Resilient Castlerahan are reborn as champions

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Friday, 26th October, 2018 12:41pm

Resilient Castlerahan are reborn as champions

Castlerahan players celebrate with the Oliver Plunkett Cup.

Paul Fitzpatrick

If the tonnes of concrete and steel could talk, what a story they would tell. Think back three years and one week, for a start.

It's county final day and the clock strikes 63 minutes. Castlerahan are on borrowed time, loaned to them by the ref, and any second now, he's going to ask for his ball back and that will be that – game over.

At one side of the pitch stand Jamie Leahy, the goalkeeper, and Enda O'Connell, the bomb defuser in the number two jersey. Their hands are on their heads. They can only watch; they can barely watch.

At the town end is a wall of blue jerseys emblazoned with white stars. Eventually, it is breached and Paul Smith rushes through. Under pressure, ‘Lukie’ shoots. The ball hangs in the air and then rubs against the post and drifts away, harmfully – for Castlerahan - wide. 

The long, shrill whistle, then. And the bitter tears.

Now, think of Sunday gone by, the crowd swollen by an extra 3,000. What took them all here? Some, reared on tales of seven-in-a-row, were following their young team and quietly hopeful they could do the unthinkable. Others just wanted one-in-a-row, an end to the misery and the mystery - a sorrowful one, it was - of how these things are won. Now or never and to hell with next year...

And for the rest? A morbid curiosity, maybe. Because if this Castlerahan team had lost, they were dead. If winning a final has the same effect as a defibrillator, successfully employed, on a club, then constant defeat weakens the pulse till it disappears entirely, a slow, painful demise, not a burn-out but a fade away.

So, here we are. It's injury time again, 62 minutes and 10 seconds played. This has been the greatest final the old ground has hosted in living memory. 

On the sideline, Castlerahan manager Donal Keogan rubs his cheek anxiously. On the field, young Crosserlough corner-forward Patrick Lynch is lining up a 45 to tie the game. In the stands, silence. A flag flutters.

This boy has played like a man all afternoon. He strikes it well and for a milisecond, it looks sweet and then it tails, agonisingly, and hits the upright. Wide ball. 

“Jesus Christ!” says one pained voice, above the gasps.

It's kicked out again but within three minutes, it's all over. The width of a goalpost, again...

What changed? Keogan and the players will spill their thoughts into the Dictaphones to the media men after the match and all will reference how they played their own game, how, this time, they let the handbrake off and drove forward.

And that was a part of it, for sure, but the difference from where we sat was that while Crosserlough dearly wanted to win, Castlerahan had to. Losing four finals in a row would have been unprecedented; losing them to four different opponents, unforgivable.

The players knew as much. Whatever happens from here on in, they will be defined as Senior Championship winners. That has a nice ring to it.

Back to 2015 and the width of a stick denying Castlerahan. That game, admitted Ronan Flanagan mid-week, was the one that got away, “the only one of the three we should have won”, he said.

The funny thing is that some will argue that this was the one they should have lost, half a dozen points in arrears with the clock ticking down and Crosserlough moving up through the gears.

Cian Mackey knew it, that sinking feeling.

“When they went six points up I honestly said 'oh no',” he told us afterwards.  “And then I just said, we'd go for it.”

Mackey and Flanagan now hold every ‘domestic’ medal there is barring a Minor League. They have been winners all their footballing lives; for them, the aberration of relentless senior final defeat has now been corrected. 

Both men sportingly and truthfully recognised the inherent greatness in this precocious Crosserlough team. In his speech, Flanagan tipped them to come back again and dominate football; in his interview, Mackey reckoned they could win “five or six”.

We are inclined to agree – very few teams have won the Cavan SFC without having played in the final before. The omens are good for Daragh McCarthy's boys, then, not that it will be any consolation for now. 

At an Up For The Match event in Pius's Polo Grounds pub in Kilnaleck on the eve of the game, the community came together to share in the joy of reaching the county final, the anticipation, the speculation. At that moment, anything was possible.

On stage, the great and good discussed the game. Finbar O'Reilly, captain of the Crosserlough team beaten in the 1997 final, summed it up. Asked for a prediction, he reduced it to a  couple of words, repeated like a mantra.

“To win,” he said, “win, win, win.”

O'Reilly knew the pain of losing a final. And Castlerahan knew it too, which made the difference the next day. When all else is equal, the team whose need is greater will prevail.

Having survived the footballing equivalent of a near death experience, on Monday morning, with the cup glistening on the dresser, Castlerahan will have never felt more alive.

And well they might; they earned this one the hardest way there is, burying the ghosts of the past.

And now, they are reborn as champions at long last.




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