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Magic. Special. What it's all about: Cavan's fairytale Ulster triumph just means more

The42′s Emma Duffy reflects on a day that will live long in the memory of Cavan people.

SOMETIMES IN LIFE, there are just no words. 

Yesterday was one of those days for Cavan people across the world. The stuff of dreams, an absolute fairytale. Nothing more, nothing less. The only negative was not being there.

cavan-players-celebrate-beating-donegal Celebrations in full flow after Cavan's win yesterday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I still can’t believe it — it’s like waking up from a dream. It’s what you dreamed about when you were younger… that’s all we wanted when we were younger. It was to lift the Ulster title, and I’m stuck for words.”

It’s hard to sum it up, but a few sentences from Padraig Faulkner went a long way in doing just that as the Breffni ended 23 years of hurt in Ulster with a huge four-point decider win over Donegal. As did Mickey Graham and Raymond Galligan’s tearful, off-the-cuff interviews with BBC. The raw emotion, the jubilant scenes at the final whistle, the moments that followed as Cavan celebrated the end of the famine.

Magic. Special. What it’s all about. If only you could bottle the feeling.

There’s no doubt about it, Graham’s men had been written off left, right and centre. Very few gave them a chance. But against all odds, the script was ripped up and torn to shreds at an empty Athletic Grounds, with Cavan’s name now set to be etched on the Anglo Celt Cup for the first time since 1997 — when Graham himself played.

Growing up, stories of ’97 were never too far away. Certainly not in my house, anyway. Stories of that sunny day in Clones when a 28-year wait for Ulster glory ended after dramatics at the death; stories of Jason Reilly’s goal, of Raymond Cunningham’s point, of Stephen King lifting the silverware.

Of how this was going to be the start of a new era. Until it wasn’t.

Yesterday was a long time coming. From falling just short time and time again to the blue wave of U21 success, to the infamous Black Death jibe; the past few years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster. Cavan is a proud footballing county that hasn’t always tasted the success. You don’t always get what you deserve in life, or in sport, but rewards were certainly reaped yesterday, the day of the underdog in Ulster and Munster.

killian-brady-and-thomas-galligan-celebrate-beating-donegal-in-the-ulster-football-final Killian Brady and Thomas Galligan celebrate. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And that’s a tag that suited Cavan just fine. What Graham did with Mullinalaghta, he could do again. The belief and hunger in the set-up was on another level this year despite the loss of some key players, and it only grew week on week after the restart.


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Back-to-back league defeats, but ultimately a flurry of bad luck, saw Graham’s side relegated to Division 3 of the league. Six days later, they stunned Monaghan — genuine All-Ireland contenders in the eyes of many — on their home patch after extra-time; the now-legendary Thomas Galligan and his namesake, heroic goalkeeper and captain Raymond, leading the way as the Breffni came from eight down. Next up, a by-no-means pretty, but hard-fought, win over Antrim. Then, a dramatic come-from-10-points-behind triumph over Down to send them back to the Ulster final for the second consecutive year (the 2019 final appearance was their first in 18 years, but we all know how that went.)

And Cavan’s most complete performance would arrive when they needed it most: on the big stage against hot favourites Donegal. Galligan’s colossal, Lazarus-like display. McKiernan’s ever-presence. The mammoth defensive effort. The will, the want, the desire. Madden’s stoppage-time goal. Kiernan’s exquisite point just before it. Galligan’s save even before that. The two controversial black cards that almost derailed the bid entirely. Referee Barry Cassidy, in general.

Cavan had it all to do on the day, the odds stacked against them. On a day which was the 68-year anniversary of the death of ‘The Gallant John Joe.’ On a day which was exactly 95 years on from the late Edward O’Hanlon first presenting the Anglo Celt Cup. On a day where the 1920 semi-final pairings were repeated, 100 years on from Bloody Sunday. And on a weekend which the county’s camógs incredibly reached an All-Ireland final in their comeback year.

All to do, but Cavan did it. And they did it for everyone back home.

It’s no secret that the county has been ravaged by Covid-19 and other tragedies over the past few months. 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone across the length and breadth of the country and around the globe, but a real cloud of sadness has hung over Cavan as several young lives were lost suddenly, compounding the virus sadness.

This win is about so much more than sport. Yes, it’s a coveted Ulster title, something many would bite your hand off for. But it’s hope, happiness and joy in a time of despair; epitomised by the scenes of the drive-thru celebrations at Breffni Park last night; by the cars proudly parading around towns, beeping for one and all to hear; by the endless videos of proud Cavan men, women and children alike crying at the final whistle.

It’s light in the darkness, and inspiration for the next generation. A generation for which stories of 2020 will surely never be too far away.

Sometimes in life, things just mean more.


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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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