‘I still love that team. I love what we stood for and how we rebelled against the status quo’

IT IS HARD to believe that 10 years have now passed since Cavan beat Tyrone in the 2011 Ulster U21 decider in Brewster Park, Enniskillen. That April night will long be remembered for the joy it created and the demons it banished.

Cavan players celebrate their 2011 Ulster U21 final victory.

Source: ©Russell Pritchard/Presseye

On the sound of the final whistle, players raced to hug each other like we had never hugged before. Supporters emptied out of the stands to slap backs, rub heads and add to the hug count. I will never forget the moment that Gearoid McKiernan, a friend, teammate and captain wrapped his overgrown Swanlinbar arms around the trophy. In some ways, it feels like yesterday. In other ways, a lifetime ago.

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Former Cavan U21 goalkeeper Alan O’Mara.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Life was pretty simple back then. Most of us went to college lectures in different parts of the country but Cavan remained the central part of our existence. We came home regularly for training and games because we enjoyed being with each other and part of something bigger than ourselves. The mission to change Cavan football united and connected us.

Despite years of disappointing championship defeats and hard luck stories, there was something special about the chemistry, character and personality of our group. The management team of Terry Hyland, Anthony Forde, Ronan Carolan, Joe McCarthy and Ciaran Fitzpatrick empowered us to overcome the psychological baggage that had eroded the belief of too many Cavan people. They dared us to dream big and aim higher. And we did.

Terry Hyland celebrates Cavan’s Ulster U21 final win in 2011.

Source: ©Russell Pritchard/Presseye

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After losing the All-Ireland U21 final to Galway in Croke Park, we were drafted in bulk into a Cavan senior squad at a low ebb. Still boys on our way to becoming men, it looked like the stars had aligned when our victory was followed swiftly by an Ulster Minor Championship and then three more provincial titles at the U21 grade.

We expected to lead a revolution but playing chess was a lot harder than playing checkers. The seasons became longer and the travel demands increased. Mentally, it was difficult to go from being a leader amongst peers of the same age to being in an adult group that initially lacked cohesion and connection.

As the commitment and challenge rose, our control and confidence was further tested. I don’t think people fully appreciated the effort it took to rebuild the foundation required to gradually climb up the National Football League and win Ulster championship matches, never mind titles.

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Bar one good run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals in the summer of 2013, the emotional, mental and physical investment each year was rarely matched by the reward. As our mid-20s approached, life started to get harder and more complicated too. Instead of a few lectures a day to manage, there were 40-hour working weeks. Careers had to be built and not all employers prioritised Cavan football, particularly in Dublin.

As relationships got more serious, some wanted to bed down roots and reduce the amount of time spent back in Cavan. Others weren’t ready to bed down roots at all. Places like London, America, Canada, Asia and Australia grew in appeal.

By the time Cavan won the Ulster Senior Championship title in 2020, most of the class of 2011 were long gone, replaced by the younger, faster and more athletic models produced by the much-improved Cavan conveyor belt. Niall Murray and Gearoid McKiernan proved to be the most resilient and committed – playing crucial roles in the cultural reboot under Mickey Graham. Only two players on the field that day, Raymond Galligan and Martin Reilly, had given longer service. Inter-county football is a young man’s game.

Gearoid McKiernan with the cup after the 2011 Ulster final victory.

Source: ©Russell Pritchard/Presseye

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As much as we thought we were shaping Cavan football back in 2011, it was also shaping us. Success at the elite level eluded most of the group but the life lessons gathered in the Breffni blue jersey have helped develop better community leaders, entrepreneurs, employees, teammates, sons, husbands and fathers.

The likes of Kevin Meehan and Barry Reilly have been true stalwarts on the club scene and inspired many more young people to play the game. As well as role models on the pitch, Jack Brady, Niall McDermott, Niall Smith and Feargal Flanagan added huge value to classrooms around the county.

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Oisin Minagh has lived in Asia for many years working in education and has been a prominent member of that GAA community. Conor McClarey is in San Francisco managing investments in global companies and leading the Sons of Boru/Celts GAA club. Colm Smith works for West Ham United’s strength and conditioning department and remains involved with London GAA.

I last spoke to Marc Leddy last year as he was walking his young daughter into McDonald’s in Cavan, Dara Tighe after a club championship game in Killygarry and Packie Leddy when he came to the launch of my book. Each conversation was as effortless and enjoyable as they were when we were younger. Life moves on but winning a trophy has a strange way of cementing the connection between people.

When I looked at the 39 faces in our team photo from ten years ago, I was filled with pride and gratitude. I still love that team. I love what we stood for and how we rebelled against the status quo.

We are bonded forever by memories, experiences and the mission we once shared to leave the Cavan jersey in a better place. I would love to share a pint with the men from that team when the world allows it.

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This article first appeared in this week’s Anglo Celt

Alan O’Mara is the Founder of RealTalks.ie and author of ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’. He was the goalkeeper on the Cavan U21 team in 2011 and lives in New York, where he works as a performance and wellbeing consultant.

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