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'You're holding back tears. The silence just showed the emotion' - football and family first

Kingscourt Stars man Padraig Faulkner has been central to Cavan’s success this year – and the journey is far from over yet.

Updated Dec 4th 2020, 8:03 PM

I’M STUCK FOR words. I still can’t believe it, it’s like waking up from a dream.

In the moments after Cavan’s fairytale Ulster final triumph, the achievement was yet to sink in. Understandably so, with full-back Padraig Faulkner struggling, but trying his best, to sum up the feeling as the Breffni ended 23 years of provincial hurt with a huge four-point decider win over Donegal.

padraig-faulkner-and-killian-clarke-celebrate-beating-donegal-in-the-ulster-final Padraig Faulkner (left) and Killian Clarke celebrate Cavan's Ulster final win. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A few enjoyable days later, the words came a little easier to one of Mickey Graham’s stars.

“It finally has sunk in,” he told The42 last week. “It didn’t feel real for the first day or second day after but now you’ve kind of got time to think and time to go back into work and things, the buzz is still there. It really has just sunk in now and the feeling is surreal.”

Several moments from throughout the match define it for the Kingscourt Stars man, and for Cavan people across the world. Conor Madden’s stoppage-time goal is obviously the main one, with Oisin Kiernan’s exquisite point just before it and Killian Clarke’s ferocious first-half turnovers also earning high praise from Faulkner.

Of course, though, it’s the aftermath that will live long in the memory.

The final whistle… every man just going absolutely wild, every Cavan person going absolutely mental in front of the telly,” the rock-solid defender — who also has a strong attacking prowess — enthuses, and you can almost hear him smiling down the phone. 

And while the jubilant scenes at the Athletics Ground were unforgettable, it was the celebrations on their home patch at Kingspan Breffni Park with the team’s nearest and dearest that came as Faulkner’s favourite part of the day.

Hailing from strong Gaelic football stock with his father, Pat, impressing for Cavan and Kingscourt through the years alongside his uncle, Michael, the family reunion at the county grounds will certainly go down as the standout memory.

That was the special moment. That was my favourite moment. If I had to pick any one from the whole thing, it was that. You’re holding back tears, you’re holding back emotions and it’s just that special feeling.

“Dad said very little because I don’t think he could find the words, the same as myself. I think we actually stood in silence for a while because bar congratulations, no one knew what to say. The silence for a while just really showed the emotion that that was going on.”

Standing on the hallowed turf of Breffni in bubbles with their families and partners, the 2020 Ulster champions watched captain Ray Galligan give his speech while they all lifted the Anglo Celt Cup — “something tangible that showed you what you had actually won.”

Screenshot 2020-12-03 at 16.49.20 Source: Kingscourt Stars Twitter/Adrian Donoghue Photography.

It was an hour that meant so much, surrounded by those who had been there from the very start and along each and every step of the way — the good days and the bad — now sharing this exceptional moment in these exceptional times.

“Honestly it made it even more special that it was only the select few,” the 26-year-old notes.

I’ve been a part of club championships and there’s 600 people maybe slapping you on the back and you don’t even get to turn around sometimes to see who was actually congratulating you.

“That’s where the messages came in, I’m still trying get them replied to and this is day three or four now. Again, you can see who’s actually congratulating you and who’s wishing you well. The support that’s been given by outsiders, by people outside the county, people outside the country even, is phenomenal.”

Just like the support from his father, Pat, and his immediate family that has been ever present. “As we listened to Ray’s speech then after we got into talking,” Faulkner adds, recalling when the emotional silence subsided.

“Ah sure look, I’m sure he’s proud as punch, and the mother and aunties, uncles and everything, everyone that’s been always supporting you and always texting you whether it’s a club game or a county game, they’re always behind you.”

Through the years

Some say this was always going to happen, or it was bound to anyway. Padraig Faulkner was almost certainly going to follow the family tradition and play Gaelic football, and add to the 14 senior club championship medals his father and uncle combined for. Or so it looked from the outside looking in.

Growing up on the main street of Kingscourt with the local football pitch, O’Raghallaigh Park, a stone’s throw away from his own back yard, it was hard to avoid it.

Image from iOS (5) A worse-for-wear picture of Faulkner and this writer on RTÉ's The Den many moons ago. Source: Emma Duffy.

There was always going to be blue blood running through his veins whether he followed in his father’s footsteps or not; football chat never too far away in Pat’s butcher shop or around the family table with his younger sister, Gráinne — a similarly talented defender — and mother, Jackie.

The early memories come flooding back.

“Your goal was always to win an All-Ireland with Cavan. We grew up together sure, went to primary school loving Cavan football, wanting to play football for Kingscourt. Sure myself and yourself were the children’s TV show, The Den, answering questions about Cavan,” he laughs before gathering his thoughts, and making one clear point.

Some people said it was always written in the stars: ‘Your father played for Cavan, you’ll play for Cavan.’ That was never, ever pushed on me. Pat let me live my own dreams.

“He promoted soccer on me. Whatever I wanted to do, he supported me, whether it was driving to soccer games, driving to handball matches, it didn’t matter. He never pushed me, he let me go in my own direction. It was never that football was always destined for me, it was just something that came about.”

It worked out quite well in the long run. A quick giggle must go to Joe Brolly’s tweet from after the Ulster semi-final in which he credited his “soft spot for the county” to Pat kicking him up in the air and Joe Dillon catching him overhead in the 1987 Ulster club semi-final.

“I got a good laugh out of that,” Padraig grins. “It was sent to me by a good few of them. Dad was always known for being a bit hardy on the pitch. I didn’t take after him, I’m a very nice player on the pitch!”

