GAA Football

'I was still very pale, I'd no hair... it was strange enough': Cavan's Oisin Kiernan ready to face Dubs again

There wasn't much worth remembering about Cavan's last meeting with Dublin - unless you're Oisin Kiernan. Neil Loughran talks to a man who has battled back from cancer to play a starring role in the Breffni County's Ulster title triumph, and he's hoping Cavan can keep the dream alive on Saturday night...

Oisin Kiernan's point put Cavan ahead late on against Donegal in the Ulster final - and the Breffnimen didn't looked back, going on to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time since 1997. Picture by Seamus Loughran

NOT many people will remember too much about the last time Cavan played Dublin. The Breffni County’s fate had already been sealed when they lost to neighbours Monaghan eight days earlier, any lingering hopes of avoiding the drop back down to Division Two condemned in Clones.

When the Dubs rocked up to Kingspan Breffni on March 24, 2019 they too found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Park your processes, your work-ons and your preparation pieces, for the first time since the start of the Jim Gavin era there was nothing but pride to play for, earlier defeats to Monaghan, Kerry and Tyrone having already rendered a seventh League final appearance in-a-row beyond their reach as the final round of games loomed. On a day devoid of drama, Dublin headed back down the M3 with a six-point win.

Oisin Kiernan remembers it well.

It was just over six months earlier that he visited his GP after discovering a lump. For a few weeks Kiernan pretended it was nothing and carried about his business as normal, working on his uncle’s pig farm in Killucan by day, training and playing away with Castlerahan at night.

But it nagged at him. There was a family history there you see. Twice his father had been diagnosed with testicular cancer before later battles with bowel and then kidney cancer. He’s still here to tell the tale, swapping the piggery for dairy farming in recent times.

After eventually getting checked out, a scan was booked and by the following day Kiernan had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. That was in mid-September. Two weeks later his testicle was removed.

He watched from the wings as Castlerahan swept to their first county title on October 13, that success only strengthening his resolve to return to return to what he knew best Throughout the chemotherapy and some dark days over winter, football and family drove him.

The next time Oisin Kiernan ran out in front of a crowd was at Kingspan Breffni – March 24, 2019. It mightn’t have meant much to anybody else that day but, to him, it was another significant step along the road.

Mickey Graham brought him on for the final 20 minutes, the Dubs easing their way towards the finish line. Within a couple of minutes Kevin McManamon, not long into the action either, whizzed past Kiernan as though he wasn’t there.

It was good to be back.

“That was a nice welcome alright,” he smiles.

“Ah look, I was just delighted to get on, raring to go. But when I look back now and see the video, I was getting back in shape but I probably wasn’t quite in shape. I was still very pale, I’d no hair... it was strange enough.

“At the time I felt fine, which I was, but you’re not in the same condition you’d be in now.”

No shame in that. Physically, Kiernan can’t have been in much better nick than at this precise moment though, his energetic performances up and down the left flank among the most impressive of all in Cavan’s fairytale run to a first Ulster title since 1997.

It is for others to chart his journey in the context of all that has happened in recent years. For Kiernan, who turned 28 last month, what’s done is done.

His matter-of-fact approach is not intended to downplay the seriousness of the situation in which he found himself, instead offering an insight into the swiftness with which he was able to compartmentalise the bad before embracing all the good.

“Sometimes I nearly forget that the whole thing happened, and that’s down to the people I’m surrounded by.

“When you talk to doctors and oncologists, surgeons, you gain trust in them. They told me what was going to happen, they told me it was going to take a bit of time but we’ll get over it. I never really felt scared as such.

“I was very lucky I got it done fairly quickly… obviously it hits the body hard but mentally I was 100 per cent. It’s no big deal to me looking back on it now, it’s just something I don’t do too often.

“[Castlerahan team-mate] Ronan Flanagan had something similar years ago and he was a massive help. I was open about it from the start, anything that was annoying me, where I was thinking ‘what’ll happen here, what’ll happen there,’ I’d just pick up the phone and ring. Simple as that.

“All the Castlerahan lads, Donal Keogan who was manager, they were all brilliant. They helped me focus on the football because that’s what I wanted to get back doing as soon as possible. It was a distraction in a way - maybe that’s not the right way to describe it… it kept me focused on something else other than the illness, and that was important.”

A couple of years on, Cavan and Dublin meet again. This time, on the field anyway, the stakes are ever so slightly higher.

Gavin may be gone but, especially in the absence of the Super 8s, Dublin’s route to Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final has been typically breezy.

Kiernan watched on TV as they dismantled Meath in the Leinster final a fortnight ago. Indeed, had things been different, there’s half a chance he could have been out there wearing green after being raised in the Royal County.

He was involved with the Meath U21s at a time and played with the county juniors for a few years but, after suffering a cruciate injury at 23, it was with Castlerahan – and eventually Cavan - that Kiernan made his comeback.

“My father’s from Ballymachugh, my mother from Mountnugent. That’s where my grandparents are from and all my cousins are still in Cavan. My grandfather had a piggery on the Meath/Westmeath/Cavan border and that’s where my homeplace [Ballymanus] was then.

“We went to school in Ballynacree, I played football with Ballynacree but we spent so much time in Mountnugent and Ballymachugh with grandparents… even when our house was being done up we spent a year living in Mountnugent.

“People do say ‘the Meath man’ but I’m not sure about that one at all. To me, I’m a Cavan man.”

If those credentials had been in any doubt, Kiernan – like all his team-mates – secured legendary status when, against all the odds, they downed Donegal in Armagh earlier this month.

After a fits and starts run that saw them take the long routes around Monaghan, Antrim and Down, the Breffni boys saved by far their most complete performance of the year for when it mattered most.

Cavan tore into the Tir Chonaill but it still seemed too good to be true until, at 0-12 each with six minutes of normal time left on the clock, Niall Murray burst forward and found Kieran loitering on the left.

Without a second glance at the posts, he clenched his fist and screamed ‘come on’ as the ball sailed over the bar.

“I was lucky enough I finished up on the end of it.

“We’d an extra man over that side so there was a bit of space… I didn’t really think about it too much, just pulled the trigger and lucky enough it went inside the posts. Any man could’ve stepped up, I was just lucky I was in the right place at the right time. When you’re in a game like that, you’re not thinking of the bigger picture really, you’re just concentrating on the next play.”

Donegal wouldn’t score again, with Conor Madden’s added time goal getting the party started as 23 years of hurt came to an end on the most dramatic of days.

It’s been unusual and subdued compared to what we all are used to at this stage of Championship but, for Kiernan, that has made it no less special – the enormity of their achievement still sinking in as the clock ticks down to the big one.

“Ever since it’s just been… unbelievable. It’s hard to put into words really. The day itself was amazing.

“After the game we went back to Breffni Park and the families were allowed out on the field. We got the cup in the stand then - obviously there was no fans but it was still very special to have the people you’re close with and to get to spend a bit of time on the field with them.

“There was a trailer outside so all the players got up on the trailer and there was a bit of a drive through. The town was busy enough so there were cars driving around, a bit of excitement at least, they were beeping their horns, giving thumbs up and celebrating. That lasted for three hours, it was brilliant.

“Even on social media, the amount of messages myself and the lads are receiving, the stories you’re hearing, it’s just incredible. It’s a different way, but that’s the world we’re living in for now anyway.

“There’s still a huge buzz, especially in a place like Cavan… you can feel it everywhere.”

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