If those walls could talk: The story of '97 - Part 3

An oral history of Cavan's 1997 Ulster SFC success

Cavan’s momentous victory in 1997 was years in the making. To look back, PAUL FITZPATRICK spoke to Fintan Cahill, Ciaran Brady, Ronan Carolan, Stephen King, Damien O’Reilly, Anthony Forde, Jason O’Reilly, Philip Kermath, Bernard Morris and Raymond Cunningham as well as manager Martin McHugh.

(For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.)

Over the winter of 1996 and early ’97, an exhausted McHugh took a break. When he returned, Doonan departed. McHugh took over training himself and ramped up the intensity.

Martin McHugh: I go back to Donegal in ’92. We weren’t going well and weren’t training well and we were lucky to get over the line against Cavan in the replay and then we played Fermanagh. I remember saying in the dressing-room afterwards, ‘boys we are never going to beat Derry unless we up the ante’.

Anthony Harkin was the trainer and he upped it and the training we did before the Ulster final was colossal. It was ‘shock training’. People say you can’t do that but I think it worked. We weren’t tired, we were flying.

I thought the hill training would put power in the legs and also team spirit. Everybody was pushing everybody else on to get to the top of that hill. You can have all the stats in the world but in Gaelic football, it’s about hunger. And to this day, it’s still the exact same thing. Hunger and determination and spirit and I think that comes from the training field.

We had them carrying sandbags up the hills. People will say it was mad but Keaney’s hill had a big part to play in that victory. The first lock of nights, a lot of fellas were getting sick and everything else. It was tough.

Stephen King: I don’t know what happened there [between Doonan and McHugh]. Martin took more and more responsibility for our training in '97. Full responsibility. I have no idea why they parted ways.

Ronan Carolan: The game was evolving and changing at the time - the mix of Martin and Joe was excellent, from both ends of the scale. Joe was a fantastic athletics trainer, a real student of athletics and, to a degree, ahead of his time. Obviously things have massively changed and evolved a few times since.

Martin had a pure and utter intense footballing brain - it was a mix of marrying that. In the winter of ‘96-’97, the U21s had gotten to an All Ireland final that they really should have won. Martin took a sabbatical then for three or four months and Joe kept the whole ship going but when Martin came back Joe was gone.

It was never really openly discussed but look at the group and you’d get a mix of opinion but it was an awful pity in that whatever it was they just couldn’t keep it going. The sum of their different parts were greater than the two of them together.

Stephen King: In ‘97, I remember being in Ballyhaise and we had different training, really short bursts with the ball hitting you on the chest. We hadn’t done that before. I had to go training on my own with Mickey the Pound, running me round Killygarry. We’d train on a Tuesday night and I’d have to an extra night on a Wednesday or a Friday if there was no game.

They had us carrying sandbags over our heads and I’ll tell you, that’s not an easy job round Killygarry.

I remember one night in particular, the hail and snow battering the face off you. And then running up the hill. It built up our stamina. It gave you that belief, in the back of your mind, you knew you had serious work done. You knew when you went out for a match that you could do no more in your preparation as regards getting in peak condition. We were in good nick, definitely.

Fintan Cahill: McHugh brought us all to Ballyhaise, they had a gym there. We were all lifting weights and doing circuits. Morris lay down on the bench press and McHugh snuck up behind him and took out the pin and stuck it in the bottom. Morris says ‘Whenever you think I have enough on this Martin, you let me know’.

Just a brute. The man was knitted, he wasn’t born. Always a big smile too, sound man.

Raymond Cunningham: County training was a big step up. I would have considered myself reasonably fit anyway but it is a step up from club football, everyone was fit going in there and trying to get better. You’re competing with a lot of guys who are as good as you and it was the small things that give you the edge and decide whether you start or you don’t.

You probably had to do a lot of work yourself. I would have been doing my own stuff as well, I was determined to try and get on the team and nobody has a God-given right for that.

You had to work hard and earn it, nobody was getting a free shot at starting.

Ciaran Brady: There was a hill in Killygarry that was across the road from the main pitch. I remember training on a Friday night at 8 O’Clock and finished maybe at 10 and we were back in then the next morning at half seven or 8 O’Clock again. It was different to anything we would have done before.

Lads did it because they knew that there was a huge opportunity of success.

Martin McHugh: We started the famous Keaney’s hill. I started training the team on this hill. I remember going up once, twice, we put it up to 10 times. I think we were going up 50 or 60 times up the hill when we stopped it. I always remember at half-time in the Ulster final saying, ‘boys, Keaney’s hill. We have the legs, remember that’. We built that up.

