By Niall Gartland
CAVAN through and through. Anthony Forde soldiered on for more than a decade after pocketing an Ulster Championship medal in 1997, possibly more in hope than in expectation, but he’s content enough when he looks back on it all.
For one thing, Forde won plenty with Cavan Gaels during the lean years with the county – winning the Cavan Senior Championship was almost an annual tradition in those days – and there was also that sense of pride and responsibility that came with representing the county and all of which that entailed.
It wasn’t the typical path to a Cavan career. He grew up representing Shannon Gaels, a Junior club based in remote Blacklion on the border with Fermanagh, close to Cuilcagh Mountain.
St Patrick’s, Cavan – the traditional breeding ground for footballers in the county – was more than an hour away, so he went to secondary school in Leitrim, but he was good enough that his potential didn’t go unnoticed.
Forde said: “Blacklion is a lovely part of the world, it’s very much understated. In recent years Nevin Maguire has put it on the map with all that he has achieved as a businessman.
“Shannon Gaels is a small club, it’s a big area but very rural. It was only set up in 1978, they’ve won one Junior Championship and I was fortunate to win three Division Three leagues in my time there.
“But it’s a great club and they helped me massively when I was growing up, pushing me along and helping to develop a bit of character in me.
“It was a good hour and 15 minutes away from Cavan town in those days, the roads have improved massively, so representing the county was a bigger challenge. It puts into context how well Jason McLoughlin has done in recent years, to establish himself as a good Cavan player as you’ll need a good support network around you because of the travelling involved.
“It was a great part of my life and I was fortunate to play for two clubs over my life-time. Some people say it’s ‘one man, one club’, and I understand that, but with the movement of people nowadays it’s getting more common for people to move around.
“I went to school in St Clare’s, Manorhamilton in Leitrim. We wouldn’t have been on the radar as such. It was different in those days, with social media nowadays you don’t miss anything, but it was a different era, the footballing network isn’t as developed.
“It was a great time though, we got to a Connacht ‘B’ final and I very much enjoyed my school days. You won’t come across as down to earth people as Leitrim people. If you talk to whoever has managed down there, men like Mickey Moran and Terry Hyland, they’ll say they loved the people. They don’t take themselves too seriously yet they’re very passionate about the GAA.”
Forde grew up aspiring to play for the county, and it was that determination that saw him represent Cavan at underage level before being drafted into the senior set-up by their trail-blazing manager Martin McHugh in 1995.
“It was an ambition of mine,” Forde said. “My dad is a Monaghan man and they were arguably the top team in Ulster during the eighties and I’d have gone to a lot of those matches. I wanted to get the very best out of myself and represent the county. My dad represented Emyvale and I’d cousins who played with Monaghan at underage levels, and I suppose I wanted to follow in their footsteps with Cavan.”
The Breffni County, despite having a decent team, failed to make any sort of impact in the early nineties in Ulster. Bringing eventual All-Ireland champions Donegal to a replay in 1992 was about as good as it got. The appointment of Donegal legend McHugh turned out to be an inspired one – he didn’t have much managerial experience, but he knew his stuff, knew how to relate to players and was a fiercely driven competitor. A batch of talented younger players (with Forde among them) were coming through the ranks and it all started to come together in the mid-nineties.
“I played on a fairly mediocre minor team in 1994. I remember I must’ve been the first man taken off in a minor match against Monaghan. It was in Breffni Park and I remember coming off thinking ‘will I ever be back here again?’
“I was starting to doubt myself, questioning whether I was cut out for football at that level. I went to college the following year and played Sigerson Football with Athlone. Back then you could play senior football as a fresher and that helped get me on the radar.
“I remember Martin McHugh came down and took Athlone for a few training sessions. He brought me into the Cavan u-21 set-up, we were fortunate to get to the Ulster final in 1995 and lost after a replay to Donegal, and after that I was brought into the senior squad. I came on with 15 minutes to go against Tyrone in the Ulster final, and that was my first introduction into senior football with Cavan.”
Even though Cavan hadn’t won anything of note for longer than almost seems fair to mention, there were still plenty of footballing heavyweights in the squad, like Stephen King, Damien O’Reilly and Fintan Cahill. Forde says it was a bit ‘daunting’ linking in with the panel but they quickly put him at ease.
