“An overnight success, ten years in the making”, was how Anglo Celt Sports Editor Paul Fitzpatrick described Crosserlough’s first senior championship triumph since 1972.
A golden generation of players who ran amok at underage level have now done the business at senior level, and it’s worth pausing for a second to remember where it all started.
Nine players who started the senior championship final replay victory over Kingscourt – Patrick O’Reilly, James Smith, John Cooke, Conor Rehill, Shane McVeety, Brandon Boylan, Stephen Smith, Peter Smith and Patrick Lynch – won a league and championship double at U-14 level back in 2012, and they also won the club’s first minor championship in 21 years in 2016.
Manager Jimmy Higgins and selectors Pauric Lynch and Philip Smith have been there all the while, and when you have continuity like that, it’s little wonder that they ended almost 50 years of hurt in Cavan.
Perhaps the making of the team wasn’t the good days, however, but in how they’ve responded to adversity in the last few years.
Let’s be honest – they blew it in the 2018 championship final, relinquishing a six-point lead at the three-quarter mark as Castlerahan pulled off an unlikely looking victory, while last year’s semi-final defeat to Ramor was a stark reminder that success at senior level wasn’t necessarily their destiny.
Then this season, their talisman Dara McVeety decided to head off to Australia, but the players took the necessary action after some soul-searching and the rest is history.
James Smith, for whom it’s been a dream year – he won an Ulster medal with Cavan – says that they knew they had to raise their game to compensate for the loss of Dara McVeety and Paul McEvoy, their two most experienced players.
“Dara’s one of the most experienced players in Ulster – he was a massive loss to Cavan as well. When he left, a lot of us, including myself, knew we had to stand up to be counted.
“He’s coming back this year and a few others will be back as well so hopefully we’ll have an even stronger panel.”
“Dara rang me after we won the championship and he said he was absolutely hopping over in Australia, in fairness to him.
“48 years is a long time. I’m only 21 and I’ve never seen Crosserlough win anything at senior level. He obviously wishes he was there but he was still absolutely delighted for us.
“It’s been a tough year for him – the year he leaves we win the county championship and then Cavan go and win Ulster, but he’ll come back hungrier than ever to win something himself.”
Assured full-back Patrick O’Reilly, who’s played on the same team as Smith since he was a kid, says that they didn’t sit on their hands during the interminable lockdown which dragged on from March to July. They had a point to prove, and the small matter of a pandemic wasn’t going to stop them.
“It was a tough blow when we lost to Ramor last year because everyone wanted to put things right after 2018.
“We reflected on our own game and what we could bring to 2020. We’re a young team, but we’re an experienced young team if that makes sense, and I think losing those big matches made us stronger. We worked hard during lockdown, doing a lot of stuff on our own – be it using gym equipment at the house or running, just to keep ourselves in shape as we knew the matches were going to be back at some stage.
“Dara and Paul were two huge losses, but it didn’t affect the group as boys knew they had to stand up in their absence. In years gone by we were looking at Dara McVeety to pull us out of a whole in big games, but we couldn’t be relying on him any more.
“It wasn’t like he was injured, he was on the other side of the world, so I think it was an opportunity for the likes of Paddy Lynch, James Smith, Conor Rehill and Stephen Smith to show what they could do.”
A number of teams would’ve fancied their chances of going all the way in Cavan, so it wasn’t immediately apparent that Crosserlough were destined for overall victory. It’s a long road to the top as well due to the group stage format, and they opened up with a comfortable victory over Lavey before stuttering to a 1-13 to 1-10 victory over Laragh.
They bounced back with a 3-15 to 0-14 victory over Lavey before they gained revenge for last year’s semi-final defeat to Ramor, coming from seven points behind to claim a thrilling 3-11 to 3-9 victory (and it was still only the group stages).
They drew Gowna in the quarter-finals and made hard enough work of that particular encounter, and everything was on the line in the semi-final against Castlerahan – their local rivals, the reigning champions, and the very team who had dashed their dreams in the 2018 decider.
Two goals in extra-time sealed an unforgettable victory, and O’Reilly says it’s one of the most gruelling games he’s ever played in.
“We hadn’t beaten them in a couple of years so we had to put that to bed. It was relief more than anything, it’s one of the toughest club games I’ve ever played, between the physicality and pace of the game – it was unbelievable, and the sun was belting down in Breffni as well so that only added to it.
“It was tough-going when it went to extra-time so to pull through was an unbelievable feeling.”
