GAA Football

'I turned around and I think I was hit by a herd of buffalo': Cavan boss Mickey Graham recalls '97 joy

In his first year as Cavan boss, Mickey Graham has led Cavan to a first Ulster final in 18 years. Picture by John Merry
Neil Loughran

WHAT Mickey Graham wouldn’t do to relive the scenes that unfolded in those mad moments after Cavan’s last Ulster title success 22 long summers ago.

Clones has borne witness to some epic scenes of celebration through the years, but few come anywhere close to the blue wave that broke the banks and burst onto St Tiernach’s Park in 1997.

Remember Martin McHugh, then Cavan manager, trying to conduct a post-match interview as bodies bounced off him from all sides? Graham came off the bench that day and has similar memories of being buffeted by delirious Breffimen and women at the finish.

That victory over Derry ended a 28-year wait for the Anglo-Celt, and Graham the manager can only dream of a repeat of those scenes should Cavan topple defending champions Donegal on Sunday.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he says.

“I hadn’t time to breathe before the place was converged upon. I turned around and I think I was hit by a herd of buffalo - I never saw a pitch fill up as quick.

“The one memory I have, because I went to grab one of my team-mates beside me, I was on the pitch after coming on as a sub but I couldn’t get near him because the crowd was on so quickly.

“You have all seen the interviews, sure Martin McHugh was barely able to talk. We couldn’t get near the stand. It was just so much joy, and I suppose hurt. A lot of people had never seen Cavan win an Ulster title before so it was the first time people had seen that.

“It just shows you the tradition and what people think of football in Cavan.”

Despite being a central figure in such a major moment in Cavan’s illustrious history, there is no doubt where McHugh’s loyalties will lie when the ball is thrown in.

Understandably, Graham has only fond memories of those heady days and the immediate impact made by the Kilcar man, whose son Ryan will be one of the many Donegal players Cavan must curtail.

“I suppose Martin came in at that time and the expectation levels rose in Cavan because of the excitement with the appointment,” recalls Graham.

“Cavan were in a similar situation at that time. There were a lot of players coming to the end of their careers, but then there was also a number of young players coming through - Jason Reilly, Larry Reilly, Dermot McCabe, myself, Anthony Forde - and we were brought into the panel by Martin and just clicked straight away.

“There was a great bond between the senior players and the younger players and he just brought a great structure to the place, a great belief around it and we were just even delighted to get the opportunity to compete in that Ulster final and to win it was even more special.”

For this current crop of Cavan footballers, preparing for a provincial final represents unchartered territory.

Rory Gallagher spoke recently about the “giddiness” that infiltrated the Fermanagh camp ahead of last year’s decider as they targeted a first ever Ulster title.

Instead of breaking new ground though, they were gradually picked apart by a rampant Donegal side who have been no strangers to the big stage during this decade.

And Graham knows it is up to him and his management team to ensure their focus stays solely on the job at hand.

He said: “You definitely have to look at it.

“But I suppose myself and Dermot McCabe are experienced before with Cavan on two occasions and we know exactly the excitement generated within the county leading up to the game.

“I think we have a bunch of mature lads who have been around a while. While they have had more bad days than good days, I firmly believe they know they need to make sure to keep the feet on the ground and not be side-tracked by other stuff going on.

“It is a great occasion for Cavan and Cavan people, but for Cavan players it’s just another game and that’s the way we have to approach it.

“Donegal are experienced, they have All-Ireland medals in their back pocket, Ulster Championship medals. It’s nothing new to them – it’s new to us.

You hope our boys will cope with the occasion, you hope it doesn’t get to them. It’s not going to get to Donegal.”

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