“I’d always looked up to those lads, then you’re walking into a dressing room with them. They’re big characters but really good fellas as well. It was a very professional set-up and a lot of our u-21 squad had recently graduated into the team as well. It’s a bit daunting initially, those lads were all recognised names in the county, but I just wanted to go in and make an impact, and be the best I could be.”
Cavan’s Ulster Championship winning campaign in 1997 wouldn’t have happened only for a late equalising score from Forde against Fermanagh in the first round, bringing the game to a replay. History records that Forde was the hero of the hour, but it was almost a very different story for the young forward.
“I was a sub that year, and I was fortunate enough to get the equalising score in the drawn game against Fermanagh.
“Being from Blacklion, there’s a rivalry with Fermanagh so it probably meant more for me and the people who are close to me, than others.
“We got over the line in the replay but sometimes people forget that that was a really good Fermanagh team, with players like Rory and Raymie Gallagher, Shane King, Stephen Maguire, Collie Curran – good players who could’ve punched a hole in the Ulster Championship if they’d got over us.
“I remember Liam McBarron had a good opportunity to get the insurance score just before I equalised, he missed and our goalkeeper Paul O’Dowd got the ball out quickly and I managed to get the score at the end of the move.
“Beforehand I’d missed two far easier chances, but everyone’s patting you on the back after getting the draw and I was thinking ‘Martin’s going to be delighted with me, I’m going to be king for a day.’
“I went into the dressing room and Martin says ‘Anthony, if you hadn’t kicked that point at the very end, I probably would’ve kicked you from here to Blacklion’.
“That quickly put my feet back on the ground, there was no getting above your station and there was definitely merit in that. It was still nice and we obviously kicked on from there.
“Talking about Martin, people employ psychologists but he already had those man-management skills and knew how to read a room. It wasn’t long since he was a player himself so he knew what was going on in players’ heads, knew our psyche, and yes there were also times when you needed the arm around the shoulder and he was able to do that too.”
Cavan won their first Ulster Championship final in decades with a dramatic win over Derry, but Forde isn’t alone in thinking that they dropped the ball with a fairly flat display in the All-Ireland semi-final against a beatable Kerry side.
“You look back it at now and the whole palaver, and wonder if that had an impact. The Ulster Championship win was absolutely massive for the county, and we probably weren’t as well-prepared mentally going into the semi-final as we should have been. Maurice Fitzgerald obviously was an incredible player, he had one of those unbelievable seasons, but we felt we didn’t do ourselves justice and you’d look back on that one with some regret alright.”
The 25th anniversary of their Anglo Celt-winning team was marked at the Ulster final this year, with the players introduced to the crowd. Forde wondered whether it would be slightly awkward, with Cavan not playing, but he enjoyed the occasion.
“It was a lovely event, well-organised by both the Ulster Council and Cavan County Board. It was a great day and sometimes when your team isn’t actually involved, you feel like a gooseberry going into these things, but it was nice to see all the lads again and to reminisce. It was really nice I have to say.
“It was great to look back, and what helped was that the lads won Ulster again in 2020. We were fortunate ultimately, we went on a great journey together and it was lovely to see everyone again.”
The reality is that 1997 victory was a high water-mark for that team. Legends like Stephen King retired shortly thereafter, while the younger generation struggled on gamely but an Ulster final defeat to Tyrone in 2001 was about as good as it got. At the time, Forde didn’t think 1997 would, in a sense, be the end of the story.
“Like a lot of the lads I was only 20 years old at that stage. I remember running out on Croke Park in 1997 and saying to the sub goalie Benny McCormack that ‘this is great’, thinking to myself it was going to be like this every year. It was another ten years until we got back to Croke Park, I think it was a league semi-final. Sometimes when you’re young you don’t fully appreciate things. It is disappointing that we didn’t kick on, we could’ve achieved things but it didn’t happen.”
The following season turned out to be an annus horribilis for the county and their new manager, former Down footballer Liam Austin, was effectively forced out by player power. Forde, who played in practically every position during his career, says he was indebted to Austin, however.
“I started off as a forward when I was a young fella, then Liam Austin put me into the half-back line.
“It was new for me and I remember in my first game in 1998, I was marking a fella Scott Doran from Wexford, he’s sadly passed away since, and he’d scored 1-1 on me after minutes.