Stephen King: Keaney’s Hill. Jesus Christ. The legs would be falling off you.

By the dawn of 1997, there was optimism around and a feeling that the stars may be beginning to align. Rubbing shoulders with the best teams in the country in Division 1, Cavan were growing in confidence.

Fintan Cahill: I had no doubt we were going to win it in ’97. Absolutely no doubt.

Anthony Forde: There was a sense. You wouldn’t have said we’re going to do X, Y and Z. We had come out of nowhere in ’95, in ’96 we tried to progress further and it was a disappointment the way the championship finished, we would have expected to challenge more but in hindsight it was probably not a bad thing from an U21 perspective because it allowed us to focus on that and we were able to beat a really strong Armagh team and then a good Derry team in the Ulster final.

The All-Ireland semi-final and replay against Meath were two huge games, great atmospheres, they had everything, rows and controversy, and that probably stood to us down the road.

There was probably a sense that listen, this is our third year now, we are no longer the up and coming boys, we need to deliver now. Within the group, we knew – it’s time to deliver now.

Damien O’Reilly: My knee was giving me a lot of trouble at that stage and I probably could have quit a couple of years before that but definitely, no way would I quit in ’97.

I actually felt we’d win it. I did. We were just at another level. We had been in the Ulster final in ’95, we had the massive disappointment in ’96 and the draw was favourable enough to be fair.

Stephen King: I felt now was the time because my time was getting short obviously, although that didn’t cross my mind till a year or two later. But the fact that we had worked so hard, I felt there definitely was something there.

The U21s had brought this great bit of panache and life to it. And we had really good scoring forwards, we were always going to be able to hit good a decent score.

Ciaran Brady: There was an expectation there that Cavan were doing to do well in the championship. In previous years, it was more hope but having done well and held our own in the league, there was an expectation and that expectation brings confidence as well.

We ran Kerry to a couple of points in Kingscourt and that gave the team great encouragement and confidence going into the championship.

Philip Kermath: We had been building. We were in the final in ’95, in ’96 we should have beat Down, we left it too late in that game. We probably were confident and things were moving nicely.

On March 2, Cavan defeated Tyrone in a rough league play-off, played in terrible conditions, in Dungannon, a fortress at the time.

Ciaran Brady: We played Tyrone in Dungannon. It was bitterly cold, it was hostile and we beat them by a couple of points and that gave us great confidence. That was a major game. Us winning that meant we stayed up and Tyrone were relegated. They had all their heavy hitters out. I marked Peter Canavan, he came on as a sub. They very seldom get beat up there but we played very well and stood up to the challenge and won the game by a few points.

The standard of opposition, you were playing the best teams in the country. It gave us confidence, we knew we were going in the right direction.

Stephen King: It was a kind of coming of age game, what stood out for me was that everyone was well able to mind themselves. We were happy coming off that field, being away from home, we showed a bit of steel and stood up for ourselves. I hate dirty play but I love good hard play and we had a few strong lads who could put their bodies in the right place. You’ll get nowhere without that.

Martin McHugh: ’97 was a big year for us. I took a wee bit of a break early on that year, I was burned out after the U21 campaign. Anyway, I came back and we got going and we ended up beating Tyrone in Dungannon.

Damien O’Reilly: Our backs were to the wall in that game. I think they took us to Dungannon, away from Omagh, on purpose. We dug out an ugly result. I think that took us to another level, that we believed we were up there with the best teams in the country.

Martin McHugh: This was the big game really. We had to beat them and then there would be a three-way play-off between Tyrone, Mayo and Cavan. There were hailstone showers that day, I’ll never forget it. Tyrone hadn’t been beaten in Dungannon in 12 years.

Paul O’Dowd broke his arm or his hand and wasn’t able to play. Brendan McCormack was in goals that day. Paul was very talented and could put his hand to anything. I knew he was a good musician and I said to him, ‘will you take the guitar with you next Sunday?’

He looked at me and I said, ‘play a bit of music in the dressing-room, get the boys relaxed, we want to win this game’.

We actually won that game. It gave us great belief, another step. It was close to a championship match, they needed to win it and we beat them in Clones then afterwards. It was a great way to stay up.

The following Wednesday night I went to Paul again and he said, ‘before you open your mouth Martin, I’m on this panel to play football, not to play music!’ That was me told off.

Bernard Morris: We had a physically strong team by that stage. Right through the team… You could put Damien O’Reilly playing anywhere and he’d always give you 100pc. He had serious pace and strength and he could win the ball in attack or defence.

