By Niall Gartland
IF you ever find cause to refer to the glory days in Gowna, you’ll hardly be pressed for more specific information.
Gowna won all seven of their Senior Championship titles between 1988 and 2002, and what’s more they appeared in every final bar one between 1994 and 2002, so it’s fair to say it was a truly remarkable period for the club running along the border of Cavan and Longford.
Their current club chairman Ciaran Brady is one of a small number of Gowna players who has won the full collection of seven championship medals, and while he reflects on those halcyon days of yore for the purposes of this article, he also holds a firm belief that the future is bright for the club.
We’ll get to the Eamonn Coleman era soon enough (he was in charge for five of their titles), but it’d be remiss not to mention their maiden success – a fantastic victory over the red-hot favourites for the title, Laragh, back in 1988, with Longford man Seamus Lee leading the line on that occasion.
Brady, who was full-back on the Cavan team which won the Ulster Championship in 1997, said: “It was a long time ago but I have to say it was a fantastic experience. We came up against Laragh who were the strongest team in the county at the time – they were full of seasoned county players like John Brady, Ray Cullivan and Donal Donohoe. Laragh were expected not only to win but to win it easy.
“We totally outplayed them on the day – we held them to only three points which was good going considering the strength of their forward line. I suppose we were young and enthusiastic and held no fear on the day.”
While they were indeed underdogs, it was fair to say that their historic first victory didn’t come out of nowhere either. Here’s a trend-line for you – they won the U-12 Championship in 1979, the U-14 Championship in 1980, the U-16 League title in 1982, three minor championship titles on the spin between 1983 and 1985, subsequent U-21 Championships…. you get the drift.
They also produced some of the finest Cavan players of that or any indeed any era, including the underrated Bernard Morris, a real warrior of a player, and former All-Star Dermot McCabe (though Ciaran Brady was keen to emphasise that their success was grounded in a real team effort from everyone involved).
Perhaps surprisingly, they had to wait a further six years to get their hands on the Oliver Plunkett Cup for a second time, and Brady recalls that they lost out in some titanic tussles against a vintage Kingscourt Stars team.
“We came up against a very strong Kingscourt Stars team, they beat us in two semi-finals and one final in that period. Looking back we probably should’ve won a couple of more championships during that interim period, but Kingscourt obviously had a lot to say about that.
“We then beat Kingscourt in the semi-final in 1994 and I suppose we took over for the guts of a decade after that.”
Their championship final victories in 1994 and 1996 were particularly satisfying as they defeated neighbours and rivals Mullahoran in both instances (the match report from the local Anglo Celt newspaper described their 1-8 to 0-9 victory in 1994 as follows: “this particular one will be savoured with a greater degree of satisfaction (than 1988) as it was achieved at the expense of their next-door neighbours, who were seeking their 10th title. A crowd of nearly 4,500 witnessed history in the making as it was the first time Cootehill Celtic hosted the county final, an appropriate venue for such an historic event.)”
Gowna’s ascent to the top of the ladder in Cavan was all the more noteworthy as they’ve <traditionally had a relatively small catchment area, explains Brady.
“We’re actually a half-parish, the other half is Mullinalaghta, the team that won the Leinster Club title a couple of years ago.
“It’s a very small area and the team was made up of a lot of brothers and cousins – there were three Bradys, myself Laurence and Dessie, three Hartins, a number of Maddens and a number of O’Reillys.
“I suppose it can work both ways – yes we were restricted in numbers at times but it also brought a greater bond and affinity to the jersey and would’ve pushed us on.”
Derry legend Eamonn Coleman was in charge by the time they won their third championship title in 1996, and he remained at the helm until the end of 2002, when he stepped up to take the Cavan senior intercounty job.
Between the impact of his effervescent personality and supreme management skills, which bore fruit in the form of five championship triumphs, it’s fair to say he left a lasting impression on the club.
Brady said: “Eamonn Coleman is hugely respected in the Gowna club. He was basically accepted as one of our own during that period.
“He took over a team that was full of ability, full of leaders and full of strong-minded individuals. Eamonn’s greatest asset was that he had the ability to coordinate all the players and ensure that we were all working together. He instilled a sense of discipline in the year that allowed us to reach our potential.”
