Cahair O'Kane: Celebrating the struggle

The moment of glory as Magilligan seal Derry Junior Championship title. Pictures Margaret McLaughlin

"Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods. So let us celebrate the struggle."
Stevie Wonder

ON Friday afternoon, four of my club’s senior footballers visited the local primary school to take part in a Q&A session with the kids ahead of our Derry junior championship final.

There, they were greeted by a sea of green and orange. The school had been decorated top-to-toe with the club colours from the morning after we won our semi-final three weeks ago. When the Q&A was over, the children presented our captain, Rory O’Reilly, with a hand-written ‘good luck’ card for every player.

 They were given out on Friday night after we named our team for the Derry junior championship final between ourselves, Drum, and Magilligan. At half-time in our game on Sunday, the U10s played an exhibition game in front of a crowd of thousands at Celtic Park.

The next generation has never been as proud to wear their colours. And it fills your heart to see them so enthusiastic and so enamoured with the idea of emulating the young men they see as their heroes.

Kevin O’Reilly has soldiered for almost 20 years, in every position. He started out as a goalkeeper, where he played for Derry minors in 1997, but is far too good a footballer to stay in there.

He first won a championship in 1996, playing alongside his father Sean. An absolute thoroughbred, he came on at full-back on Sunday and in a time of need, sprinted 100 yards to kick a superb score into the wind. That’s the kind of moment those children will remember.

When his brother Rory is gone, we’ll miss his vision and his finishing. When Donal Brolly goes, the drive and leadership and craft will be sorely missed. James McCartney has a few years yet and he will put head, heart and soul into them. Few others would have played on Sunday carrying the injury he was carrying.

There are men like them in every club. There are plenty like it in Magilligan, the victors of the piece. For us, it reads like a Greek tragedy but for them, it’s a romantic fairytale. Twenty-eight years since their last one, they wanted it so badly on Sunday. So, so badly. And that hurts us all the more, knowing that it was their desire that won it for them.

There’s no complaint from this end. It hurt. It still hurts, and it will for a long time. Certain defeats stay with you, and while it might be the rawness of it now, losing at the weekend was by far the hardest loss to stomach in 11 years of senior football.

You almost feel like you’ve let everybody down when you lose. The older lads who maybe won’t get another shot at a medal. The younger lads that don’t have one. The lads who weren’t involved the years you did win it.

When I woke at 5am yesterday morning, there was no chance of any more sleep. Browsing Facebook to try to stop my mind racing, I found someone had broadcast the entire game. So there I am, lying waiting on the sun to poke its head up and, with my heart aching, revisiting the scene with my eyes rather than just in my head. It really did happen.

I’ve always hated midweek matches for the simple reason that sleep is never really an option afterwards. In my head, every kick-out, catch, save, goal, pass, run is analysed. That’s for a normal league game. So multiply it by 10 for a night like Sunday.

Two bad kick-outs, one in either half, led directly to Magilligan points. We lost by one.

The very difference between winning a county final and losing a county final.

My mother always says that I would sleep on if World War III started under the bed, but there wasn’t much sleeping done that night. You’d think having lost five of them that it would get easier in some way. But if anything, it’s harder.

Agony for Drum keeper Cahair O'Kane 

This was definitely the worst defeat I’ve ever had in football. Worse than losing a promotion play-off by a point having led by three with eight minutes to play.

A changing room that had held so much optimism two hours earlier becomes a scene of absolute devastation. Not a word. Men with tears in their eyes.

Then the ‘if onlys’ begin. Should’ve done this. Could’ve done that. When you lose by a point, there are a billion ‘if onlys’. But none of them will change it now. The cup’s in Magilligan and we’re in Drum, and all we have is this pint glass to console us.

A day on, you’re just numb. It actually almost feels like it didn’t happen. We had prepared so well, we were the fittest and sharpest in training I’d ever seen us, we had our analysis to a tee.

Yet even in defeat, you can see what days like these do for a community. They galvanise a place and its people. That’s as true for the losers as it is for the winners. In one way, our senior footballers have been unlucky. That’s two finals in-a-row we’ve lost, last year’s after a replay and this year’s by a point. I’ve lost five and won two.

But in another way, the exposure to those afternoons has helped mobilise an effort at underage level. The kids see the big occasion and they want it for themselves. Our hope for them is that it’s never a junior final.

We won the league two months ago and with it, secured promotion to intermediate football. Medals are great. Trophies are wonderful. Legacies, though, are priceless. Magilligan may have left one for their youngsters on Sunday as well.

I hope they did, because there are some serious, hard-working GAA men in that club. The Gods had turned on us for the weekend, so we took that league trophy on Sunday night and made the most of it. We celebrated the struggle. And in a few weeks, when the pain settles, we’ll remember our duty to the next generation.

To see Drum playing top flight football in 10 years’ time would fill my heart with as much joy as any trophy


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