On 21st November 2020 the Gaelic Athletic Association held centenary commemorations to mark the Croke Park Bloody Sunday atrocity. Throughout the land, respects were paid to those who lost their lives on that fateful date in 1920. Tears were shed as history was recounted, reflected on, respected. That same weekend history was made. A new history that brought happier tears to many eyes. In the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland football championship, Tipperary overturned an 85 year wait to book their place in the semi-final, while Cavan defied the odds to set up their first championship pairing with champions Dublin since 1942. The semi-final pairings for this weekend’s two games are the exact same as they were in 1920: Tipperary v Mayo and Dublin v Cavan. This hasn’t happened in a hundred years and one can’t help but wonder if this is a divine sign of some sort. But there are those who say that not even divine intervention could facilitate the Cavanmen beating the mighty Dublin. Cavan have already been written off. Consigned to the stats books: ‘the beaten semi-finalists’ before they take to the pitch.
But they have been written off before. Two weeks ago, in fact.
The Athletic Grounds in Armagh had a new carpet laid and there was talk of it not having knit down before the game on Ulster Final Sunday. They needn’t have worried – it wasn’t the turf that would be torn up, but the predictions of every expert the length and breadth of the country. They had all backed the Donegal horse, and even at half-time, with just two points separating the teams, Tomás Ó Sé opined about Declan Bonner’s Horse of Troy: Donegal this, he said, Donegal that. Few Cavans crossed his lips. Come the final whistle, he had found the C word again, the miasma had lifted and he was even talking as though there had been two teams playing the game: the Ulster Champions and Donegal. The latter gone back to the hills until the league starts; their neighbour, on his performance, won’t be summoned from Derry to officiate a big game in Croke Park any time soon. The Breffni men headed that direction for an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin on 5th December.
No need for a steward’s enquiry, the Cavan men won fair and square. Relentlessly they forced turnovers, created chances and yet again came from behind after twice being reduced to 14 men to pull the rug from under the favourites in a prestige display of football. It was winter wonderland stuff to watch the orange sky close in on a floodlight Ulster Final and see the underdog perform with such passion and poise. Even more poignant that it was on the anniversary of the passing of the great John Joe O’Reilly that the rich tradition of good Cavan football flooded to the fore in all its glory. Tomás ‘The Tank’ Galligan himself like an army commandant who refused to stop until he’d slayed every hope of a Donegal victory. Bloody, broken and bloody brilliant, he went in for tackles that few men of their right mind would ever go in for. Like a man who remembered he’d left the immersion on, he ran at everything, desperate to get on with business. And with only one eye, a damaged wrist and spinal stress that could do with a good sun holiday, he saw it through with the rest of the troops: Big Gearóid and Pat the Butcher’s Kingscourt Star. They were all stars on that new turf in Armagh on Sunday and some will be All Stars come award time too.
But before we get to that, two games remain until the long-awaited repatriation with the Sam Maguire. With hands on the Anglo-Celt Cup and eyes on the big prize, surely the small matter of the Dubs won’t bother the Ulster Champions who play on the rough or the smooth, and have proven this year that no deficit is too large to overcome and no favourites are infallible. Hunger fuels the Cavan tank as they quest for their sixth ever title. Dublin fancy their chances at a sixth in as many years. The next game for Cavan will be just that: another game. Their approach? Two teams with a 50/50 chance. All Stars for sure. All-Ireland finalists? It’s possible.