“I was thinking ‘here we go, that’s it, that’s me done’ but in fairness Liam persevered with me when it would’ve been easy to whip me off. I was a young lad playing in a new position but he saw something in me and I’m grateful to him because I pushed on from them.
“The year as a whole didn’t go well but to be fair I’d have good time for Liam in the sense he gave me my first opportunity at half-time. He’s a really nice man as well – when the championship was over for the year with Shannon Gaels, he knew I wanted to go travelling and he made contact with me and helped me with that as well.
“I’d have eternal gratitude to him for giving me my opportunity with the county and it was unfortunate how things finished up with him, but I’ll always remember the loyalty he showed me and that he didn’t whip me off against Wexford.”
Cavan reached their only other Ulster final in that era in 2001, when they were narrowly defeated by Tyrone. The late Cormac McAnallen’s palmed effort to the net made the difference on the day so it was another missed opportunity.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t really capitalise on things. We came back in 2001 and possibly that game was there for us on the day. It was a super Tyrone team admittedly, but we performed to a reasonable level and just didn’t get over the line which was unfortunate.
“Cormac’s goal was the difference – I think Jayo [Jason Reilly] had a chance where he went to lob the ‘keeper and it didn’t come off, but in fairness he got the goal in the 1997 final so we can have no complaints there. We could’ve got something out of that game but that was an excellent Tyrone team.”
They reached the Division One final the following year, but again they came up against the Red Hands. It was an excruciating experience for the Cavan fraternity as they were beaten out the gate on a rainy day at Clones. At one stage in the second-half, Peter Canavan pulled off a Ronaldinho-esque flick to rub salt in the wounds.
“We came back in 2002 and Tyrone gave us a notorious pasting in the National league final. I remember Peter’s backheel well, I got a yellow card for putting the elbow into him afterwards. That was disappointing. Croke Park was out of commission at the time and the game was in Clones. We could’ve built on something under our then-manager Mattie Kerrigan but it wasn’t to be.”
Their next manager was Derry legend Eamonn Coleman, who had led Cavan club side Gowna to five Senior Championship titles in the previous years. Again, major success wasn’t forthcoming, but Forde, who had two separate stints as captain during his Cavan career, still had great time for the charismatic Coleman.
“Eamonn came in at the beginning of the 2004 season. He had Martin McElkennon in with him as well, and in later times Damian Cassidy also got involved, they were great lads. You could see his passion and how driven he was, and how he won an All-Ireland with Derry. He was involved with Gowna so he’d a great knowledge of the Derry club scene. He was a great motivator.”
One of the most frustrating moments of Anthony’s career occurred in 2006, when he was banned for 12 weeks for kicking out at an opponent in a league match against Sligo. He missed the Ulster Championship as a result, and while the suspension was arguably unduly harsh, he says he only had himself to blame.
“I pulled a boot on a fella in Sligo, it was so stupid, it was ridiculous really. I didn’t cause him any damage but it was stupid to put myself and the team in that position, and I was the captain that year as well.
“Not only that but my wife continues to remind me of it, she’s a teacher, so she’s off during the summer which is obviously peak football season.
“We couldn’t get married in the summer months so we opted for a Christmas wedding, and she continuously reminds me we could easily have got married in the summer as a result of the suspension.
“They changed the rule a year later – that you could only get banned for four weeks for that action, but it was my own fault as I needlessly put myself in that position. It was a stupid thing to do. Sometimes people in my line of work Google me before meeting me and it’s one of the first things that come up, they must get a very bad impression!”
Forde eventually wrapped things up with Cavan in 2008. Arguably it was before his time but work-commitments made giving his full attention to the county nigh on impossible.
“Donal Keogan’s last year in charge was my last year as well. The body was in good enough nick but I travelled a lot with work. I was in England multiple times a week so I was going back and forth for training and it was exhausting. I wasn’t really happy with my efforts with Cavan, what I was producing fell short of what I’d have hoped and expected. I just said I wasn’t able to give it the time and that was it.”
His success on the club circuit helped compensate for the bad days out with Cavan. He transferred to Cavan Gaels in 2003 and won six county medals during a glorious period for the club. Generally, people from Shannon Gaels understood the reasoning behind the transfer.