Terry Farrelly was a midfielder with the U21s and he played as a back. They were all big lads, we always slag Philip Kermath that we’ll get a shoebox for him when he’s standing beside the other lads!

The players were learning. The older players were fit and had evolved and the young guns were growing.

Jason O’Reilly: I could have made 20, 30 runs in a game and not get the ball once. He’d tell you, this is what you’re doing when you make that run, you’re leaving space for other fellas and the last ball could be the one that would do the harm.

You were learning, your game sense, where to be and leave space for yourself to move into.

He’d be stopping and starting, wondering why you didn’t make a run or were making straight runs instead of diagonal runs. It was a great learning experience.

Stephen King: McHugh brought something to my game, if I fielded the ball, lay it off, if I’m bother in that heat of battle and the crowd roars, what happens after that? Someone would say ‘don’t kick it King!’.

I wasn’t the most accurate or anything like that but you just worked away, myself and Morris kept ploughing away. Morris would probably say, ‘jaysus, don’t include me with you!’.

Fintan Cahill: I’d far rather see Ronan with the ball than Stephen because nobody had a clue where it was going and you can quote me on that!

I remember it clearly. John Joe Doherty would be standing beside me and Stephen would have the ball and John Joe would get in nice and tight.

And I’d say, ‘John Joe, you’re wasting your time, you’re far too early. I don’t know where it’s going, you don’t know where it’s going, the man that has it doesn’t know where it’s going.

“So he’ll kick it and we’ll run like f**k after it then!”

Fermanagh were up first in the Ulster quarter-final on June 8 in Clones. A late Anthony Forde point secured a draw, 1-12 apiece.

Ronan Carolan: Fermanagh should have beaten us. You’d be forever indebted to Anthony [Forde] and his love of Fermanagh to get us over the line and then the replay. It’s remarkable how that can happen but we should have beaten Donegal in ‘92 and they’d never have won an All Ireland.

I remember watching McBarron going through and them going a point up.

I was thinking it was over. He kicked it wide and Paul O’Dowd took a quick kick-out and the rest is history. It could have been so easily over.

Paul had to kick a quick kick-out or that game is over. I remember it was like time had stopped watching McBarron going through and thinking it was a first-round defeat against Fermanagh and imagine how that would have felt.

Bernard Morris: Only that Paul was on the ball... He was quick enough – he gave the ball out to Peter and he gave it out to me and I was going to go for a Ronan Carolan free, let them drag me down… But I gave it out to Anthony. And then after, Dermot and Ronan ate me for doing that!

To his credit, Paul O’Dowd had the ball out like a shot. Jim Curran was reffing, he was after looking at his watch and I was going by him with the ball and he let it go on. He gave us the chance but if Paul had been slow kicking the ball out, we were out, to be honest.

We knew in our heart and soul that this was our bad game out of our system. We were vexed with ourselves. We didn’t play at all. We were dead on our feet.

Anthony Forde: I’m from Blacklion, Belcoo is right on the border. Stephen Maguire was playing for Fermanagh, he’s 400 yards down the road from me. It was a huge game for everyone in that area

I came on in that game. I had exams that summer and had picked up a bit of a knock. I hadn’t had a clean run as I would have liked.

I came on probably with about 15 minutes to go in that game and got two great balls, two realy good opportunities and missed boith of them.

We would have probably been out the gap by then if I had taken those chances.

We worked the ball up the field at the end and I got the score. A lot of Blacklion people I have spoken to since were out the gate, they were gone and heard a big roar and ran back in to see what was after happening.

Bernard, I think it was, passed the ball to me? Or Patrick Sheils. I think Bernard gave me the pass. It came from Paul O’Dowd, then to Patrick, then to Bernard down the centre and he laid it off to me and I kicked it from there.

I remember there was genuine relief in the dressing room after, people, were clapping you on the back and you think you’re a great lad. I thought ‘Martin will be delighted with me here’.

And he started off by saying ‘I just want to make it clear Anthony that you had two chances and if you hadn’t kicked that last one, I would have kicked you from here back down to Blacklion!’

So that suddenly brought my two feet back down to earth fairly quickly. And he was 100pc right.

But that was the kind of man management style.

If I was one of the older lads, it might have been a bit tougher criticism. That was the good thing about him.

Philip Kermath: You see what happened against Fermanagh, we should have been dumped out. In the Ulster Championship, anything can happen. Once we got out of that and got rolling again, it took on a life of its own.

