Swanlinbar's band of brothers determined to defy the odds
FAMILY connections are never far removed in GAA circles and the smaller the club, the tighter those ties generally are.
Take today as an example. Around 50 people from the Swanlinbar area of Cavan will attend a wedding mass this morning before driving to Croke Park for the junior football final against Kerry's St Mary's and then back to Enniskillen for the reception.
The connection? The bride is a grandniece of one of Swanlinbar's most famous sons, Owen Roe McGovern, who is among the last surviving members of Cavan's Polo Grounds team from 1947 -- his nephew Kieran is part of the management team.
The date for the wedding was chosen specifically to avoid potential clashes with football -- Swanlinbar have hardly ever had a match to worry about at this time of year -- before fate intervened.
They fancied themselves to go well in the Cavan championship and whatever happened in Ulster would be a bonus. The tale of their provincial final is one of good fortune. Corduff from Monaghan won the match, but fielded an underage player who scored an important goal in that match.
There was talk of a replay, but it never came about. Swanlinbar were crowned Ulster champions at a meeting.
"It wasn't ideal, it wasn't the way we wanted to do it," says club chairman Gregory McGovern. "We had 16-year-olds of our own that we could have played -- three of them -- but we didn't. We stuck to the rules."
The rule that prevents U-16s from playing adult football makes sense, but it hits the small clubs hardest.
McGovern estimates that around 300 people live in Swanlinbar, with the other two-thirds of Kinawley parish across the border in Fermanagh. A good youngster doesn't often have to wait too long for his chance.
"One of our young lads plays rugby in Enniskillen. If he can play rugby, he can play Gaelic football. One parent wanted to take out private insurance on their son so he could play, but you can't do that."
It's not exactly a David v Goliath match-up, but the Cavan men are facing the club that produced Jack O'Shea and Maurice Fitzgerald and have four-time All-Ireland winner Bryan Sheehan in their squad.
Their cause hasn't been helped by a worrying injury doubt over Robbie Prior, who scored the decisive point in the semi-final win over Meath's Ballinabrackey -- but decisive points rarely come in the 46th minute of a match.
"It was do-or-die that one. It was a tough game; there were only nine scores -- we won 0-5 to 0-4."
Ironically, the Cavan club was set up by a Kerryman known only as O'Connor, who took charge of their first game in 1904 and since then, they have spent much of their time as a junior club, though they did enjoy a brief sojourn in the Breffni county's top league.
Like many small clubs, they rely on a few families to provide the bulk of their playing staff and eight sets of brothers will tog out in HQ tonight. They'll look to Prior (if fit) and former Manchester United trainee Chris Curran to inspire.
"We've a decent mix of ages, from Kevin Brennan at 36 to lads around minor age. We've been lucky here in that we haven't lost too many of our young lads to emigration so far. Swanlinbar never saw the growl or the tail of the Celtic Tiger," explains McGovern.
The odds seem stacked in the Kerry side's favour. All of their best footballers have access to top-class senior football with South Kerry, who have won four county titles since 2004, while St Mary's are South Kerry champions.
But if this season has taught Swanlinbar anything, it's to expect the unexpected.
"We know we're up against it, but you never know, you just never know," reasons McGovern.