Wednesday 23 August 2017

'Players today are not really let express themselves. They are afraid to kick a wide'

Cavan will revisit the summer of '69 tomorrow as they finally get their chance to make amends for painful All-Ireland semi-final loss to Offaly

Killian Clarke is one of the exciting new breed of Cavan footballers. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Killian Clarke is one of the exciting new breed of Cavan footballers. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Growing up in their family shop in Drumgoon, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail distinctly remembers readying his father's bread van on the Saturday evening before Cavan's famous Ulster final defeat of reigning All-Ireland champions Down in 1969.

All the shelves had to be removed to fit a dozen or more Cavan fanatics into the back for the trip to Casement Park in Belfast as they followed the fortunes of the late Charlie Gallagher, a footballing icon from the neighbouring Cootehill Celtic club.

Gallagher skippered Cavan's 1969 Anglo-Celt Cup-winning team and having got the better of Mourne legends like Sean O'Neill and Paddy Doherty, expectations were high that Sam Maguire would soon follow before they ran into an emerging Offaly side in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Future household names stood in their way - men like Willie Bryan, Paddy McCormack and Tony McTague, who would lead the Faithful to their All-Ireland breakthrough two years later - and while the trip takes just under two hours today, Croke Park was a weekend adventure in those days and the bread van didn't make the journey.

Instead, their kitchen was turned into a small auditorium as the community eagerly watched events in the capital unfold.

Packed

"Once it got past the Ulster final my father and the neighbours generally didn't go to Croke Park, they'd watch it on the television," Ó Fearghaíl recalls. "I was 10 and I can still remember that match against Offaly. Our kitchen was packed, there must have been 20 people in a small wee kitchen. We had a black and white television mainly because we were the country shop.

"It was more than a shop, it was a social service to the community and I remember at half-time when everyone would leave the kitchen and stand out on the side of the road and talk football. Charlie Gallagher was the big hero and the favourite of that time."

It finished level, 0-12 to 1-9, but a hat-trick of Offaly goals proved their undoing in the replay as they fell 3-8 to 1-10 and coach/selector (there were no managers in those times) Mick Higgins took the brunt of their criticism for taking off captain Gallagher, a lethal free-taker, in the second game.

"I remember crying after the replay because when Cavan had beaten Down I thought they'd win the All-Ireland. That was the dream. I can still recall my father and all the men - my mother was the only woman there - giving out about Mick Higgins," Cavan's first GAA president says with a smile.

"Higgins was a Cavan hero because he had won three All-Irelands in 1947, '48 and 1952, in which he was the captain. He was the last surviving Cavan player from the famous Polo Grounds final in New York in '47 but they were giving out hell about him.

"I remember my father saying, 'What was Higgins thinking bringing on a young fella for Charlie Gallagher?' Charlie was a deadly free-taker and when the young fella missed a free, they all said Charlie would have scored it with his eyes shut."

It was often said that the Cavan team which excelled in the summer of '69 had as many characters as a typical Walt Disney film with larger-than-life characters such as Steve Duggan and Pat Tinnelly.

Ray Carolan was their heartbeat, however, and the inspirational midfielder is widely regarded as one of Breffni's finest, a four-time Ulster SFC winner who chuckles with great fondness when he looks back on old times.

Gaelic football has left him with "memories you'll never forget from your playing days" but the game has moved on and as Offaly and Cavan renew acquaintances in the championship tomorrow for the first time in 48 years, he yearns for simpler times.

"You were given a lot of freedom back then, you didn't really analyse the opposition that much. We'd be looking forward to game and you'd be looking forward to getting out and having a go at the opposition, that was my attitude," Carolan says.

"It seemed straightforward back then. The game is overanalysed now and players are not really let express themselves, they're afraid to kick a wide or it'll go down as a negative statistic against you.

"It takes away from the enjoyment of the players, they're under pressure trying to perform to a pattern which is not natural. It puts pressure on players and probably accounts for the high drop-out rate of inter-county careers.

"They're not enjoying it as much anymore. The first element of sport is that it's played for enjoyment. Winning is a bonus but when you lose you appreciate a win even more, that was how we looked at it.

Integrity

"When you're coming home from a match nowadays and you try to think of something great that happened during a game, there's not many things that happen in a match now that you would make your heart jump. It's not pleasant to watch."

Integrity is often left at the door in a result-based industry but Carolan feels some players will regret their actions on the pitch in the years to come.

"It was more honest back then, we played it tough and hard and if a fella got a little bit of belt he kind of knew he deserved it. When the game was over the hands were shaken and there was no bad feeling. Sledging didn't exist," he says.

"That never happened. Nobody ever opened their mouth to me and I feel when some of the modern-day players will meet other players in 10 or 15 years' time they'll probably have a lot of regrets for some of the things that they said. We never had that."

The Cuchulainn's legend is still an avid Cavan follower, however, and he wouldn't miss being in Bord na Móna O'Connor Park tomorrow evening as two counties with huge tradition, but very little meaningful success at senior level in recent years, collide.

The new breed of Gearóid McKiernan and Killian Clarke will be expected to see the visitors home and with plenty of provincial U-21 success under their belts, the Breffni faithful would like nothing more than to relive the glory days again.

Irish Independent

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