Bernard Morris: The drawn game was tough. Whether it was nerves, I don’t know. There was a problem with the venue at the beginning. Fermanagh wanted it in Irvinestown and the Ulster Council said it wasn’t suitable for health and safety reasons to cope with the crowd. Fermanagh were raging and that gave them extra motivation.

Hughie McCabe was the manager and he was driving this on and Fermanagh played above themselves and we were just off a bit. We survived it – just about.

Martin McHugh: Cavan are sometimes better, even to this day, playing a team they’re level with or the other team are better. Cavan kind of struggle sometimes playing a team supposed to be not as good as them.

Liam McBarron had a chance to put them two up and the game was over.

No doubt. Paul O’Dowd picked up the ball quickly at the post and had it out to Bernard Morris and it was up to Anthony Forde before Fermanagh knew and Anthony scored that point.

That was the one that kept us in the championship and no better man than Forde, he was living down beside Fermanagh.

Luck has a lot to do with it but quick thinking is very important.

Paul was an unbelievable player, he was a brilliant goalkeeper, way ahead of his time. His quick thinking made the difference. It would have been over only for the way it happened.

Damien O’Reilly: Defensively I thought we didn’t do too bad, it was a low-scoring game. We just didn’t get going, it wasn’t that we under-estimated them. It was just a poor performance and we were very lucky. They should have beaten us to be fair.

Stephen King: McBarron missed that chance, Fordey got the equaliser and the rest is history. They had us out. We played poorly. Everything went pear-shaped for us and I don’t know why, breaking ball, nothing went our way.

It wasn’t nerves. Maybe expectations, rivalry. Fermanagh were a good team, maybe they were an awful lot better than we gave them respect for. They definitely should have had us that day.

Jason O’Reilly: Anthony got the score to level it but they missed a sitter in front of the goals. I thought it was gone from us to be honest but we clawed our way back and got the draw.

Ciaran Brady: I think Fermanagh were after being well beat the year before that and we were maybe a little bit over-confident. We got away with a draw, Anthony Forde got a point in the last minute. We were a point down and I remember thinking that was it but POD [Paul O’Dowd] took a quick kick-out when his back was turned, it was worked up the field and in a matter of a few seconds the ball was over the bar at the other end.

I’d say if the referee had turned round a few seconds earlier, he would have blown the final whistle.

We got a bit of luck, we got out of jail but we learned from it and I think we beat Fermanagh pretty convincingly the second day. We could have been out of the championship, there was no back door in those days.

Raymond Cunningham: I had a sense that everyone was putting the shoulder to the wheel. There was a big commitment training-wise, lads had a common goal to do as well as we could and we were confident. But in the first round we were poor against Fermanagh and should have been beaten. I would be firm about that, we were very poor and got out of jail really.

Maybe we under-estimated Fermanagh in one sense, not but we were told beforehand that it was going to be a tough game but sometimes you can believe the hype that’s built up because we were probably favourites going into that game and maybe we took the eye off the ball thinking it was only a matter of turning up.

In the replay, Cavan were much improved and won by 0-14 to 0-11.

Martin McHugh: We were more relaxed in the replay and won it well. I think we were better getting the draw out of it and winning the replay, it was better preparation than winning the first day.

Martin McHugh. Photo by John Quirke

Anthony Forde: I started the replay then against Fermanagh and Mickey was outstanding that day and we got over the line.

We were pretty much in control. There was definitely a sense that we had got out of a jail. Liam McBarron hit the post in the drawn game with a chance to put us away, missed it from close range, so we certainly felt we had got out of jail. There were a few changes and it freshened things up. People tend to forget it was a damn good Fermanagh team – Rory and Raymie in their prime, Collie Curran, Shane King, really good footballers.

Stephen King: The shackles were off for the replay.

Damien O’Reilly: We were a lot better in the replay. 99pc of the time, the favourites win the replay and we did. We were much better in the replay and won it comfortably.

Raymond Cunningham: That fright we got helped us turn it around, the next game we were a little bit better and we improved a lot going into the semi-final. It was momentum. What I remember most about that Ulster Championship was one game led to another and every game, we improved.

Bernard Morris: We did very little that week only chat about things and the following Sunday we were a whole new outfit. We were ready for action and we played 10 times better and if the game had gone on another 10 minutes we’d have banged over another seven or eight points.

I had to get stitches, I got a headbutt. When Hughie McCabe came into the dressing-room after the match, Paddy Rudden was sewing my eye up. And someone says ‘would you not send Morris to the dressing-room to get his eye sewn up’ and then of course, Cahill says ‘it’ll not do his looks any harm anyway!’

