Pádraig Faulkner is an All-Star full-back, a Tailteann Cup finalist and, strange as it may sound, fast becoming a Croke Park veteran.
This Saturday’s Tailteann Cup decider against Westmeath will be Faulkner’s sixth appearance there. All of which may not sound too remarkable – except that he’s a Cavan footballer.
“We used to get slagged when we were younger. We’d be on the Meath border in Kingscourt, and the Meath lads used to offer directions to get to Croke Park,” he says.
Who’s laughing now?
The primary school teacher, soon to turn 28, has already featured in three Allianz League finals off the Jones’ Road: Division 2 defeats to Tyrone in 2016 and Roscommon in ’18 plus this year’s Division 4 decider against Tipperary, Cavan’s first title in Croker since 1952. Throw in the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin and, most recently, a hugely entertaining Tailteann Cup semi-final against Sligo.
His first HQ appearance came in the curtain-raiser to a Dublin/Kerry Division 1 decider, with a full-house of 82,300 also witnessing the Laochra celebration to mark 100 years since the Easter Rising.
Thanks to Covid, his third outing – that SFC semi-final after Cavan’s stunning conquest of Ulster – was played against the ghostly backdrop of a deserted colosseum.
But Saturday will be very different, and not just because plenty of Derry and Galway fans will be in situ before the Cavan/Westmeath showdown comes to a climax.
“It’s unlike any other stadium,” Faulkner points out. “You just feel so enclosed. When you stand on the ‘45’, it just feels like it’s a wee bit further away than maybe on a normal pitch. It can be a daunting experience, and I like standing beside young lads, seeing their experiences on the first time stepping out.
“I know when we played the first league final. I think it was the 100-year anniversary of 1916, and there wasn’t an empty seat that day.”
Faulkner’s crowning career moment came in 2020 when the high drama of conquering Ulster was followed by his selection, alongside Breffni cousins Raymond and Thomas Galligan, on the PwC All-Stars team.
But this was followed by the misery of ’21, when Cavan’s tame Ulster exit to Tyrone came after they nosedived into Division 4 via a third consecutive relegation.
In summary, Cavan under Mickey Graham have been on a non-stop roller coaster. Yet Faulkner is adamant that something is stirring once more, aided in no small part by this Tailteann Cup run as they seek to make history by being the first team to win it.
“You can sit here and make excuses,” says Faulkner of their erratic league form, “but it was just ourselves. I don’t know whether we were going in complacent into games. There’s no real finger I can put on poor league form. Lucky enough now, it’s not something that has completely stunted our growth.”
This was reflected in their promotion rebound last spring, and even their hugely competitive display in succumbing to Donegal.
“There was a meeting after losing the Ulster campaign. There was talk of was there lads going to go abroad? You’re hearing a lot of lads playing football in America at the minute, so as a collective unit we sat down and we said, ‘Look it, this is something we really want to win.’ And everyone stuck at it.
“We’ve seen the highest highs and the lowest lows in the last three or four years! As a collective, it’s really gelled players together,” he expands.
“When something like that happens, you’ll generally have lads that throw their hat at it. Maybe players that don’t get game-time. But since I’ve started with Cavan, the drop-off has been at a minimum; boys are sticking together. People in Cavan know there’s something special coming.”