Fintan Cahill, in action here against David O’Neill of Derry during the 1997 Ulster SFC final, suffered an ACL tear early in his career against Kildare in a National League match.

'It's always the good cow that goes down'


Paddy Lynch is just the latest leading Cavan footballer to suffer the dreaded cruciate tear - but all bounced back strongly, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK

When Mullahoran’s Damien O’Reilly suffered a partial cruciate ligament tear playing for Cavan in a nondescript McKenna Cup match against Antrim in March 1991, it felt like a hammer blow.

Cavan were going poorly at the time; the Anglo-Celt Cup had not come for two decades and the supporters, many of whom were intimately familiar with an era when the county were kings of Ulster and a powerhouse nationally, were reeling, questioning everything.

O’Reilly, a stand-out on the U21 team who had reached the 1988 All-Ireland final and promised to deliver a new dawn, was seen as one of the best young footballers to emerge in a long time and one of the players whom Cavan might build a team around.

And while he would, in time, return to action and captain the team to a first Ulster final in 12 years in 1995 before getting over the line in ’97, at the time he got injured, it felt like more rotten luck.

Ballinagh publican Phil Masterson, famous for his droll and often caustic witticisms and never known to miss a Cavan match, was a notable bell-weather for the fan base. The late Masterson’s status was such that when 1992 All-Ireland winner Martin McHugh was appointed manager in 1994, one of his first ports of call was for an audience with Phil.

“One of my first visits anywhere in the county was to Phil Masterson's pub in Ballinagh,” McHugh would recall.

“There's a GAA pub in every town and village and in Ballinagh it was Phil's. The main man among the supporters, a wild character. It was almost like you went out to him for a blessing.”

On the night that O’Reilly got injured, Masterson was behind the bar and bemoaning the latest setback.

“Ah,” he said in his trademark droll style, “it’s always the good cow that goes down.”

The veracity of that bucolic statement would be proven repeatedly over time. Fintan Cahill, one of the most outstanding young forwards to come through in some time, had blown his knee out in a league game against Kildare in the late 1980s.

He spent two years on the sideline and came back a different player – stronger, a couple of stones heavier. His game changed and his powerful, direct running made him a handful for any defence.

In time, other leading players also fell. Peter Reilly, Ulster-winning U21 captain in 1996 and senior medallist the year after, did the ACL when at the peak of his considerable powers and in 2013, Gearoid McKiernan also sustained the same injury.

In 2021, it was Ciaran Brady’s turn – he got hurt in a league game against Longford and would spend 11 months on the sidelines. And then, last week, word emerged that Paddy Lynch was the latest to suffer the dreaded cruciate tear. The good cow and all that…

Paddy Lynch and Donegal's Brendan McCole.

Back when McKiernan did it, there was a funereal air around it. Cavan were coming off an awful run at senior level and the Swanlinbar man had captained the U21s to a groundbreaking Ulster final win over Tyrone, turning in a Man of the Match performance to boot.

And then, he was gone. At the time, Enda King – the great Cavan Gaels midfielder and internationally-renowned physiotherapist – was quoted on these pages explaining more about the injury and the required operation.

“It's serious,” he said, “in that it's a good bit of work and it's not serious in that it's extremely common, it's very routine and anyone who is doing them will be doing an awful lot of them. It's very straightforward in terms of, it's not a pioneering surgery at this stage, it's very well established with the outcomes very clear for everyone.

“It's a big job in that there's a lot of work in it structurally speaking and a lot of rehab to be done afterwards but as regards the technicality of the surgery, it's not. (Surgeon) Ray Moran does 400-500 a year so is polished at it.”

That, though, doesn’t take away the trauma of it. Looked at in a very cold and inhumane way, a bad hamstring tear, for example, would likely have ruled Paddy Lynch out for the remainder of Cavan’s season anyway but there is much more to it than just missing those few games.

It’s the shock of it – you’re flying one minute, on crutches the next and facing surgery and months on the sidelines. It’s the long hours of rehab and the fact that the club season – and Crosserlough are serious contenders for the Oliver Plunkett Cup – is wiped out. And there’s the fear that a player may not return the same, although that is highly unlikely given that the injury is such a common occurrence and the vast majority come back as good as ever.

And then there’s the pain, which shouldn’t be glibly over-looked. It’s not an injury for the faint-hearted.

“I remember being delighted after the game, which we won, but that quickly turned to disappointment when I realised afterwards the severity of Peter's injury,” Michael Hannon wrote in his column in this newspaper some years back, talking about his championship debut which saw Cavan beat Louth and Peter Reilly rupture his ACL.

“My abiding memory of that day is of the team doctor, Philip Carolan, doing the ACL test on Peter on a table in the dressing-room after the match,

“The pain Peter was in was evident to all who were present. It's not a pleasant injury. The image of Peter jumping off the table with pain is the first thing I think of whenever I hear of any footballer unfortunate to suffer a torn ACL.”

One of the counter-intuitive things about a cruciate injury is that they can happen in the most innocuous circumstances, as seems to have been the case with Lynch. They also sometimes run in families which is, again, applicable to Paddy, a few of whose relations have sustained this injury.

Lynch, though, will be back. To reach the physical condition and level of consistency he has, he is clearly very dedicated, with a winning attitude. It is impossible to reach Lynch’s level of proficiency at place-kicking without being a slave to practice and that mindset will help him in his rehabilitation.

Cavan manager Ray Galligan did his ACL in Australia in his mid-20s and came back to captain his club to an Intermediate Championship, his county to the Anglo-Celt Cup and pick up an All-Star. All of those mentioned above, in fact, went on to enjoy terrific careers and win plenty of medals for club and county.

Lynch will too.