Cathal McShane's long and winding road to success
‘Success is not a straight line.’ – Willie Anderson
THE St Mary’s boys had just finished a training session at Cherryvale Playing Fields and headed over to the Parador Hotel on the Ormeau Road for lunch.
The Falls Road college hadn’t won a Sigerson Cup since 1989.
From the early ‘Noughties’, Paddy Tally had dedicated a huge chunk of his life trying to annex the famous silverware with St Mary’s.
Through various coaching initiatives and workshops across different codes, Tally had become acquainted with former Ireland rugby captain Willie Anderson and asked him would he speak with his Sigerson hopefuls over lunch.
It was winter 2017 and on the doorstep of yet another Sigerson campaign.
With the likes of Cathal McShane, Kieran McGeary, Oisin O’Neill, Conor Meyler, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Kevin McKernan, Tally felt St Mary’s had the tools to win the competition, but the way the draw had worked out they would have to face down all the big university sides to get their hands on the cup.
In 1989, Anderson and his Ireland team-mates famously faced down New Zealand during the haka at Lansdowne Road.
St Mary’s would have to do the same against their illustrious rivals.
There were many strands to Anderson’s talk that afternoon and each player latched on to different parts of it.
Cathal McShane, a key member of the St Mary’s squad that went on to achieve Sigerson glory in Mayo that winter, was moved by one particular aspect of Anderson’s talk.
“I always remember the speech he gave,” says McShane.
“He talked to us about success never coming in a straight line, that you will always have setbacks. You’ll veer off to the left, you’ll veer off to the right – but it’s all about how you react to that and the need to keep going.
“I could relate to that, big-time.”
The Owen Roe’s clubman had hooked up with the Tyrone development squads as a 14-year-old and went on to graduate to the county minors, but he couldn’t force his way into the starting line-up.
After the young Red Hands claimed the Ulster title in 2013, McShane made two impressive appearances from the bench in their All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final wins over Kerry and Roscommon, but narrowly missed out on a starting berth in the final, which they lost to Mayo by three points.
“I’ve spoken to lots of teenagers and groups and I was in their shoes not so long ago,” McShane explains.
“One thing for me that stands out is the Tyrone minors because it has made me the player I am today.
“Back then, it wasn’t so straightforward. There were setbacks, I did veer off to the left, I did veer off to the right. I was training very hard but I just wasn’t getting the rub of the green or the amount of football that I wanted to get. There were other guys who were ahead of me. There was serious talent in that team, so many incredible players that had come through from U14 all the way up…
“I knew after that year I needed to go away and work hard – and that’s what I did...
“I made my mind up I wasn’t going to fade away, I would keep going, react well and get tore into it. And I got my reward with the U21s a couple of years later.”
In the 2015 U21 All-Ireland final against a fancied Tipperary, McShane rose to the challenge and produced a barnstorming display, grabbing the all-important goal that eventually sunk their opponents on a rainy Saturday evening in Parnell Park.
A few weeks later, he was in rainy Ballybofey wearing the senior jersey and being schooled by Donegal’s Neil McGee in the Ulster Championship.
In 2015, there was a changing of the guard in Tyrone with McShane one of the first players promoted to senior duty from the All-Ireland-winning U21 team.
“To be honest, I still use that Donegal game as a motivator in many, many ways. Donegal had some serious household names. In terms of my own performance I learned a lot from it. It was down to nerves and individual errors, my first touch was poor…”
You could say it has taken McShane five years to become a fully-fledged, top level, inter-county footballer.
During those years he veered left and right.
His renowned versatility was both a blessing and a curse.
A regular in Mickey Harte’s line-ups, he never truly settled in one position.
It’s hard to know what exactly changed in 2019 - but McShane quickly emerged as the fulcrum of the Tyrone attack, exceeding all expectations.
For opposition defences, the flame-haired full-forward was a one-man tsunami.
The Owen Roe’s ace was more powerful and faster than ever but nobody truly believed he would evolve into a dead-eyed assassin so quickly.
“You do your training and your gym work, different types of agility and movement,” he says.
“I was a lot stronger. I’d more power in my legs. I wouldn’t say I went away and worked specifically on speed, but throughout my training I did my normal drills, agility and speed work.
“Before I wouldn’t have been the best [at shooting]. When I knew I was going to be in full-forward I knew there was a lot I needed to improve on – staying behind in training, maybe getting out before training started, just things like that.
“Instead of rushing the shot you realise you’ve got yourself that extra few yards or steps to take the score. But confidence is a massive thing.”
The threatening signs were there for the rest of the country to see from Tyrone’s Ulster Championship opener against Derry right up until the final whistle sounded in their All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry.
McShane was consistently magnificent and ended the year as top scorer with 3-49.
“I think if you look at my game, playing midfield and covering serious ground, getting on a lot of ball, the full-forward role was definitely so much different.
“But I think one thing that is key is patience. You need to understand not every play is going to go through you. You need to know the moment because there are times you’ve just got to think: ‘I’m not going to be involved in this’, so you run in a different direction and I knew I had to improve my runs. You take advice from everybody.”
