‘I turned around and I think I was hit by a herd of buffalo, I never seen a pitch fill up as quick’

1997. ANOTHER TIME, another place.

You only have to study the evolution of the GAA jersey as a starting place. Back in 1997 Cavan were the envy of most counties with their cool strip, but what was most illuminating about it was that their young manager Martin McHugh had a hand in its’ design.

Cavan players celebrating their 1997 Ulster final success.

Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

That’s the kind of detail McHugh brought to the job.

In his first year, they made it to an Ulster final only to get caught up in the hype of a first provincial decider since 1983. The newspaper supplements, the back-slapping, all those little intangibles that led Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher to bemoan their build-up to last year’s final as being destroyed by a ‘giddiness’ that crept into the panel.

In the interim, McHugh dialled down on everything. The introduction of Arsène Wenger into English soccer changed the attitude of sportsmen to their diet. The waves from north London were felt as far away as Gowna, Cavan Town and Bailieborough.

Cavan would win that 1997 Ulster title, a Jason Reilly goal being the difference in a 1-14 to 0-16 win over Derry.

The present Cavan manager Mickey Graham was a late sub in that final, coming on for the teenage Larry Reilly. He admits now that changing their thinking led to some comical scenes.

“There were a couple of players who when we had pre-match meals before big games – we’d get spaghetti bolognese – they used to ask ‘Where’s the low-calorie full Irish?’ recalls Graham.

“I’ll not mention the names. I wasn’t one of them.

“They used to look at this spaghetti as if it was alien, they were more interested in a breakfast roll or something else. It was a culture shock at that stage for them – we’d a few farmers on the team and a few country boys who liked their full Irish the morning of a game.

“It would’ve taken a while to convince them that this was the way the game was going, let me tell ya.”

All the little extras culminated in that glorious day in Clones sunshine when they delivered their first Ulster crown since 1969.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday. I think I hadn’t time to breathe before the place was converged upon,” says Graham now, a few days before he attempts to halt the 22-year drought back to Cavan’s last provincial triumph when they face Donegal this Sunday.

“I turned around and I think I was hit by a herd of buffalo, I’ve never seen a pitch fill up as quick. The one memory I have, because I went to grab one of my team mates beside me, but I couldn’t get near him because the crowd was on so quickly.

“You have all seen the interviews, sure Martin McHugh was barely able to talk. We couldn’t get near the stand. It was just so much joy and, I suppose, hurt. A lot of people had never seen Cavan win an Ulster title before.

“It just shows you the tradition and what people think of football in Cavan.”

Mickey Graham was part of the Cavan playing ranks in 1997.

Source: © Matt Browne/INPHO

While he always hankered ambitions to manage in football, Graham states his appetite for the county scene was on the wane prior to landing the job.

“It would have been a job I would have liked. And as I got older and probably wiser, I said to myself, ‘do you really need the hassle of all this?’

“Because the game had gone to a different level in terms of commitment, training five nights a week, weekends away from your family and stuff,” he says.

“As I got older, I was saying, ‘no, maybe not.’ To be honest with you, I was happy enough working away with the club scene.

“Then the job came along and my name was thrown out there. Even at that I wasn’t really pushed on it until it came to a decision I had to make and I was asked if I would come and talk to them.

“It snowballed from there, I got the job and here I am now.”

So here he is, in his first year, a Leinster title in the bag with tiny Longford outfit Mullinalaghta last winter prior to a relegation from Division One with Cavan and an appearance in the Ulster final in his first year.

Mickey Graham celebrating Mullinlaghta’s Leinster final victory last December.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It’s not unusual. Of the last twelve Ulster finals including this one, nine managers of the competing counties were in their first year managing that county.

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And now that he is there, facing a Donegal team in their eighth final in nine years?

“We’ve earned the right to be there, we’ve come through three tough games and when you get to the final, the old cliché goes that it’s all on the day.

“I don’t believe it’s all on the day, you have to believe you can win it before you even get there. If you don’t believe you can win it, what’s the point? You might as well sit at home.”

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