Football

Cavan Gaels young guns won’t stop believing

St Paul’s Minor football tournament semi-final: Cavan Gaels 1-7 1-5 Mayobridge (AET)

Overjoyed: Cavan Gaels players celebrate at the final whistle in today's Semi Final game at St Pauls GAC Picture Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

Christmas goes as quick as it comes. Late December, like the middle child, or the edges of the Earth.

No one really knows what happens or why. The New Year’s Day sand timer is measured in turkey leftovers. Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday are identical triplets in the closest thing to an apocalypse that one would ever wish to experience on an annual basis. Or on any basis at all.

Even the never-ending GAA club season has tired of tantrums and accepted a peace agreement in the form of a hiatus for most.

But not for all. Glen and Kilmacud go on of course, so too the young Cavan Gaels guns. Ed O’Hanlon, fresh from a gruelling extra-time semi-final win in the Ulster Minor tournament in St Paul’s, finds the time to take a call.

Cavan's Martin Dunne up against Monaghan's Jack McCarron. Pic Philip Walsh
Blast from the past: Former Cavan Gaels star Martin Dunne won the tournament back in 1999.

For most of us at this time of year, the only thing worse than having no time is having too much of it. No such worries when you have a final on the horizon.

At about 4:30 on a darkening Wednesday afternoon, he finds what he probably feels is some level of peace at the top of the team bus bound for home. At the other end of the phone, it is anything but.

Many’s a man has tried to curtail a young fella from enjoying himself. This time, the Breffni boys are well entitled to their own portable concert, where they are the audience, the stars, and the VIP guests all in one.

It’s the kind of commotion you’d only love to join, but for a few minutes at least, O’Hanlon is the sensible head. Try as they might, Ben Tully and his elated teammates can’t just drown out the voice of reason:

“It was a tight aul’ battle. We came in at half-time, we weren’t too happy. It was 0-02 0-02. We were being turned over too easy. Then we gave away a bad goal.

“But we showed incredible character and composure to win it. We’re delighted”.

Win it they did. Extra-time only came about with the clock in the red. Mayobridge, the Down champions, fighting until the death and equalising.

Twice O’Hanlon credits the leveller from the opposition’s Darragh Poland. The first time it is described as a “worldie”.

The second, “a Roy of the Rovers” strike.

But the Gaels had magic of their own. Having overcome Irvinestown of Fermanagh last weekend, Joshua Shehu was the man on everyone’s lips.

But it was never going to be a centre-forward’s game, not of the traditional ilk, nor one who considers himself an attacking outlet of any kind.

Shehu grafted, he worked hard. He won frees, he kicked them.

But even in a blossoming young career, he knew too well that you go around the wall or you move it, you don’t go through it.

Experienced heads was quite the theme, and captain Ben Tully was never going to shirk the big occasion.

When O’Hanlon and his management team sat down at the beginning of 2023, little did they know the boy they picked as skipper would flourish into such a stoic young man.

Surely even in their wildest dreams of the loftiest ambition, they could not have foreseen perhaps their greatest day unfolding before them in the west end of Belfast on St Stephen’s Day.

At the back too they were heroic. If Conor Doyle wasn’t in the shadow of Darragh Poland, he was in his face, or he was marching the ball out of defence like a trojan.

O’Hanlon too is eager to credit the squad as a whole, be it the four subs in normal time, or the endless ones in extra time, each of whom gave everything until they had nothing more to give, and then gave some more.

“We weren’t overly panicked. I actually thought we looked quite comfortable by the end.

“We thought if we kept doing what we were doing, we were going to win it.”

And so, next in store is the might of Four Masters, last year’s beaten finalists, and the overwhelming favourites after a rout of Castleblayney Faughs last weekend.

“It’s dream stuff to be honest to be back on New Year’s Day. They’re a very talented group as they’ve shown, but we have belief in our own ability.

“They’ll have the benefit of an extra week’s rest, but I wouldn’t necessarily swap it. We’ll recover the bodies, we’ll have a few small trainings and we’ll see how it goes.”