Cavan beat the clock as championship comes alive

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Friday, 7th June, 2019 10:47am

Cavan beat the clock as championship comes alive

Cavan fans savour the atmosphere.

The clock read 86 minutes and Cavan were losing by a point. Armagh had possession of the football but were playing a dangerous game, passing over and back, as Cavan scurried around them like terriers. I turned to a colleague, a neutral working for one of the national papers. "This is unbearable," I said. 

His only response was to raise his quivering hand, palm down. Words were not needed; I knew what he meant. This was championship.

After the match on Sunday, I put together a report and posted it on The headline went as follows: "Mackey rescues draw in Ulster Championship classic".

That did not go down well with some of those who saw it on social media, with a few querying the use of the last word and one brilliantly commenting "The only classic thing about it was the Magnum Classic I ate on the way into the game!"

Ice-creams aside, though, what do people want from a football match? For me, it's something to get the heart racing, something to get you out of your seat and make you feel alive, something that grips you till the end and won't let go. And nobody was leaving Clones early.

There is a stopwatch app on my phone which, being a technophobe, I had never used before this weekend. With no electronic timer in operation, I turned it on for the second half, stealing a glance every now and then to see how much time was left as Cavan inched their way back from the abyss. When all seemed lost, I felt like I could almost hear the clock ticking down, down, down. 

I lifted the phone to my ear in the din and, on closer inspection, it turned out that this gizmo actually does strike aloud. It had taken me almost 35 minutes to cop it, this audible ticking, like a bomb, ready to go off and blow Cavan's Ulster Championship dream to smithereens.

That was the mood music, though, and it reflected perfectly the sense of drama, the feeling that what we were witnessing on the pitch was building towards some dramatic event. And, in the end, the explosion arrived, via the right boot of Cian Mackey, the hero of the jammed hill.

A culture has crept into the GAA whereby winning is not just a big thing but the only thing. That is alien, though, to what the games are built on. The magic is elsewhere. Championship is not just numbers on a scoreboard - the greatest carnival in Irish life is much more. 

Reporters filing 'on the whistle' usually have a couple of intros prepared, with one going to print and the other discarded depending on the result. With a couple of minutes to go, I peaked across at a neighbouring laptop and noticed the opening lines. "Cavan qualified for their first Ulster final since 2001..." read the top sentence; below it, "Armagh qualified for their first Ulster final since 2008...". 

That was what was at stake and with the sides level nine times over 90 minutes, nobody dared call it till it was done.

Sports psychologists say that pressure is a privilege - well, what a privilege it was to be pacing the floor of the press box in St Tiernach's Park on Sunday afternoon in the suffocating final moments. And that was just as a reporter and one who usually tries to keep their emotions in check while working - what must it have felt like for the combatants themselves in the arena?

Some Cavan players clearly relished it. Conor Rehill, for example, had been having a quiet match but when the pressure ratcheted up, the rookie defender raised his game with it. His clubmate Dara McVeety also shone when the going got most tough as did a few others. Killian Clarke, Conor Moynagh, Jason McLoughlin and Niall Murray, to name a few, emerged with reputations enhanced.

But the substitutes were the difference in turning the game. Stephen Murray was courageous and electrifying; Mackey, always box office, was the leading man again.

In his 15th season, Cian has seen it all, or most of it anyway, in a Cavan jersey. He was playing senior football for the county when some of his team-mates were in baby infants class. The fortunes of the Cavan team boomed in 1997 but when the crash came, like the economy, there was no soft landing.

Mackey was there through years of depression - first-round hidings and qualifier hammerings - and now, he's hanging on, speculating that the good times will roll again. 

He played like that as well, like he too could hear a clock ticking. Because some day in the not-too-distant future, he will wear the jersey for the last time.

Will he have an Ulster medal to put with his long-awaited county one? There are signs that he might.

Before the Monaghan game, we asked Mickey Graham what message he would send out to the supporters. He replied - and we are paraphrasing here - that he couldn't promise that Cavan would win but he would guarantee his team would play with passion. He spoke of the Donegal game a year earlier and how, to him in his civvies on the terraces, it had the air of a challenge match. That would not happen again.

So far, Graham has been as good as his word. The Monaghan win spoke for itself but Sunday brought another landmark on the road. 

It felt like the Clones of old, a couple of decades ago, when Graham and selector Dermot McCabe were on the other side of the whitewash.

The collisions all over the field, the agony of impending defeat, the tension and then the roar, rising like the damp from somewhere, which greeted Mackey's late points. Not a classic? Get out of here...

Post-match, I free-wheeled down the hill and made it my business, in the name of journalism don't you know, to suss out the feelings of the Cavan supporters. The first man I met had three names on his lips and only one of them was Arthur Guinness. The others? O'Mahoney, our persecutor, Mackey, our saviour.

In the Creighton, that was the story of the day, anyway. And before the trail went cold, our dogged investigative reporting soon took us via Butlersbridge to the friendly High Ball Inn - a tactic, incidentally, that Cavan seemed strangely reluctant to employ - where we can report that the Kingspan-clad clientele there were of a similar mind.

All agreed that the buzz around the Cavan team is back, that while the lads didn't play brilliantly, they gave it everything they had, sweated and bled for that famous old jersey. In seven days' time, Cavan and Armagh will go at it again and, this time around, there won't be a spare seat in the stadium and not a Magnum Classic to be had for love nor money.

The excitement is building, the blue murmur is growing. The clock is ticking once more.

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