Nice or not, Faulkner is now one of only six Cavanmen to hold the complete set of minor, U21 and senior Ulster medals — the others being Clarke, Ciaran Brady, Gerry Smith, Liam Buchanan and Paul Graham.

“It’s a nice collection, and hopefully, it won’t be the last,” he beams, another important one in there a coveted senior club championship medal from 2014.

That same year, Faulkner really established himself as a Cavan player with a bright future with the county’s U21s. He starred in defence as the Breffni landed a fourth successive Ulster crown at that grade, before a gut-wrenching one-point All-Ireland semi-final defeat at the hands of tomorrow’s opponents Dublin followed. 

We’ll delve deeper into that as we look to the challenge ahead this time around, but first, more on Faulkner as a player and just how central he is to this team first.

That’s best summed up when he’s asked about the belief and hunger in the set-up this year and how that grew week on week through their magical, roller-coaster run despite losing players, relegation and various other setbacks.

It’s funny, I get asked the question, ‘Why do you do it if you don’t win?’ But I always go in with the mindset that I’m going to win the Sam Maguire every year. It might be an unrealistic dream, but there’s just serious belief in that Cavan team.

“It didn’t matter who was telling us what, as long as the lads that were playing and were on our panel believed that we were going to win. That’s all that we really cared about.

“And we had a man in charge that has done the impossible in the Leinster championship with Mullinalaghta at club level. That adds another tier onto onto the belief system. Look, he’s took us to it now. We didn’t think we were going to get to an Ulster final last year, we did, and we just built on that this year.”

On the mastermind and miracle worker himself, Faulkner says that Graham is very easy to work under and that his two-year tenure to date has been nothing short of a pleasure.

“He’s very player-led. He would want players to lead a session, he’d set out the drills and all that we need to do, but he wants the players to actually be the ones that are motivating each other or holding people accountable for mistakes.

mickey-graham-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-after-beating-donegal-in-the-ulster-football-final Mickey Graham celebrating. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He’s also a savage leader. He takes everything on board. If we ever said a session went on too long, he takes that on board. If his backroom team suggested something, he’s putting measures in place to make sure that’s rectified or whatever.

“He really is a top-class manager.”

And one who will go down as legendary in Cavan GAA folkore, having delivered success that will undoubtedly change the landscape of football in the county, as captain Galligan has said over the last week or so.

Faulkner wholeheartedly agrees, with building on this going forward paramount.

It sparks belief around the whole county, underage and everything that hasn’t been there in Cavan teams over the years. Children now are believing that they want to play football for Cavan one day.

“If they see Cavan winning medals, hopefully that sparked you know, a bit of belief that they can win medals when they’re older too.”

The next big day

The 2020 journey continues on the biggest stage in Gaelic games tomorrow against the best team of the modern era in five-in-a-row chasing Dublin.

While it’s Cavan’s first championship clash in Croke Park since 2013 and their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1997, Faulkner and many others involved have past experience of meeting Dublin in a last-four battle.

In 2014, an U21 team from the capital captained by Jack McCaffrey with Brian Fenton, John Small, David Byrne and Paul Mannion among the current top stars in their ranks, edged past Cavan in Portlaoise. Cormac Costello, in fact, kicked the winner for Dessie Farrell’s side — but it wasn’t without controversy.

john-small-with-padraig-faulkner Facing John Small that day in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Ciaran Kilkenny was injured that day,” Faulkner remembers. “Again, we went in with nothing to lose in that game and probably should have came out on top.

“There was a dubious black card towards the end. There was a couple of decisions that didn’t go our way we felt on the day and we ultimately didn’t come out with the win. But here was loads there that day to put it up to them. The caliber of players is there, we have to match theirs.”

Tomorrow’s is a challenge he’s relishing, a game he’s really looking forward to.

And going in as underdogs once again, the primary school teacher believes his side will make a right stab at it.

“I do, I believe we’re going to really put a good game up to them. I think we’ll put a better game up than any of the Leinster games that they played. I think we can go in with the mindset that we have a chance… a strong chance.

There’s such a stigma, stigma is probably the wrong word to use… with Dublin, that they’re the invincible team. It would just be absolutely another dream this year to knock them down.”

Again, you can almost hear him smiling down the phone. But the fact of the matter is if it was Donegal playing Dublin, people would back them to produce a shock. Why would it be any different with Cavan, as Galligan asked last week.

“I completely agree with that statement, definitely,” Faulkner nods. “Donegal were the team to put it up [to Dublin].

“Pundits and everyone was talking, they weren’t even saying that Mayo was a team that was going to put it up to them. They were saying that Donegal was a team that they thought would put it best up to Dublin. We’ve crossed that hurdle so as Ray said, I think because of that match, we need to be the team to put it up to them.”

padraig-faulkner-with-jamie-brennan Faulkner facing Jamie Brennan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

No doubt they will, as Faulkner and his side enjoy this remarkable journey — one that’s been even longer for him, having contested the October county final and replay with his beloved Kingscourt.

Finding it hard to keep count, Faulkner reckons it’s a colossal 12 or 13 weeks on the trot, thought it could be even longer and no way does he want it to end just yet.

“Lookit, loving games,” he concludes. “I’m listening to phone calls, people sitting at home and can’t do anything and I’m just counting myself as a lucky one that actually gets out.

“We’re seen as elite athletes so we’re lucky enough that we’re allowed to drive around and play games, obviously within Covid regulations. I’m actually just counting myself as one of the lucky ones.”

And he’ll certainly be one of the lucky ones tomorrow running out onto Croke Park for an All-Ireland semi-final with nothing to lose, everything to gain.

“That’s it. Every day you get to play and Croker is another dream come true. But d’you know what, at the end of the day it’s just another game.”

First published today at 09.00

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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