Careers built on persistence
Time moves on and change is inevitable and even necessary in everything but it’s important to note significant contribution to a cause when a journey comes to an end. In 2008 two young lads were part of an underage development process in Cavan GAA that would contribute to an unprecedented period of underage success.
Niall Murray was part of the Cavan team for the 2008 Ulster minor championship quarter final against Armagh and the Anglo-Celt had high praise for the performance - “Outstanding display by Cavan as they move into the semi-finals.”
Cavan won 0-14 to 1-4 with Murray scoring four points for Mickey Graham’s side. In the report Eamonn Gaffney wrote, “With half-time approaching points were exchanged by Rory Grugan and Niall Murray, with Murray’s a great individual effort.”
A pacey, exciting ball-carrier from the Cavan Gaels conveyor belt was starting to turn heads. With Murray at centre-forward, that minor team faced Tyrone in the semi-final of Ulster and came within two points of the eventual All-Ireland champions. It was another nearly story for a Cavan underage team which we had become accustom to but this group turned out to be different and Murray was a key part of the change in attitude to come.
At the same time, with the Cavan U16s, a fair-haired, two-footed forward from Lavey who loved to kick the ball was being spoken about. Chris Conroy, a leader of a golden generation of underage players coming through in Lavey, played county minor in 2010. He scored two points in their opening round win over Fermanagh and five points in their semi-final defeat at the hands of Armagh.
Both Murray and Conroy started their county careers at minor level with Mickey Graham as manager and in their recent retirements, have finished it with Graham at the helm.
“Probably the most impressive of all the positive contributions that Niall and Chris made to the Cavan seniors was their ability to help the team in any situation. If they weren’t starting or on the match day panel for whatever reason, they would give words of advice and motivation to the rest of the group. They always put the team first,” Graham said this week. High praise from the current Cavan senior manager.
In his last game as Cavan minor manager after losing to Armagh in 2010, Graham told the Anglo-Celt: “I still think the future is bright for Cavan football and I don’t care about what people say”. He had spent three years as minor manager and clearly knew the likes of Murray and Conroy had the right stuff.
Persistence pays and both Niall and Chris have displayed the type of persistence needed for success but in different ways. This wasn’t the norm when they started with the county seniors in the early part of the last decade. Cavan famously handed out debuts like confetti because player turnover dictated it had to happen with players opting in and out of squads.
Since his debut for the county seniors under the management of Val Andrews in January 2011 against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup, Niall Murray has played for Cavan every year without fail. He crowned off an amazing 2011 by making his Senior Championship debut against Donegal and lifted the Oliver Plunkett Cup for the second time. In 2012 he missed the championship as he spent a summer in the states but from then until this year, he has taken to the field in every championship campaign.
Niall made 51 championship appearances for Cavan scoring a total of 0-22. In total he donned the blue of Breffni 93 times across all competitions. He finished his career with Cavan having scored 47 points at senior level with 12 coming from frees and two attacking marks.
Niall’s last score for Cavan came in the Allianz League round 3 clash with Derry in Kingspan Breffni 2021 while his first came in the same venue nine years earlier against UUJ in the McKenna Cup of 2012.
While Niall’s contribution to Cavan won’t be measured on what he scored, he did turn in a massive 19 points in the 2019 season when Mickey Graham asked him to solve a problem area in the team and kick the frees.
He finished with 12 points in the Ulster Championship run to the final, scoring two against Monaghan, five against Armagh in each of the semi-finals and would have added more if injury hadn’t curtailed his involvement in the Ulster final.
He also started the ball rolling in the 2011 Ulster U21 final against Tyrone with a goal which gave Cavan the start they needed to go on and win the first of four in a row.
For 15 years Niall Murray has given Cavan GAA his all, through highs and lows, injury and elation, failure and success. He has played in Ulster and All-Ireland U21 football finalS, two Ulster senior football finals, two Division 2 league finals and one Division 4 league final. Niall is among the blessed as he retires with three medals to show for his effort, an Ulster senior and U21 championship medal and a Division 4 league medal. Nothing less than his persistence deserved.
Chris Conroy’s persistence came in a different but in an equally impressive fashion. Having made his county senior debut in the league against Sligo in 2014, he had to bide his time and work hard until 2019 to get his first championship outing. That outing was one to remember as he scored a point in a memorable and rare win over the old enemy Monaghan, in Kingspan Breffni.
Chris, who has played for Cavan 51 times over his eight seasons involved at senior level has a remarkable success rate in championship. Of his 11 appearances, he has been on the winning side eight times, drawn once and only ever lost twice, giving him a win rate of just under 73%.
A dead ball specialist, Chris scored 2-24 for Cavan seniors with his best year in front of the posts making up half of that total. 2020 was without a doubt where his persistence paid off. After scoring a goal in his appearance off the bench against Westmeath, he went on to feature in all 11 of Cavan’s remaining fixtures in that career- defining year.
On the resumption of the league after lockdown, Chris headed for Newbridge and gave an exhibition of free-taking, finishing with eight points to his name. Mickey Graham found the perfect role in that Ulster-winning team for the Lavey man with Chris known for his impeccable decision-making on the ball, playing as a deep quarter-back, pulling the strings.
The Lower Lavey man has four medals to show for his efforts as he was a vital part of Cavan’s Ulster U21 successes in 2012 and 2013, starting in both finals and picking up one Man of the Match award. Add into that his Ulster senior championship medal from 2020 and his Division 4 league medal from 2022 and in all he has a lot to show for his time.
When we look to the current young players in Cavan to see who is going to take the place of the likes of Niall and Chris in years to come, we can thank them for a change in how we identify the next generation. There’s no doubt that, the football talent these lads have was important, but it was secondary to their application, dedication, and persistence over many years.
That’s why they are winners and is maybe a more important contribution to Cavan GAA than the wonderful days when we saw them lift silverware.
Niall and Chris should always be greeted by Cavan fans with a thanks for their effort and the great memories and days they gave us all.