McShane has climbed a few mountains since the disappointment of 2013 - and the lofty view he had at last month’s GAA Allstar bash was surreal.
For everyone except McShane, the number 14 Allstar jersey was never in doubt.
Not only did the Leckpatrick man finish the 2019 All-Ireland Championship as top scorer, he was one of the most exciting players to grace our summer.
Even in Tyrone’s two Championship defeats against Donegal and Kerry, McShane’s performance levels never dipped.
“I was a bit nervous [at the Allstars] because I knew the only position I’d be up for was 14, the second last,” McShane says, who celebrated his 24th birthday the following day.
“I found out on the moment. People were saying to me: ‘You’re going to get it,’ but I just went down with the attitude to enjoy myself and make sure I had a good night, so obviously getting it was a bonus.
“The night itself was unbelievable,” he adds. “It was a great set-up, the whole night was brilliant and socialising with the opposition players was nice too because you don’t get to do that.
“I was chatting to some of the hurlers – Lee Chin [Wexford] and Cian Lynch of Limerick. Both myself and Rony [McNamee, fellow Allstar] had a cracking weekend.”
On his Twitter account, McShane’s pinned tweet is a photograph of a slightly worn poster of him in action for Tyrone this year with the words emblazoned: ‘All-Ireland Championship top scorer 2019’ and at the bottom it reads: ‘Made in Leckpatrick’.
Club-mates Declan McCrossan and Brendan Boggs also represented Tyrone in the past, but McShane became the club’s first Allstar.
“It was great to see Cathal pick up a much deserved Allstar,” says Owen Roe’s club-mate Galvin Early.
“We actually opened the clubrooms the night of the Allstar ceremony for club members to come along and watch it on the big screen.
“I was confident he’d win one, but as they started to read out the names I was getting a bit apprehensive and I would’ve been incredibly disappointed if he hadn’t made the cut.
“It’s when the cameras were scanning through the crowd and you see some of the great Dublin, Kerry and Mayo players sitting there, it feels a bit surreal when among them is a cub that from seven or eight-years-old was on the pitch outside where we watched the awards, starting a journey that has taken him to where he stands in the game today.”
Early adds: “When Marty Morrissey opened the envelope and said: ‘The full-forward jersey goes to… Co Tyrone…’ there was a roar in the club that was as hearty as the many roars we’ve made over the last few seasons when Cathal has picked off a score for club or county.”
If he could break his Allstar gong into 100 small pieces he would gladly share it among those who helped him along the way.
“It is difficult to mention everybody because I’ve had so many coaches. From a young age – U8s, U10s, the whole way up, there are so many people.
“The likes of JP Kelly, Ben McNulty, Glen Parker, Ambrose McAleer, Gerard Kelly, Gerard Porter, Decky Bradley, Kieran Devin, Tam O’Neill, and I’m in now with Barry Tracey, Willie Doherty, Charlie McLaughlin and Galvin Early.
“When I was younger Pat O’Neill was taking us for a stage, ‘Duck’ [McCay] was always around. Big Charles O’Doherty was there. There are so many people that did so much…
“When I go to presentations now I say to the children they should be so respectful of their managers and coaches because they all work and instead of going home to do other things they come out and coach the kids.
“That’s the reason to be respectful and appreciative of them. And you look at your family: a big thing for me was the Allstar gave them a sense of pride.
“I’ve obviously been involved with Owen Roe’s since I was eight and my mum and dad took me to matches every Saturday morning, my kits were washed, everything was done for me. Those small things that you mightn’t have appreciated at the time.
“I moved into Tyrone development squads at 14 and back then we didn’t have the centre of excellence at Garvaghey so we could be anywhere in Tyrone – Cookstown, Galbally, Omagh. That’s why I’m happy for them because it’s great reward for my mum and dad and they’re proud to have the Allstar trophy at home.
“My brother Gerard has been an inspiration, always driving me on. He’s suffered two cruciate ligament injuries but is back playing his best football. We’re very close, and he’s helped me an awful lot…
“When you think about it, it’s the first Allstar to come from our club. There have been many great players that have come through the club, players that I looked up to. I didn’t get playing with Declan McCrossan, but I watched him and he was just a phenomenal player.
“Brendy Boggs, obviously, had a career with Tyrone as well and I’ve been lucky enough to play with him. I’ve learned so much from him.
“Owen Roe’s have been very, very supportive of me. They never ask too much of me and never put pressure on me. I was just so proud to be the club’s first Allstar.”
In his teenage years, McShane dabbled in soccer but not even scoring a goal against Manchester United in the Milk Cup or a scholarship offer from North Carolina could tempt him away from his calling.
For the injection of confidence alone, Ger Boyle and Stephen Donaghy at Holy Cross College, Strabane were worth their weight in gold to the youngster.
Cathal McShane is a living, glowing parable of perseverance.
Willie Anderson was right.
It is better success is not a straight line, for we might never have heard of the young man who was born and made in Leckpatrick.
He's the proudest Allstar winner that ever lived.