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Croke Park silverware 'what it's all about' for Tailteann Cup finalists Cavan

Oisin Kiernan and the Breffni county face Westmeath in Saturday’s inaugural decider.

Oisin Kiernan.
Oisin Kiernan.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

WHAT WOULD IT mean to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand and get your hands on silverware in Croke Park?

Everything.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Cavan star Oisin Kiernan smiles ahead of Saturday’s inaugural Tailteann Cup final against Westmeath [throw-in 3pm, live on RTÉ Two].

“As a kid going to Croke Park, that’s where you want to be playing. We’re very lucky we’ve the chance to do that. I suppose the focus now is getting over the line and getting the win.”

History beckons at HQ, as the new second-tier Gaelic football competition reaches its climax and the winners secure their spot in next year’s All-Ireland senior championship.

The first edition of the Tailteann Cup can be considered fairly successful, with most Division Three and Four teams buying in, the semi-finals and finals staged at Croke Park and live on TV, and general interest increasing week-on-week after no shortage of doubt at the outset.

“I suppose that was natural too, but I think it’s been great,” Kiernan nods.

“After going out of Ulster, we just regrouped and we put a lot of work in. It was great to be able to push on and win a couple of games and extend the year. I think the competition has been great and I think the Cavan crowd and everyone has been getting around it too.”

The 29-year-old Castlerahan forward agrees that an instant route back into the Sam Maguire Cup race would boost the competition and dangle a bigger carrot, the argument made time and time again over the past few weeks ala the link between the Joe McDonagh Cup and the All-Ireland senior hurling championship.

Cavan manager Mickey Graham backed “the idea of streamlining it,” with definite potential there to condense the competition by cutting back on gaps between matches. And Kiernan, too, approves.

“That’s actually it’s a great idea, but it’s something that I would never have thought of, because that’s just the way it was and we just have to carry on the way it is. But to be in the All-Ireland next year is also a great incentive. That’s where we want to be.

“Even though it is a year away, that’s what you have to keep building towards and it’s not that far away either. It is a good idea, though, I agree.”

Not that Cavan needed any more persuasion. After their Ulster semi-final exit at the hands of Donegal, Graham’s crew made it clear they would fully commit and have a serious crack at the Tailteann Cup.

There has been an exodus of inter-county players to America over the past few weeks, and while that temptation was surely there, Kiernan credits the collective buy-in of the group to their success in the competition thus far.

“I don’t know, but I’m sure there was offers to some lads. But I think that just shows the tight group that’s there, and the environment that management have created.

“We all wanted to row in behind it. The Tailteann Cup is obviously new, we were obviously disappointed going out of Ulster, but we had a chat the next night after and we had our aim on going as far as we can the competition. It was a no-brainer, really, to just make that decision that we’ll give this a lash and see where it takes us.

mickey-graham Cavan manager Mickey Graham. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Over the last number of years, the group has stuck together. We’ve had very few lads heading off or anything like that. Again, I think that’s down to the players themselves and management for creating that environment that players want to stick at it, row in, push on and see where we can we can get to.”

There’s a real sense that Cavan are back on track after a roller-coaster few years. Ulster champions in 2020, ending a 23-year wait for the Anglo Celt Cup, the following season was a disaster as they slid down the league ranks to Division Four.

“It’s a hard one to put your finger on,” Kiernan frowns as he reflects on the anti-climax. But that’s in the past now, the Breffni bouncing back up in April’s league final win over Tipperary in Croker.

“That’s what we’re always aiming for: getting a bit of consistency back.”

Kiernan himself is back to his brilliant best, too, after an injury earlier this year, which was “serious enough at the time”.

A resilient player whose battle with testicular cancer is well-documented at this stage, there were fears he’d miss the majority of the 2022 inter-county season with a hamstring setback.

But thankfully, he overcame it.

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“I don’t know all the exact details of what it was, but it was the hamstring tendon rupture,” Kiernan explains.

“I originally thought it was going to need an operation, but I had an ACL injury a few years ago on the same leg and just from talking to the surgeon he said that you have a chance here that it could mend itself back together without surgery. That’s what we opted [for], it was small risk at the time but lucky enough I got back a wee bit sooner than we thought and all has been good since then anyway.

“If I had to have got the operation, it would have been 12-14 weeks which would have meant coming back about now, so I would have missed a large chunk of the season alright. But I got lucky in the end.”

padraig-faulkner-and-ronan-otoole Padraig Faulkner and Ronan O’Toole at last week's Tailteann Cup final media event. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The excitement shines through the more and more he talks about Saturday’s decider and the return to Croke Park, a golden opportunity lying ahead.

But Kiernan knows the height of the hurdle that must be crossed first. The maroon barrier that stands between Cavan, the famous steps, and an historic trophy lift.

“Westmeath are strong and they were very good in the semi-final,” he concludes.

“They’ve been gaining momentum and putting up high scores. They’re a good side and they’re going well in Division Three. I suppose they were unlucky enough not to be promoted to Division Two. We’ve watched them obviously in the last couple games, we saw a bit of the other semi after we played.

“They’re used to playing in Croke Park as well in the Leinster championship. It’ll be an interesting game. They’re a good side, we’ve played them in challenge games over the years too and there’s never much in it. I’m sure it will be the same again.”

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