‘At this stage,’ he says,’ he’s gone beyond being a model.’

And I couldn’t even laugh, Rudden was telling me not to move!

McHugh would bring the team together for meetings in order to have frank discussions and figure out where improvements could be made.

Jason O’Reilly: We were better in the replay, we were sitting down and going through it as a team. The backs would tell the forwards what they thought of them, about movement or tackling up there. They thought when they looked up, there wasn’t enough runs or that kind of thing. And vice versa, the forwards would take into the backs.

Ronan Carolan: Paddy Rudden played a huge part, the team doctor but Paddy was chair of really important meetings. I remember Martin had taken the first training session and we did a fair bit of running. Joe was looking at what was the classic first training session back and thinking it might take the lads a few weeks to recover from it. As things developed, Paddy would have chaired meetings where he wanted every player to talk and split the team up into groups - this went on for a number of years - and it was a development process for people to gain confidence.

You knew what was said in the group wasn’t going to leave the group. Anyone who did otherwise basically wasn’t part of the group for too long. Paddy was just a very clever man in the way he managed those meetings. Martin, Joe, Mickey and Paddy were basically told that they had their own little group and they weren’t really allowed to interfere because Paddy was chairing the meetings.

Those meetings were really important to the development of the team in the understanding of the plan and the process. You gained confidence as those went on. Joe used to take Saturday morning sessions and we had team meetings and you’d have a lecture, from half-an-hour to an hour.

Jason O’Reilly: It was all good feedback from both. It would be hot and heavy at times, ‘how could we fix this?’. It was all new to me, I was on the fringes of playing and not playing. It was more the first 15 and other fellas would get their speak in as well but the older fellas probably pushed it on, when you’re a young fella only in the door you can be quiet of yourself.

Stephen King: He could take up a Saturday with a meeting. Analysing what we did wrong, analysing what we needed to do, analysing what the opposition might do.

The meetings would be straight up, you’d have a certain amount of input but at the same time, you knew there was only one boss. And that’s the way it should be, let me add.

Donal and Mickey were very astute and had their input too. Declan Gartlan was the physio and we ended up getting these deep, deep massages, you’d be wrecked after them and go up to a room in the Farnham. That was definitely new.

Paddy Rudden was fantastic. He was ahead of his time, he had done a course on acupuncture. There’s no doubt about it, he got me almost ready for the Ulster final.

Fintan Cahill: It was always backs against forwards in the meetings. I used to say to Morris,’ come on up to the forwards and play for a little while and see how easy it is’.

I used to say the only reason a man back then was playing in the backs and not the forwards was that he wasn’t a good enough footballer.

Damien O’Reilly: He’d put the backs together and the forwards together. You’d always have the forward feeling the ball wasn’t coming in quickly enough or properly to them and we’d probably be arguing the case that they weren’t making the run in time and things like that.

Any time we went anywhere, it was all based around a meeting. We used the Slieve Russell a good bit.

Ciaran Brady: Most lads were confident enough to actually speak. King as captain would speak, Damien would speak but nobody dominated, it meant everyone was a leader in some respect. Everyone would have felt comfortable.

It was a team where lads spoke their minds, it was full of strong characters.

Anthony Forde: Martin travelled from Donegal obviously. He was quite a high profile figure and while the Troubles were on at the time, somebody had said to him that he might want to vary his route.

So he said okay, I’ll pick Anthony up in Blacklion. Might as well two of us go down as one! Martin used it as a great opportunity to draw as much information out of me as he possibly could. Being young and impressionable, I was giving it freely.

I remember him asking me who should mark Brolly. I had some off the wall ideas but he had his mind made up, he was just taking the temperature of the squad, seeing what players are thinking and how players are viewed among the group. All that sort of stuff.

He asked me who the one player was the most under-rated. I said Gerry. We were in a team meeting the following week and he quoted me saying it. I was down the back (groans), this young lad from west Cavan who says nothing, thinking “aw, for f**k’s sake…” I got a good ribbing about that for a few weeks after that.

Martin McHugh: I had met PJ Carroll who was the manager before me and he was a great help to me. Then I met Eugene McGee, God rest him, I really miss him. A very knowledgeable man, he helped me a wild lot. I used to ring him to see what he thought. I should have probably brought him in with me but that time you didn’t do that.

I had Paddy McNamee in as a selector and he was brilliant, one of the most knowledgeable people about football I’ve met. I would always chat to players and everybody was sensible enough, they all knew their football.

Tomorrow: Part 4 - Cavan take on McHugh's home county of Donegal and the hype builds towards an Ulster final.

(For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.)