James Smith, likewise, pencils it as a major moment in Crosserlough’s season, and says their strength-in-depth made the difference on the day.
“We were almost afraid to lose, boys were out on their feet but the players who came off the bench did what the starters were no longer able to do. We’d the better bench. It was a massive victory for us, whenever we’d played Castlerahan in the past we always drew or lost by a point.”
Crosserlough were pitted against Kingscourt in the final, and not for the first time in the campaign, it was a Jekyll and Hyde performance as they almost threw away a 1-5 to 0-1 lead.
The match ebbed and flowed in what was a pound-for-pound classic broadcast live on RTE, and Kingscourt looked the more likely victors as the clock ticked into injury time.
Mark Stuart kicked a superb equaliser right at the death, however, and they knew what they had to do in the replay, which they edged on a final scoreline of 0-13 to 0-8.
O’Reilly said: “In the second day out I was designated to mark Barry Reilly, who’s a very smart footballer who can control the tempo for Kingscourt. We knew if we shut him out we could shut Kingscourt out.
“We knew going into the replay it was going to be another tough game, but we knew if our first touch was right and if we won midfield, we’d be in the game right until the very end.
“In the first game we had an unbelievable first-half and then stopped playing for a bit and let them back into it. Maybe that was because the semi-final went to extra-time, but we knew if we played for the full 60 minutes we could land the title and thankfully we did.”
Smith scored an absolutely sensational point in the replay which was viewed by half the country on social media, catching the ball one-handed in the middle of the park while being hounded by Padraig Faulkner, before heading straight for goal and knocking it over the bar.
Smith is modest about the point, and says there were no hard feelings on Padraig’s part when they met up again, this time on the same side, at county training.
“I just leaned back and closed my eyes and hoped that it landed. You wouldn’t really give it much thought, I scored another point after it. I was sent to do a job at midfield and thankfully it worked out. I was marking one of the best players in Ulster, not many people do that to Faulkner.
“He’s an absolute gentleman in fairness. I came back into county training and he came over and gave me a little dig. Everyone commented on the catch, he said he’d have done the same to me if he had a chance. There were no hard feelings. There was no mouthing in the game, I hit him hard and he hit me hard and that’s the nature of the game.”
There was a bit of extra pressure on his Smith as his family are steeped in Crosserlough history – his uncle Phlip and father Shay played on the teams which lost two championship finals in the nineties, so it was a sweet moment for the family when they finally got over the line after almost five decades.
“We’ve a big football family. Philip’s a selector on the team and won the Ulster Championship with Cavan in 1997. Football’s in the family, we’d no other choice but to play football really.
“There was no-one on the field afterwards but you saw them after the game and it was an unbelievable feeling, you just wish you could bottle it, it was a dream come true really.”
It’d be tricky to name everyone who played their part in their success, but Patrick O’Reilly had particularly kind words for Jimmy Higgins, who’s been his club manager since he was an U-12.
“His analysis is brilliant – he thinks a little bit differently than anyone else I’ve experienced and he always gets things spot on.
“There’s about 25 lads on the panel who did the double from U12 to U21 level, and Jimmy instilled that winning mentality into us as well, so we really want to push on and win more titles.”
Looking back on their run to capturing the Oliver Plunkett Cup for the tenth time, O’Reilly says that it’s all a bit of a haze, but they have age on their side and it’d be a safe bet that they’ll win at least another title or two.
“It nearly feels like it never even happened because it went by so quickly – the matches were week-after-week-after-week, there was barely time to think and then the whole thing was over.
“When a few of us were chatting about it over Christmas, we were saying it nearly felt like we didn’t even win it. A few of us partied a little too hard so a lot of us had to isolate afterwards.”
Smith, meanwhile, finished the season with an Ulster Championship medal in his back-pocket. He’s still only 21 so maybe the magnitude of what he has achieved hasn’t entirely hit home yet, but it was undoubtedly a special year.
“The two titles came around very quickly. I got injured against Monaghan in the preliminary round and it was a race to get back in time for the Donegal game. Thankfully I did and was able to play the whole game.
“Everyone was saying ‘if you win Ulster that’s some year for you never mind everything else’. Both titles were a long time coming and I got both in the one year so it’s been a dream.
“Maybe I don’t appreciate it fully as I’m still playing but it’ll be nice to look back on. It’ll be nice to have signed Cavan and Crosserlough jerseys in the house, that’ll mean a lot.”