Kicking Out: Better to die living than live waiting to die

Cavan players celebrate at the final whistle in Sunday's remarkable Ulster final win over Donegal. Picture by Seamus Loughran

OF all the snapshots on a Sunday when new chapters of history were penned, the best was nearly missed.

As the tears sat in Mickey Graham’s eyes like boulders teetering over the edge of a cliff, the only course of action to avoid a full breakdown on live TV was to spit his words out at the camera as quickly as possible and disappear.

Raymond Galligan’s equally-reddened cheeks came into his stead but a camera stayed on Graham as he dipped back into the celebrations.

There his father, Mickey senior, waited and threw his arm around the neck of the son. A photographer’s shutter rattles off an image they’ll surely frame and as they pull away, senior plants a kiss on the cheek of junior.

Like a father sending his lad off out into the big bad world, it’s so swift that you nearly wouldn’t notice. Neither man looks at the other, but they know. No sooner done than he swiftly pushes the boy back into the throng.

You’re never too old or too Irish to show your emotions when the right moment strikes.

Chief steward around Breffni Park for years, Mickey senior achieved some notoriety when he was pictured with the four-legged friend that invaded the pitch in their win over Cavan last year.

Some suggested that it bore remarkable similarities to the family dog, and that it wasn’t the first time it had been seen on the pitch at a timely interval in a game where Mickey junior was managing.

On Sunday, they had no need for the dog. From minute one until James Smith booted the final ball as far away as he could from the post Ciaran Thompson had just struck, Cavan completely outplayed Donegal.

And they did it on the front foot.

In the pre-game analysis, Cian Mackey gave a sense of what his county had learned from last year’s final, when they surrendered meekly.

He insisted Cavan had to push up on Donegal and have a proper cut off them.

Back up on the balcony, Mickey Harte’s brow furrowed at the thought.

“I worry that if Cavan do what Cian Mackey says, the game will be over by half-time,” said the former Tyrone boss, whose forthright opinions have generally been a great addition to a brilliant BBC package.

You felt that last year’s performance was predicated on all the things Donegal could do, whereas this year was almost completely about what Cavan could do themselves.

Fear can be a greater enemy than anything you might try.

To suggest that victory was down solely to their energy would do them a massive disservice. The way in which they used the full-forward line, waiting until Hugh McFadden was drawn out before putting the ball in, you could see the homework was done.

They did bring just the right amount of anarchy too though, most of it in the unpackaged soul of Thomas Galligan, who left every fibre of his being across the pitches of Ulster these last four weeks.

He plays football like a cornered cow. The only way out is straight and it doesn’t matter who or what is in the way.

This was back on the patch where he’d had his first taste of history. Galligan was man of the match in a MacRory Cup final, grabbing everything from the skies as St Pat’s Cavan won a first title for 45 years back in 2015.

There’s a place in the game for strategy and keeping the ball out of contact and spells of possession, though many of the modern influences contribute to glumness where the players have the potential for so much more.

Sometimes, though, you need a little chaos, and he brings that to Cavan.

They got far more things right than they got wrong on Sunday, and they never played like Donegal were up on a pedestal.

That’s what they did last year, when a five-point loss flattered Cavan. This time, a four-point defeat flattered Donegal.

Standing back and waiting to beaten has to be the worst way to lose.

Of all the parts that made up Sunday, in both Armagh and Páirc Úi Chaoimh, there was nothing greater than the fact the two underdogs won because they had a go.

“To experience this just once”, wrote the fanatical wordsmith Paul Fitzpatrick, quoting from a Gearoid McKiernan tweet three years ago that no untortured soul would ever have remembered.

A county of poets, it was Tom MacIntyre who wrote the award-winning play of the ‘Gallant John Joe O’Reilly’.

Saturday was the anniversary a stormy November day in 1952 when MacIntyre walked down the town and was met by a young man who told him the news of John-Joe O’Reilly’s death that morning.

“In each corner of Breiffne there’s sorrow and pain,

Such a great-hearted sportsman we’ll ne’er see again,

Grand players may come and grand players may go,

But we’ll ne’er find the likes of the gallant John-Joe”

Thomas Galligan epitomised that spirit. His cousin Raymond, the teak-tough Padraig Faulkner, the bustling Gearoid McKiernan, the direct Conor Madden, the undervalued Gerard Smith. They were that spirit.

For Tipperary, there is even more distinct joy and emotion and pride that they were able to do it on this weekend of all weekends.

The 100th anniversary of the atrocity of Bloody Sunday, so tastefully and poignantly remembered by the GAA and journalist Michael Foley, will always be attached to Tipp’s success. The famous green and white jerseys, the colours of Michael Hogan’s club Grangemockler, will always be associated with a better kind of history.

To have the same four provincial champions a century on, especially given where two of them have come from, would near have you believe that magic is real.

The glow of the provincial championships has seldom been brighter than it is right now. Whether it’s the time of year or the shortened format, a strong feeling has emerged that the die-dog-or-shite-the-licence format has been a significant factor in the drama of November.

There is a hanging doom that the victories of Cavan and Tipperary are but a coat pulled on of a cold winter’s night. The initial sense of warm relief quickly fades and the cold reality takes over again.

Dublin could make the mercury drop very quickly indeed if they are allowed to play their semi-final with the new Ulster champions in Croke Park, which shouldn’t happen but probably will.

Like the sons of Sparta, the son of Mickey Graham senior will once more send his men out to come back with their shields or on them.

Better to die living than live waiting to die.

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