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Soccer celebrations, carrying sandbags over hills, and ending a 28-year wait for Ulster glory

As Cavan go in search of an Ulster SFC crown, The42 looks back at their last triumph in 1997.

AN EMERGING TEENAGE footballer was looking on at the 1995 Ulster SFC final between Cavan and Tyrone when he heard something that made him laugh.

Jason Reilly of Cavan celebrates scoring the winning goal aganst Derry 20/7/1997 Jason Reilly would prove to be the hero for Cavan in the 1997 Ulster final. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You should be out there,” was the statement someone posed to a young Jason O’Reilly, who was looking at his county suffer defeat to the eventual All-Ireland finalists. 

Within two years, the Belturbet forward had won an Ulster U21 title with Cavan while also featuring in an All-Ireland final against Kerry. His talent flourished even more at senior level as he grabbed the decisive goal that ended Cavan’s long wait for provincial success.

Victory over Derry in the 1997 decider prompted euphoric scenes in Clones as fans poured onto the pitch, while the victorious team bus could only crawl back to Cavan such was the swell of support around them.

In the aftermath of the final, RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey put it to a 19-year-old O’Reilly that he was the hero of Cavan’s finest hour.

But those achievements seemed almost unattainable to the youngster in 1995.

O’Reilly didn’t make the Cavan minors and admits that he suffered from confidence issues regarding his own ability at that time. He struggled to catch the eye of managers too, until Donegal legend Martin McHugh was recruited to take charge of the Cavan U21 and senior teams.

“He must have seen something in me,” O’Reilly tells The42 when reminiscing on those times.

“Everyone was saying ‘you’ll be brought in.’ But until you get that phone call…. And then I did get the phone call and it did come as a bit of a shock.”

McHugh drafted in a number of players from that successful U21 side to the senior ranks and allied their talents with a crop of experienced heads who were struggling to make the breakthrough.

The groups merged to make a charge for the 1997 Ulster SFC title.

*****

Stephen King Damien O'Reilly Fintan Cahill celebrate  20/7/1997 Stephen King celebrating with his teammates after ending a 28-year famine for Ulster glory. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

Cavan midfielder and team captain Stephen King was coming into his 18th season with the team that year. He had already played in two Ulster finals during that time, but the cabinet lay bare.

There were plenty of disappointing days to endure in the blue and white jersey. And in a time that pre-existed the second chance comforts of the qualifiers, it was difficult to keep coming back.

You’d be saying to yourself, ‘why bother?’ and ‘that’s the last [time], I’m not going back,’ says King.

“It was knockout that time, there were no qualifiers or second chances. You were out that day and you went back to your club .

“You had the club championship then and the national league started in October. And bang, in you go.”

King stresses that Cavan boasted plenty of talented players, but they couldn’t convert that potential into results. Even as he casts his mind back now, the Killeshandra man still can’t identify the reasons why.

They needed something, and it came in the form of a Donegal All-Ireland winner.

Martin McHugh Cavan 22/6/1997 Cavan took a chance on young manager Martin McHugh. Source: © INPHO

McHugh took over as manager after lifting the Sam Maguire with his county in 1992. He was a young manager at the time, but Cavan were happy to give him the reins and he was offered a standing ovation at the county board meeting where his appointment was ratified. 

King attended as a player representative.

McHugh has been widely credited with masterminding Cavan’s first Ulster triumph since 1969 and he certainly applied a tough training regime to get them in shape for the tough battles ahead.

“The sessions were very hard,” King recalls.

“We had Joe Doonan in with us who trained Catherina McKiernan. He got the stamina work in and was there for the first year or two of Martin’s tenure.

I can remember carrying sandbags over hills.

“Success breeds really good training sessions and once you got over the first round of the championship, the semi-final and the final, training just became a norm. You’re nearly in Breffni Park all the time in your mind anyway.”

*****

Joe Brolly Derry 1/6/1997 Joe Brolly was one of the best forwards around in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Derry provided the opposition in the 1997 Ulster final, a team that included famous All-Ireland winners including Anthony Tohill and Joe Brolly.

O’Reilly was among the Cavan substitutes that day alongside a number of other young stars, including current Cavan boss Mickey Graham. Competition for places at training was rife, with up to 10 forwards battling for a spot among the starting six.

O’Reilly felt he was in the mix and was hopeful that he would be dispatched into play at some stage during the game. As per McHugh’s instructions, he was hitting shots low and hard at the keeper during Cavan’s in-house games.

That skill came in handy when he scored a goal as a second-half sub against Derry.

The move for the goal began with the delivery of a long ball from Peter Reilly into the hands of Damien O’Reilly.

His namesake, ready to pounce, would have preferred a cleaner offload but O’Reilly made the most of the opportunity to drill the ball into the back of the net.

One of the most famous celebrations in GAA history followed as O’Reilly lifted his shirt over his head in a tribute to former Juventus and Middlesbrough player Fabrizio Ravanelli.

