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'One of the weapons Cavan did have is their captain and manager would bawl and cry as it would mean that much to them'

Cavan writer Paul Fitzpatrick is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Killian Brady and Thomas Galligan of Cavan celebrate beating Donegal in the Ulster Football Final.
Killian Brady and Thomas Galligan of Cavan celebrate beating Donegal in the Ulster Football Final.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IN THE WAKE of Cavan’s tear-drenched Ulster Championship win, Anglo-Celt sports editor Paul Fitzpatrick wrote a terrific piece threaded with a line to sum the whole thing up: To experience this just once. 

Paul is the guest on this week’s episode of Behind the Lines, our sportswriting podcast here on The42

(Behind the Lines is a weekly podcast exclusive to members of The42, in which we speak with writers about their careers and their favourite writing. Access to the 54-episode back catalogue is just one of the benefits of becoming a member of The42and to sign up, go to members.the42.ie.)

“The Cavan football supporter is a unique beast, in sporting terms”, says Paul.

“When you look at Cavan’s fall from grace, it’s sort of unprecedented. You don’t see it in other sports. You see great sporting institutions fall on hard times but you have to remember, up to 1955, Cavan had 35 Ulster titles, and now we have 40. It’s unbelievable how Cavan dominated. 

“People often ask me, how did Cavan become so bad? 

“But I think part of the answer is we were never quite as good as we thought. It was sort of a mirage. Cavan opened Breffni Park in the early 1920s and it was described as the Croke Park of the North, it was an amphitheater for football. At the time most counties didn’t have a ground like that. 

“Cavan had that in the 1920s; Derry didn’t have a county board until 1930. That was the head-start Cavan had. That all changed in the mid-century. They did win five All-Irelands so it wasn’t that they were just dominating Ulster, and the tradition was always very strong.”

This year’s triumph was Cavan’s first Ulster title since 1997, an achievement at senior level to match the clatter of underage successes: the county won three Ulster titles in a row at U21 level from 2011 to 2013. 

“There was a sense in the county that we had missed the boat with this team. The first of the U21 successes was 2011, that was Gearoid McKiernan and Niall Murray’s team, and they are the last two survivors of that team. There was a sense maybe their time had come and gone, and relegation to Division Three did seem to confirm that. 

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“But they have great leaders this year. Last year they lost Dara McVeety, Conor Moynagh, Cian Mackey, and on the field those players are irreplaceable. But we have gone on to win an Ulster title with a team, on paper, that’s probably not as strong as last year. 

“How they have made up for their losses is the cliche of being more than the sum of their parts. There is a very subtle change in the leadership of the team this year, and it was touched on by Mickey Graham after the game. They have a panel of players who want to die to play for Cavan, and that’s basically it.” 

And crucial in that mix is emotion. 

“If you’re Mickey Graham and you’re weighing up the game with Donegal, you don’t have Paddy McBrearty or these weapons in your arsenal.  

But one of the weapons they do have, is if Cavan win, our captain and manager will bawl and cry as it would mean that much to them. With all due respect, if Donegal had won Declan Bonner wasn’t going to break down in front of the cameras. That is a powerful current within you, and it would be crazy not to tap into it. They tapped into something and whatever way he managed it, Mickey Graham’s legend is set in stone now.” 

Cavan head to Croke Park for a daunting All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin on Saturday, though Paul is optimistic the new Ulster Champions won’t be overawed. 

“It’s going to be a huge challenge. Dublin are a hundred to one on, that says it all. But I have a theory about these hidings Dublin are handing out in Leinster. There is a reason Dublin hand out these hidings in Leinster while they don’t tend to do it in the All-Ireland series. They have such a psychological stranglehold on the teams in Leinster. 

“I’ve often seen it in handball, where a player will go into a game against a much bigger name and, okay, he’ll get beaten, but he ends up getting trounced as he can’t execute basic skills as he is so spooked. 

“I saw it with Meath. Meath are a good team, but they didn’t play like a Division One team, they played like a Division Four team. You saw Cillian O’Sullivan with two bounces, he’s probably never done that in his career. Jordan Morris missed easy frees he wouldn’t normally miss. I think teams in Leinster are just capitulating in the face of Dublin now. 

 ”I’d like to think Cavan won’t do that, and will play to their own level. If they play to their own level, they will be in the game.” 

Listen to the full conversation with Paul by subscribing at members.the42.ie

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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