Denn captain Bernard Gaffney with the Sean Leddy Cup. PHOTO: ADRIAN DONOHOE

Lifting so much more than just a cup

In his Cavanman's diary, Paul Fitzpatrick demonstrates how clubs remain the soul of the GAA and just how much a win can mean to a parish...

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about football championship structures. There were proposals to be debated and players and pundits got all wound up on social media, on radio and in print, about different formats. There were spreadsheets and tables drawn up and the great and good of the GAA descended on the gleaming conference facilities at Croke Park, where snazzy suits had been pressed, gold pins well shined and the cameras whirred and clicked.

It was billed in some quarters as a battle for the very future of Gaelic football, the latest skirmish in the culture wars. But it was all noise. When it comes down to it, who really, truly cares?

We live in the fast food, social media era. Sustenance is hard to come by; happiness is too often measured in likes and retweets. As people, we seek something authentic but it’s hard to mine amid all the shiny, shimmering, over-marketed crap.

Sport used to be different, the outlier against all this and the great unifier but, at the professional level, it has long been fake and sanitised, a globalised soap opera – and it’s never going back.

Take British soccer clubs as an example; formed in working class areas a century and a half ago, they now leverage their histories to pay players more in a week than some supporters earn in a decade, literally trading off the engrained tribal loyalties, which are now otherwise meaningless. It is an abominable distortion of what sport should be - and yet we lap it up.

Gaelic games were the last bastion but, and it was always inevitable, they’re going that way too. Everything about the recent debate in the lead-up to Special Congress illustrated as much. Not once did anyone even suggest an equalisation of money or resources; the options were to continue to throw counties to the wolves or to cut them off altogether into their own off-Broadway competition, with the possibility of a day out at the end of it all and patronising nonsense peddled about the lower tier being marketed on a par with the big boys’ stuff.

It will be dressed up alright as something that is going to save the game but, make no mistake, the football fairytales are over. In ways, it is a miracle inter-county football survived as long as it did in the way that it did but its days as a relatively egalitarian competition have been over for some time and the opportunity to actually address the imbalance in a meaningful way has been missed.

There is, however, one element which prevails and that is the club.

The inter-county game may be the heart of the sport, extracting money from television and ticket sales and pumping it around the various arteries, but club football is its soul.

Those present in Breffni Park – for the purposes of this column, we’ll give the old ground its original title - last Saturday evening witnessed a scene, which exhibited better than any I can recall the power of the club game to unite. Denn won the Junior Championship but that wasn’t the important thing – someone wins the Junior Championship every year.

What mattered was the context. Denn is a deeply rural area, which has been torn apart by tragedies for years, the last year-and-a-half the worst of all.

Thirteen months ago, they reached the junior final but on the eve of the match, it was called off due to a Covid outbreak in the opposing club. That weekend, Denn players Bernard and Micheál Gaffney lost their brother, Matthew.

Lockdown came. The final was delayed. When it eventually got played nearly a year later, they lost. More tragedies occurred in the intervening time. The community was in a tailspin.

The football team decided that they would be the ones to lift the gloom and not just in an abstract way; they referenced it among themselves, what a win would mean, how it would help a parish, in whatever small way, to heal.

So, they made it back to the final again and this time they won it. Bernard was the captain.

In last week’s pre-final interview, I had opened with the words “Bernard Gaffney is a man of few words”. Now, Denn win the final and Bernard, 23 years of age, a farmer, takes the microphone from his clubmate, county chairman Kieran Callaghan, and prepares to deliver his acceptance speech.

We’ve all heard speeches after county finals. Some are articulate, some are formulaic, three cheers for the losing team, thanks to the manager, lift the cup and away.

This was different. The minutes following a county final are giddy, full of high jinks. But here, as he began to speak to the people huddled below him, there was complete silence.

An inspirational speech from Denn captain Bernard Gaffney as he accepts the Sean Leddy Cup. Full time Denn: 2-11(17) Drung : 1-7(10) Congratulations to Denn, Michael Fitzpatrick Architects Cavan Junior Football Champions 2021

Posted by Cavan County Board on Saturday, 30 October 2021

“On a cold, wet, drizzly night in late January, 2020, we gathered back round to start training again.

“It had been 18 years since we brought a cup back to Denn at senior level and, in that 18 years, we hit almost the top of the table in Cavan,” Gaffney began.

“In ‘08 and ‘09, we got to senior county finals. In 2019, we didn’t even qualify for the quarter-finals at junior level. We had hit rock bottom.

“It’s a little bit like life. Over time, you hit rock bottom every now and again. But the important thing is to have good people round you. And we’re lucky in our parish because the people that surround us, they’re as good as you’ll get.”

When the team started training on that January night, they formed a circle, he said, and made a vow that the circle would not be broken.

Speaking, it seemed, without notes in a tone that was calm, measured and authoritative, Gaffney recalled that 2003 final, the joyous scenes in this exact spot.

“That day 18 years ago, back then, I was carried around on the shoulders of a man. And I can remember some faces from then till now. There might be the odd grey hair from then till now but that’s part of growing up. We had one hell of a party back then, I remember them coming into the school and they were still under the weather.

“In those 18 years, we lost a lot of friends. A lot of people were left behind. We lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents. People who would have been here today.”

By now, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“I’m not sure where one goes when they pass through this place. I’m not very sure. But there’s one thing I am sure of – is there is a place, there is going to be one hell of a party there tonight.

“When me and Ben lift this cup, this place is going to go so loud that they’re going to hear it in Heaven.”

They say what lingers longest in the memory is not what someone says or does but how they make you feel.

This was no marketing gimmick or content for an Instagram story. It was real, a leader speaking from the heart to his own people. It will never be forgotten.