletive-laden cries about Mickey Graham and the horse he rode in on.

Still, though, all was not lost. There was a chance of redemption. A relegation play-off against Wicklow awaited. Just win this, we said, and let’s never speak of it again.

And then, it happened. After the Roaring ’20, came the great depression. The reaction brought to mind the iconic photos of Wall Street traders selling their Rolls Royces for a pittance on the day after Black Friday in 1929, a hand-written sign advising passers-by that the seller “lost all in the crash”.

I pictured supporters lining the Dublin Road, pushing the latest Kingspan-emblazoned jersey at knockdown prices, the commemorative posters now wrapping chips, “lost all in Páirc Tailteann” scrawled on the back of election posters.

The thing was, like the Celtic Tiger, we really didn’t see this coming. We all partied. Ray Galligan lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup on November 22. Sure, it was only a few weeks till Christmas. And then came awards season. We basked in the warm afterglow right through the Spring.

I wrote a few columns, soberly (the pubs were still closed) predicting domination, reckoning Tyrone in Healy Park was a great draw and even suggesting it was time to look beyond Ulster. Supporters I met complimented me. If anything, I hadn’t gone far enough.

And then came the crash; there was no soft landing.

Division Four. Two little words that carry such a heavy stigma. Never before had Cavan darkened the door of the basement. And nothing could be salvaged from the wreckage.

In the meantime, the teams we played haven’t exactly franked the form in the championship. When Cavan beat Longford in round 2, supporters regarded it as a solid win against a coming team. Longford subsequently lost by 22 points to Meath. Wexford enjoyed a first Leinster Championship win in 2,577 days against Wicklow. Fermanagh were slaughtered by Monaghan. So, by any measure, expectation should be at rock bottom this weekend.

And yet, here’s another curious thing. As the big game last Saturday drew nearer, Cavan Fan grew more confident, the fatalism replaced by a quietly-spoken optimism.

The team that wouldn’t kick snow off a rope last week started to look a little better by the day. Yer man is gonna be fit, the other lad is flying in challenge matches. Such a boy will tie up McCurry and they’ll not handle McKiernan.

Last week, I met a Cavan fan on the street. A successful man, on the surface a quite sane man, with no apparent signs of delusional tendencies. And do you know the point he made?

“Knock-out championship suits us. We’ve won two of the last five knock-out Ulster Championships.”

I was going to point out that there were 23 years between them but thought better of it. It’s summer, Cavan are still in the championship. There are powerful forces at play.

“Jaysus, you could be right,” I said, maintaining eye contact as I backed off slowly and made my escape.

And then came Omagh and the less said about that the better. It’s been a footballing annus horibilis but at least it’s over. The Cavan Angelus will chime again, though. Keep the faith.