“There’ll always be people who are disappointed by things like that but by and large it was fine. I tried to be as open as I could in explaining my reasons. I’d moved to Cavan town and was working for Quinn Insurance so I was spending a lot of time in England, I was running part of the UK operation. When you have a high enough profile, you’re going to get a bit of stick when you transfer clubs but that goes with the territory.”
On the adjustment of moving to a top senior side in Cavan littered with county stars, he said: “I played with lads like Mickey Graham and Cathal Collins so there was a bit of familiarity and I was comfortable moving into that environment.
“However, my style of football had to adapt a little bit. When I played with Shannon Gaels, I had to play a fairly singular game, I wouldn’t have got the head up as much.
“I remember in my first game with Cavan Gaels, it was a league game against Ballymachugh, I was trying so hard to impress but I was taking the ball down blind alleys. I had to learn to spray the ball around a bit more. It was a learning curve. I’d ten great years with Shannon Gaels and 13 great years with Cavan Gaels, I was fortunate to play for two excellent clubs.
“I joined Cavan Gaels in 2003 and my last season was in 2010. We played in eight county finals in my time, we were always there or thereabouts and that was testament to the structures they had in place and the ability they had to develop young players. I retired in 2010, we lost the final that year to Kingscourt but we came back and won it again in 2011, I was on the management team that season.”
Forde also got back involved with the world of intercounty football, having a stint alongside Terry Hyland during a period of rich success for the u-21s, followed by a period with the senior team.
“Terry asked me to get involved with the Cavan u-21s, so I was with them for 2010 and 2011. We got across the line in 2011 – that was Gearóid McKiernan’s team and I suppose it broke the mould because they ended up winning four Ulster u-21 titles in a row. It was our first Ulster u-21 since I was playing back in 1996 and it put the template in place for that great run we had in those years.
“I assisted Terry at senior level as well, he’s a really good fella and from the very first conversation I had with him, I knew he was in it for the right reasons. It wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about himself, it was about trying to make Cavan football better.
“I was just after retiring so I wanted to make sure I could pass on all the bits and pieces I learnt under all the great managers I played under. That was important to me, to try to pass that onto the next generation.”
Things came full circle for Forde at club level as well, as he helped manager his native Shannon Gaels for three seasons. Junior Championship success eluded them but they weren’t far away.
“We didn’t have big numbers or resources but Shannon Gaels have always tried to punch above their weight. I went into management there, working with former county chairman Tom Reilly, he’s a great man. We didn’t win a Junior Championship which was disappointing, but we got to three semi-finals and one final. By the third year, we’d lost 11 members of our starting team to emigration by then and that’s a big, big challenge for the club.”
In the here and now, Forde is living in Laragh, and is mucking in with that club as well.
“I’ve been involved with them at underage and have sat on the executive as well. It’s a rural club and has a lot of good people who are passionate about the GAA. My wife’s father was one of the founding members, he sadly passed away in 2001 and her brothers are all living away from the parish. I feel I’ve a personal responsibility to help keep his name alive and give something back to the club. They’re really good people and it’s nice to be involved with them.”
Forde doesn’t rule out a return to adult-level management in the coming years, but a particular passion of his is ensuring that young players coming through the ranks in Cavan have the best possible pathway to succeed.
“I probably will return to management at some stage. My kids are at an age now where I’m a glorified taxi service, so that’s the one thing that has me stretched at the moment.
“I was involved in our player development programme last year so I’m anxious that we implement the findings from that. I’ve a passion in ensuring the young players coming through have the best structures in place.
“We need that in Cavan, I’m conscious some of our stalwarts, lads like Martin Reilly, Raymond Galligan, Gearóid McKiernan, Jason McLoughlin, are coming to the end of their careers and we need to replace them with up and coming talent coming through. It’s something I’ve a great interest in – ensuring we absolutely maximise our resources in this county.”
Finally, when he looks back on his own career, it’s with a great deal of satisfaction. Yes, he has plenty of medals, but it’s the friendships he made that ultimately mean more than a shiny piece of silver.
“I suppose I was in a fairly unique position of being involved with two great clubs, as well as the county. I look back on it with a lot of fondness and have made a lot of friendships. You mightn’t see lads for four or five years and you go straight into talking about football and having the craic – that’s the great thing about the GAA at the end of the day.”