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Hope and history prevail in Cavan

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Gearóid McKiernan, right, and Jason McLoughlin celebrate after Cavan’s victory over Down in last weekend’s Ulster SFC semi-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

Gearóid McKiernan, right, and Jason McLoughlin celebrate after Cavan’s victory over Down in last weekend’s Ulster SFC semi-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Gearóid McKiernan, right, and Jason McLoughlin celebrate after Cavan’s victory over Down in last weekend’s Ulster SFC semi-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

When John Evans and the Tipperary footballers were going through a purple patch, the Kerryman attempted to explain their sudden upturn in fortunes.

Many of his squad were, he offered, connected to people who had been to Croke Park and up the steps of the Hogan Stand. Evans' point was that winning was in their DNA. You just had to scratch under the surface to find it.

The same could be said of Cavan. In recent times, the Breffni haven't been mapped. Martin McHugh led them through the riotous summer of 1997 to an Ulster title but that remains the exception to what was once the rule. That success 23 years ago is the only time they were crowned kings of Ulster in the last half century.

It's quite the fall, when you consider the Anglo-Celt Cup was presented by, and named after, the county's local paper.

Dominate

They handed it over in 1925 but, in truth, they only loaned it to the Ulster Council. Cavan won it that year and the next. And proceeded to dominate in Ulster for the next 40 years. They won eight titles in the 1930s, nine in the '40s, three in the '50s and four in the '60s. Today, Tyrone are 22 behind them in the roll of honour.

Among those wins came five All-Irelands on some of the GAA's biggest days. Cavan is the only place in Ireland where Polo is a reference to neither a car nor a mint.

And by the time they won their fifth, and most recent All-Ireland in 1952, only Dublin and Kerry had been up the steps of the Hogan Stand more often. Cavan were football royalty, their place in the GAA's world order was assured.

Then suddenly, the tap was turned off. The teams in the six counties emerged as powers, led by the great Down side of the '60s. By the end of the '70s, Derry, Down, Tyrone and Armagh had all inscribed their names on the old cup.

And instead of being a reawakening, McHugh's success in '97 proved to be an oasis in the desert.

In fact, so rare had Ulster Championship wins become that in reaching the Sunday's provincial final, Mickey Graham had won as many games in the province as all his predecessors from 2006-2018.

Paul Brady is a world-renowned handballer, but for a decade he pursued a career both on the court and on the pitch with Cavan. His family is synonymous with football in the county. His uncle was the late Phil 'The Gunner' Brady, one of the heroes of 1947 and New York.

History, and the sense of it, can weigh heavily on Cavan teams.

"I suppose the expectation is there, but maybe unreasonably so, because if you look at all those Ulster titles, they were won at a time when the six counties weren't that active. And certainly when you are a player, you are led to believe that. And I can't speak personally, but you could see some players who are weighed down by that history because that's the general punditry that's within the county."

Still, like Tipperary, the lineage is there. The county is only waiting for an excuse to roll out stories about the Gallant John Joe and the Gunner and Victor Sherlock and Charlie Gallagher. A win in Sunday's Ulster final would be just the tonic.

Another of the extended 'Gunner' Brady clan, Killian will line out for Cavan on Sunday as they take on a Donegal team who have established themselves as top dogs in the province.

Almost everything will be against the Breffni men in Armagh.

Cavan were, naturally, the first team to win Ulster from the preliminary round in 1945, but that feat has been managed only four times since. This time around Cavan will look to do it in 21 days, having played for six weekends on the trot.

Between the loss of some key players for the early part of the 2020 campaign and relegation to Division 3 on its resumption, no one expected much except a short campaign.

Defiant

But they have been defiant. In their three championship wins to date, Cavan have been down, but they have never been out. Such resistance has won them plenty of admirers.

"They know the challenge that's ahead but people are optimistic, they know it's a final so anything can happen," Brady continued.

"And the way the team have been winning will instil confidence in them, they are never beaten.

"They have a few things going for them. The experience of last year, I know there is a change of personnel but there seems to be a bond and a character in the team. It might not be as talented but it has character in it."

Brady remembers the summer of '97, the homecoming in Cavan town and the fever before the All-Ireland semi-final.

In the weeks after they beat Derry, Brady claimed his first world handball title in Canada to kick-start a stellar career. When action resumes, he'll look into the possibility of competing for a record-breaking 12th US national title.

At 41, he knows he won't get too many more chances. And the same can be said for the current Cavan side.

"It's a very small window you get, for any player. Players might think they'll be around for 10 or 12 years but within that decade usually you only get a year or two or, if you're lucky, three to make a breakthrough.

"That's what it is with this team, many might say it has passed but it's a one-off game. Anything can happen."

And as for the weight of history?

"Players can definitely get weighed down by that but it's important for them to look and say 'hold on here, what are we weighed down by?' And hopefully they can emerge from that to create their own history and reignite it."


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