Nobody got above their station while Coleman was in charge, with the Ballymaguigan man ensuring that Gowna’s county players never slacked when they were lining out in club colours.
“Eamonn had the type of personality whereby he was able to get on well with everybody and every player on the panel had huge respect for him.
“I played county football for 10 years and Eamonn would always say the county players had to come back and stand out for the club. In the years that he was in charge, the county players gave their all for the club as well.”
Gowna had a relatively straightforward victory over Crosserlough in the 1997 final, but their 1999 title was a much more dramatic affair as late points from Terry Hartin and Dermot McCabe helped them capture the Cavan football title for a fifth time.
Around the turn of the millennium, they had young players like Mark McKeever and Cathaldus Hartin emerging on the scene, but the core of the team was the same and they added yet another title with victory over Cavan Gaels in 2000.
They won their seventh and what turned out to be final crown in 2002 with another victory over the Gaels, who were actually strong favourites heading into the game, and Brady says it was one of the sweetest triumphs of all.
“Two finals stand out in my memory, 1988 and 2002, the first and the last. Cavan Gaels beat us convincingly in the 2011 final so the impression people had was that they were set for a period of dominance, and of course that did end up being the case.
“We still managed to put in a massive performance that day, beating them by 10 or 11 points, and I suppose it was the final swan-song for a lot of our players as we were starting to show our age, so it was fantastic to put in a performance like that.”
Brady also harbours some regrets that they didn’t manage to go all the way in the Ulster Championship in any of their seven attempts, even though they were very competitive at times in the provincial arena.
“It is a bit disappointing looking back on it. We probably had our best opportunity in 1994, we were a point up against Bellaghy in an Ulster Championship semi-final and my brother actually got badly injured in injury time.
“The ref played five or six minutes of additional time and they beat us by a point. They won Ulster and got to the All-Ireland final that year. That was a big disappointment.
“In a different year we played Crossmaglen in Breffni and at half time we were eight or nine points to the good but Crossmaglen took over, dominated midfield in the second half and beat us by a point.”
Videos of Gowna’s championship final victories were uploaded on YouTube during the lockdown last year, and while Brady isn’t a particularly nostalgic sort, he’s still glad that club members can watch back on their successes.
“Personally I wouldn’t be a huge man for looking back at games. With the lockdown we’ve had a lot of our games put online and it’s been hugely interesting for our members and supporters to look back on those games and reflect on days gone by.”
That’s not to say that Brady doesn’t appreciate just how special a period it was for the club.
While the players did the job on the pitch, everyone involved behind the scenes deserved to share in their success.
“It was feeling of euphoria when you won, celebrating with your family and your supporters and the people who have trained you at underage level and contributed.
“Being chairman for the last number of years you realise the work that goes in at all levels, from caretakers, tea ladies, trainers, to fund-raisers and everyone else who has contributed.
“When a club has success it’s brilliant, but those people carry on their good work for years when clubs aren’t going well, so when you achieve success it’s important people acknowledge and enjoy it.”
Gowna slipped down the pecking order in Cavan after 2002, although they reached another final in 2007, losing on that occasion to Cavan Gaels. Brady believes their underage structures suffered when the senior team is going well, but they’ve sorted things out both on and off the field and he hopes that it won’t be long before they’re dining at the top table in Cavan again.
“We’re a small parish and the group that came through in those days managed to stay together, not too many lads emigrated so we were fortunate.
“In saying that, and it’s been widely acknowledged, when we were successful I don’t think enough emphasis was put on our underage teams at the time.
“The conveyor belt has basically been reignited over the last 10 years and we have a fantastic group of underage players coming through. We’re very hopeful that in the next number of years we’ll be back competing in senior finals again.
“I’d also like to mention that we are embarking on a major development of our playing pitch. This year we’re installing a sand-based playing pitch and we’ve done a lot of work with our facilities over the last number of years. Tarmacking the car-park, a new flood-lit walking track around the training field, a new electronic scoreboard on both the main and training field, we’ve done up our gymnasium. We’ve embarked on a lot of work in the club over the last three years.”