Paul Fitzpatrick looks back on a landmark, long-awaited win for Cavan over rivals Monaghan.
Sometimes – often times, if we're honest – the best part of being a Cavan football follower is the build-up to a match. The excitement and the tantalising prospect that anything – anything – could happen.
The fatalism on the surface and the gnawing feeling underneath that this one might be different, before you snap out of it when you realise you're doing it again.
The helter-skelter Ulster Championship, where pinball wizardry is often more important than sorcery of the size five, adds to the uncertainty too. A thousand mad thing, as Anthony Daly brilliantly put it, and someone comes out on top.
Last week, we were growing more excited by the day (insufferably so, in fact). On Friday afternoon, we called into the stadium, just to breathe it in.
Even in the dull, cloudy afternoon, with all still in the big house bar the odd caller collecting tickets and a few workmen getting things ready, the place looked glorious.
And a thought struck me. If those banks could talk, what a story they would tell.
Here's one of their yarns for the weekend that's in it. In 1947, Cavan played Monaghan in the first round of the Ulster Championship. With time almost up and the scores level, Cavan were awarded a penalty and their captain, John Joe O'Reilly, stepped forward and placed the ball on the spot. Penalties were a new innovation at the time.
“We won't win a game like that,” the Gallant John Joe told goalkeeper Sean Mulligan. And he proceeded to tap the penalty gently into the grateful netminder's arms, ensuring a replay.
Things change. Yesterday, Cavan would have happily won a game like that – or like this, or any other way. Just to win was the thing.
Cavan's outstanding full-back Padraig Faulkner admitted as much, although local bragging rights are high on the wishlist for Cavan footballers from the borderlands around Kingscourt, Shercock and Redhills too.
“So many years, we've just come second against Monaghan and I think, just, enough was enough. We needed to get the win,” Faulkner said, before breaking into a broad grin.
“Us on the border especially, there are mouthy Monaghan ones round our end, Magheracloone people, and it's nice to get one over on them,” he chuckled.
On the face of it, that was a throwaway one-liner from a player high on victory but, when you think about it, it came from a deeper place too. Because Cavan, for so long, haven't “got one over” on anybody.
Last week, Mickey Graham was asked about the likelihood of the game going to the wire and how that might be a test of Cavan's mettle.
“All the pundits say that Cavan have no chance and they mightn't even get as far as the wire!” he replied, quickly adding “and the facts are there to back that up.”
The sense, though, was that he was bristling a little. Did it annoy him, deep down?
“There's absolutely no respect,” he replied. “But as I said, maybe it's right. What have Cavan done to earn that?”
Fast forward eight days and in the Irish Daily Star yesterday morning, Donegal All-Ireland winner Eamonn McGee loaded his pen and took aim.
“Cavan,” he wrote, “I just couldn't respect. I heard so much noise from them... You didn't have to scratch the surface too hard to find the softness underneath and they'd quickly fold.”
Cavan “lacked that inherent toughness to be a top team”, he reckoned. There was “too much bluster” with too many of the players.
Those few lines would have hurt. And they hurt most because, to a large extent, they were true. For too long, Cavan looked like a team, as we once wrote, long on talent and short on bottle whose best year is always next year.
But as Faulkner said, enough was enough. And this was the stage on which to do it. Graham, from a long way out, has been targetting this date and this date alone. He made no secret of it.
The manager's demeanour of late brought to mind a passage in Roy Keane's autobiography. Keane, on punditry duty, is standing on the touchline with Adrian Chiles at a match in Turin. The place is buzzing and Chiles comments about how great it is to be there, to be a part of it.
And Keane replies simply “I played in these games, Adrian.”
Graham played on the big occasions too and knows, intimately, what the Ulster Championship is about and what it means. For all the talk of the National League being the best competition, a big championship victory is worth half a dozen in the Spring. Graham knew this and, all along, he had been lining this one up.
To pull off the ambush, the manager had to restore something else that was missing, too. He has assembled a strong back-room team and the team is prepared to the nth degree but, old-fashioned as it may be, in the brewing of these big wins, passion remains the yeast.
Last year, against Donegal, Graham watched from the terrace in Ballybofey and felt it was “like a challenge match”. Twelve months on, he promised blood and thunder – he would not ensure a win but, he told us last week, he would guarantee that Cavan would not be out-worked.
It was clear from the opening seconds, when Conor Brady pointed 12 seconds into his debut, that Graham did not intend to be made of a liar of. Cavan were primed.
Snapshots from the big day? The cars arriving early and lining the Dublin Road. Ticket sales had been surprisingly slow all week but there was a last-minute rush and, despite a heavy shower an hour before throw-in, the mood was lively.
Cavan defending like terriers – and then a real terrier being sprung from the sidelines. Seeing as Monaghan were on the attack when he invaded, we are inclined to think he was a local pooch. His GPS stats would have made for interesting reading – by the by, Mickey Graham's father, Mickey Snr, was one of the stewards whose clutches he escaped – but even on four legs, he could not have covered as much ground as Martin Reilly.
The Killygarry man was just magnificent, while Conor Rehill just oozes coolness and class. Jason McLoughlin, the quiet man about whom the word 'bluster' could never be written, had his greatest hour in the blue jersey.
And Padraig Faulkner was awesome. He stuck like glue to McManus. Four years ago, with the match reaching its crescendo, the Clontibret man wriggled free of Feargal Flanagan under the stand and curled in an impossible point.
A former Cavan player who we met last night recalled it. “I remember jogging back out after it. That was the score that broke us,” he said.
This time, Faulkner was immune to the magic. McManus got a chance, in the same spot, at the same time, but it went well wide. Monaghan were pressing, Cavan were bending but they would not break.
Whither the Farney men now? There is a perception that they are an ageing team but they are likely to find a way back from here and could fetch up in the Super 8s yet.
It was a good time for Cavan to get them, make no mistake about that. Darren Hughes, the pulse of the side, was missing. So was Jack McCarron, an artist, and Neil McAdam, an artisan, both effective in their roles. Conor McCarthy was exam-tied in Dublin and sped down the road in time to come on as a sub. It would take a brave man to write that group off.
As for Cavan, the summer now stretches out in front of them and they and their fans can begin to dream. Graham sees paralells with 1995, when he first broke on to a Cavan team full of seasoned, talented players with pockets empty of medals.
They were seen as a little flaky, a little unlucky too, but they learned how to close out tight games, they and a cohort of hungry youngsters like Graham and current selector Dermot McCabe feeding off each other.
“Everybody knew the footballers were there,” he said of 1995, the start of a great resurgence under Martin McHugh, “it was just getting the belief.
“And the one thing about Cavan supporters is, if you give them something to shout about, something to get them behind the team, they will do that.”
Now, Down or Armagh await and the standing army of Breffni fans are quickly mobilising again. The buzz is back. Where it all ends up, who knows. But send the word – Cavan are back.
If you believe in omens, they were good too. Páidí Ó Sé, the prince of piseogí, famously hated to see a red-haired girl on the morning of a match. The first person we encountered when we disembarked was a brown-haired one, Cavan's own soccer superstar Leanne Kiernan, fresh from flying the blue flag at Wembley Stadium the week before last, strolling in with her dad. Who would win?
Leanne - of the Republic of Ireland and West Ham Ladies and Bailieborough Shamrocks - answered emphatically: Cavan! It filled us with a strange kind of confidence.