View from the sum­mit so sweet for Ca­van’s Castler­a­han:

First-time Ca­van cham­pi­ons Castler­a­han fi­nally got over the line after los­ing the three pre­vi­ous fi­nals

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin

The sun is low and bright and short of heat and the club cham­pi­onships are the only bit of fire on which to warm our hands.

Sit around the flame and the best story you’ll hear this win­ter be­longs to Castler­a­han, county cham­pi­ons for the first time in their his­tory and the 21st club to be added to the Ca­van roll of hon­our. They got there in the end a fort­night ago, hold­ing out against a young Crosser­lough team de­spite put­ting up no score in the fi­nal 10 min­utes.

That’s not the story, though. Not the full one, at any rate.

A first county ti­tle is nice and all but hardly cause for much ex­cite­ment be­yond the leafy city lim­its of Bal­ly­james­duff. But Castler­a­han are no or­di­nary first-timers. The fi­nal was their fifth trip to Br­effni Park for a county de­cider in four years. Their vis­its had not been happy ones.

In 2015, they lost to Kingscourt by a point. In 2016, they took Ramor United to a replay be­fore com­ing up a cou­ple shy. Last year, they went down to a Ca­van Gaels side that car­ried on to the Ul­ster fi­nal. Had they found a way to lose to Crosser­lough, it would have been four fi­nal de­feats in four years to four dif­fer­ent teams.

Du­bi­ous penalty

That’s enough to break any side.

“Oh yeah, that was there, def­i­nitely,” says man­ager Donal Keogan.

“I re­mem­ber the semi-fi­nal, we were up by 10 at half-time and they came back and got a du­bi­ous penalty and got it back to two points. There was two in it with eight min­utes left. And you could hear them on the field and in the stands. ‘These boys are bot­tlers. The Mayo of Ca­van. They’ll fold, they’ll fold’.

“Peo­ple have been very dis­re­spect­ful to this group. They’ve been up around the bench­mark, up there with the best teams in Ca­van over the past four, five, six years. To be called bot­tlers and ev­ery­thing else is just un­fair to them.

“Cer­tainly in the fi­nal, we didn’t play to our po­ten­tial and that was the weight of not hav­ing done it ly­ing on them. There was se­ri­ous pres­sure on them. Even though we didn’t talk about other years, we didn’t have to. It was there. You can’t change the past, it’s about per­form­ing on the day.

“But I was think­ing about it af­ter­wards, won­der­ing why it took us un­til we were six points down be­fore we started to play. It just shows there was a huge ex­pec­ta­tion on them as a group and they were feel­ing that pres­sure.

“They felt they had to get across the line this year, no doubt about that. And it did af­fect their per­for­mance. To get it done is a huge weight lifted off their shoul­ders.”

Tes­tic­u­lar can­cer

But even that isn’t the full story ei­ther. When the Ca­van county cham­pi­onship got underway in early Au­gust, Castler­a­han started off with a come­back win against Coote­hill fol­lowed by a come­back draw against Ca­van Gaels and a rat­tling big vic­tory over Ramor. On all three oc­ca­sions, their driv­ing force was cen­tre-back Oisín Kier­nan.

A trans­plant from Meath club St Brigid’s Ballinkree in late 2016, Kier­nan was to many eyes the stand-out player in the Ca­van cham­pi­onship across those early games. They got mugged by an in­jury-time goal against Bal­li­nagh in the fourth game but again Kier­nan stood out.

But by the time their quar­ter-fi­nal against Kingscourt came around a week later, he was un­able to take his place de­spite be­ing named on the teamsheet. It would have seemed odd to any­one who didn’t know but the rea­son was com­mon knowl­edge soon enough.

Kier­nan had found a lump and been di­ag­nosed with tes­tic­u­lar can­cer. The quar­ter-fi­nal was on a Satur­day night – the club Twit­ter ac­count an­nounced there would be a heal­ing mass for him on the Mon­day.

“The night we had to break it to the play­ers, the dress­ing room wasn’t a nice place to be,” says Keogan.

“But look, he’s a very pos­i­tive fella and please God ev­ery­thing works out and he gets back playing for us and playing for Ca­van when he comes out the other side of it. He was togged out for the county fi­nal but the med­i­cal ad­vice was for him not to play within four weeks of his surgery.

“It was a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor along the way for us too. We had it in our heads to do it for him be­cause he’d done so much for us.

“Last year was his first year for the club, he trans­ferred over from Meath. And be­fore he went for his surgery, he was our best player and prob­a­bly was the best player in the cham­pi­onship al­to­gether in the early rounds. Last year, we played him ev­ery­where and any­where but this year we put him at cen­tre-back and he ran the show from there.”

Kier­nan will tog out against Col­eraine to­mor­row for the first round of the Ul­ster club cham­pi­onship and if they get him on the pitch, it will be a small mo­ment of good­ness in a black few months. He has a road to travel yet be­fore he’s in the clear but for here and for now, there’s a golden light. It’s the best he or they could have asked for.

First one

As to the mat­ter of how far Castler­a­han will go be­fore the mu­sic stops, Keogan isn’t ex­actly bullish. He won’t say this is bonus ter­ri­tory but he will state that they’ve done the dou­ble in Ca­van and leave you to draw your own con­clu­sions. Let’s just say the cel­e­bra­tions took on their own mo­men­tum.

“They went on longer than I’d have liked but they’re over now and we got back to­gether for the first time on Tues­day night. I’d have liked to have done it ear­lier but look, win­ning your first one is spe­cial and you have to let fel­las en­joy it. Let them go and do their thing. The week­end was for their girl­friends and part­ners – they’ve put their lives on hold for months as well as the play­ers so we let them off.

“We’ll see how it turns out or what ef­fect it has. Ob­vi­ously, you’d like a big se­ri­ous run-in to an Ul­ster cam­paign and maybe if and when it’s our sec­ond or third ti­tle, we’ll shut ev­ery­thing down after a cou­ple of days and con­cen­trate on try­ing to win a pro­vin­cial ti­tle.

“But when it’s their first, you have to let them go and do their own thing.”

Good on him. The first one never hap­pens again, after all.

‘‘ In 2015, they lost to Kingscourt by a point. In 2016, they took Ramor United to a replay be­fore com­ing up a cou­ple shy. Last year, they went down to a Ca­van Gaels side that car­ried on to the Ul­ster fi­nal . . .

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOMMY DICKSON/INPHO

Enda Flana­gan shows his dis­ap­point­ment fol­low­ing Castler­a­han’s de­feat to Ca­van Gaels in last year’s county fi­nal. A key player for his club Flana­gan scored three points in this year’s de­cider against Crosser­lough.

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