Myself and Mickey [Graham] were at training,” O’Reilly remembers. “He said if one of us came on [and scored a goal] we’d do a [Fabrizio] Ravenilli on it. That was the first thing that came into my head. The whole place erupted altogether.

“It was good times, something I’ll never forget.

Mickey Graham 13/6/1999 Mickey Graham during his playing days. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

“It’s only when I looked afterwards that I saw the ball Damien gave me wasn’t great. He kind of gave it to me down around my knees.

“My thoughts on it were that he probably should have given it earlier. I just tucked it under the keeper. I suppose I’ve scored a lot of goals like that and I know from experience [that] if you keep it low, nine times out of 10 it’ll go in.

“They always say the goals will come and I got my opportunity that time. There was only one thing on my mind when Damien gave me the ball.

I looked over at the bench and saw Martin giving out. Well he wasn’t giving out but I knew the instruction was to calm down,” he laughs. 

Unsurprisingly, O’Reilly’s celebration kick-started something of a trend in Cavan GAA circles. 

“You’d see a few lads doing it round the place alright. It was a bit of fun. We were enjoying our football at that stage.”

*****

The final in Clones was a tight affair throughout. It was level at half-time with both sides posting nine points each.

The weight of history involved was obvious as Cavan supporters outnumbered the Derry fans in the hope of watching their team finally bring their famine to an end.

King was carrying a hamstring injury going into the game but some acupuncture therapy helped him through until he was called ashore in the second half. 

“It was frantic stuff,” he says of the blistering pace of the game.

The crowd was indulged in it straight away. It was nip and tuck, it was huge entertainment. This was our chance and we had to take it.”

O’Reilly’s goal ultimately decided the tie as Cavan edged out a one-point win. It was their last score of the game and they faced a nervy wait for the final whistle after a Joe Brolly free cut the gap to the bare minimum in the dying moments.

Cavan held on for a 1-14 to 0-16 result and magical scenes unfolded while Derry players collapsed in devastation.

There appeared to be no complaints about the scoreline although there was a contentious score in the first half that was somehow overlooked.

Source: Tallowman GAA/YouTube

(Skip to 1.19 for Cunningham’s score)

Raymond Cunningham kicked a point to give Cavan a 0-4 to 0-3 lead, but footage of the effort shows that the ball curled around the wrong side of the post.

That went over the black spot, I don’t know what they were giving out about,” King laughs when asked about the moment. “There was no Hawk-Eye then.

“It wasn’t mentioned [afterwards]. I think it was highlighted on The Sunday Game. The crowd tell you whether it’s a score or not but it certainly wasn’t talked about afterwards.

“It came into the domain on the Monday or Tuesday but it wasn’t discussed.”

That Cunningham point was just one key moment in deciding the outcome of the game. Keeping a lively Joe Brolly to one point from play was certainly a factor while Dermot McCabe outmatched Anthony Tohill at midfield.

Cavan keeper Paul O’Dowd also produced an impressive save to deny a goal to Gary McGill at a crucial stage in the game.

All signs were pointing to a Cavan win and they deservedly earned their reward.

Cavan fans celebrate win over Derry 20/7/1997 Cavan fans in euphoria. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

“When the final whistle went,” King recalls, “sidelines just busted and everyone ran onto the field.

It was unreal. It took us ages to get out of Clones. There were kids there waiting for photographs and that was just part and parcel of it. We were hours in Clones doing our duty. Trying to get the bus out with the throngs of people on the street was unbelievable.

“We eventually got on the road and crossed the border between Monaghan and Cavan in a wee village called Butlersbridge. We actually couldn’t get through, there was about 10,000 people waiting on the bus.

“We got the bus just inside the village and decided to get off and went into the pub and stayed for about an hour.”

O’Reilly was isolated as the hero when he was interviewed after the game, but the man who had been looking on at an Ulster final from the stands in 1995 was quick to deflect attention to the collective.

Peter Reilly and Jason Reilly celebrate  20/7/1997 Jason Reilly didn't want to keep the glory for himself. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

Even today, O’Reilly still shares the achievement with everyone who was involved.

“We were so tight-knit and Martin brought us away on weekends away. We were like a big happy family. Even players since that talk about the great fun we had.

We had the 20th anniversary two years ago and some of the stories the boys would talk about and you’d be saying ‘oh Jesus, I remember that.’ There were great friends that came out of it.

“Everyone deserved the praise that day, even the fellas that didn’t tog out.”

The scenes around Cavan this week reminds King of ’97. A 22-year wait is almost as long as the one that fans had to endure the last time around.

Michael Murphy and teammates after the team photo Donegal are hoping to stop Cavan's fairytale from coming true. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Blue bunting and flags are in place while photographs of local heroes are hanging on pub walls as Mickey Graham’s side look to defeat Donegal and become Ulster champions.

King would love to see another group enjoy the honour he once tasted.

“The build-up is very exciting,” he says.

“There’s a complete scramble for tickets and it’s a sellout. Clones will be a packed stadium.

If they allow us to play the way we can play, we will give lots of bother to Donegal. I feel we’re in there with a great chance. 

“I think we could sneak it!”

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