Cavanman's Diary: When will someone shout stop?!

A friend of mine made a delicious observation one time concerning Meath football followers. Without fail, he said, the Meath supporter of a certain vintage will blame the entire footballing ills of his tribe on one thing and one thing only – “they’re too small”.

After he pointed it out to me, I began to watch out for it – and he was right. Ask a few Meath fans why their team has slipped back, or why they lost a particular match, and, invariably, their lack of physical size will soon be mentioned.

Was it true? Probably not. It may have been a contributory factor but the likelihood was that there were other, much more influential, issues at play. Still, it was a handy comfort blanket for the down-on-their-luck Royals.

In Cavan, the one I have heard for the longest time is this: “We just don’t have the players.” It has been said about the county senior team for many years. Supporters repeat it like Tibetans monks would a chant. You hear it rising like a hum out of the post-match pub discussions. “We don’t have the players, we don’t have the players, ommmm…”

For the most part, it is rubbish, the laziest cop-out imaginable. It’s the easy answer, the one that allows us to avoid the inconvenient truths.

Because, you see, if you’re just intrinsically “not good enough”, then you can never be accused of under-achieving. It’s a safety net, really, and allows supporters to avoid asking the hard questions. Questions like: Why can our teams not close out a match they are clearly capable of winning? Is it a coincidence that we always end up singing the same familiar lament about missed chances and bad refs and rotten luck? What are we going to do about this? When will someone shout stop?

I thought of this when leaving Crossmaglen on Sunday afternoon. Castlerahan had just lost to Corduff by a point in what was a classic of the genre in terms of Cavan sides losing in the Ulster Championship, particularly at club level.

Castlerahan, with respect to a Corduff side who were full of defiance and heart, were clearly a better outfit. They got off to a dream start, they had the wind in the second half, they looked all over like a team which was going to kick on. They lost by a point. The same old story, one we as Cavan football followers are well acquainted with by now.

In the bitter recriminations, the ref’s name was taken in vain (and, yes, he did appear to bottle a big call at the end) but the reality was that Castlerahan were well equipped to deal with Corduff.

The previous day, Drumlane were beaten in heartbreaking circumstances, in a penalty shoot-out, a flawed mechanism for deciding matches which should never have been introduced in the first place. They believed they had a good ‘point’ waved wide near the end, a kick that would have been the winner.

But Drumlane should have won this match, too. They were much the better team in the first half – they looked a better team, full stop - but failed to punish the Tyrone side.

A few weeks’ back, Gowna went to Enniskillen and did not perform anywhere near to the level they can. And yet they could and should have won the game, going ahead by three points in extra time. They, too, ended up losing on penalties. Afterwards, we heard about a heavy pitch and so on – but the real story was that, again, a Cavan team were in a winning position and couldn’t seal the deal.

Had Gowna managed to get the victory, it would have been the first time ever that all three Cavan clubs – Junior, Intermediate and Senior – had won their first-round match in their respective Ulster Championships, a quite shocking statistic given that Gaelic football is far and away the most popular sport in this county.

The reality, I think, is that Cavan clubs generally lack the requisite belief when it really comes to the crunch. Of course, it could be argued that belief is part of a team’s make-up and, if you don’t have it, well, the accusation is proven – you were not good enough after all.

But the truth is much more nuanced than that. If we follow that theory to its logical conclusion, we must accept that every team which loses a match was not good enough, which is clearly a falsehood.

The mood music around club football in Cavan is that it is sub-standard. “We have too many clubs” is a common refrain – and maybe we have, but on paper only. If we were to “trim the fat”, and I would not be in favour of that for one second, it would realistically affect only the bottom end of the Junior Championship and would likely have no knock-on effect on the talent available to our stronger teams.

There is an element of talking ourselves down, too, to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We all remember the run Cavan minor and U21 teams went on between 1997 and 2010. A succession of extremely talented sides crashed out of the Ulster Championship each year in ever-more ridiculous circumstances. Those Cavan teams would lose, often in replays, by a kick of a ball, having squandered winning positions and contrived to miss easy chances. Indiscipline was an issue, too.

In short, because they believed they were not good enough and, as a result, would not win, they found a way to do so. Then, the trend was broken – an U21 team won. A few months later, the most unheralded minor team in 20 years followed up. Coincidence? Hardly.

In the meantime, for some reason, we have slipped back again; the remission is over, the ‘luckless’ defeats have returned, infecting all areas.

It’s not a new phenomenon. At the 1980 county convention, the chairman, Paddy Donohoe, identified the trend.

“Sustained defeat is hard on us all,” he said.

“It is harder still in Cavan where we are haunted by the ghosts of past glory. We all feel it hard and grow discouraged by times.”

Forget about not being good enough, about bad refs and unlucky bounces of the ball. Cavan are sending out teams that are more than capable of winning and they are coming home empty-handed, with a litany of excuses for company.

It has been happening for decades and each loss compounds the general sense of defeatism until it seems it will never end.

When will it end?