Martin Dunne – a true Gael

Martin Dunne explains why he cut his Cavan career short in an extensive interview with Niall Gartland.

MARTIN Dunne was the talk of the country for a spell in 2013. The fleet-footed forward helped himself to nine points – eight from play – in a championship debut to remember against Armagh, and went on to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with a string of fine attacking displays en route to All-Ireland quarter-final final defeat to Munster giants Kerry.

He finished as the championship’s second top scorer that season – he was pipped at the post by Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor – and deservedly earned an All-Star nomination on the back of his performances.

In normal circumstances, that would’ve set the tone for a stellar intercounty career – a relative late-comer to the scene, he was still only in his early twenties at the time – but he didn’t gel with manager Terry Hyland and he never played again with the county.

An unfortunate injury sustained during an infamous brawl against Armagh the following season didn’t help matters.

You know the one – a dispute arose over which team should be nearer to the crowd, with Armagh maintaining that protocol dictated they as the home side should have that position but Cavan arguing that their county flag was already on that side. In the melee that followed, Dunne suffered a serious hand injury that ruled him out for the rest of the year, and believing he didn’t have the trust of his manager, he quit the inter-county set-up and never came back.

To think what could have been – Dunne and his Cavan Gaels colleague Seanie Johnston were the two best club forwards in the time, but neither lined out for their county during the middle part of the last decade.

With Martin Reilly, Cian Mackey and Gearóid McKiernan some of the top half-forwards about, it seems fair to say that Cavan underachieved during a time when blanket defences ruled the roost, but Dunne is happy with his lot and said thanks-but-no-thanks when Mickey Graham (a first cousin and another Cavan Gaels man) asked him if he’d have any interest in returning to the inter-county set-up.

Back where it all started, Dunne linked in with Cavan Gaels at senior level when he was in his final year of minor football. There were plenty of future Cavan footballers on that minor team, like Niall Murray and Kevin Meehan, and the Gaels were already mopping up county titles so it made for a pretty potent mixture. Dunne won a senior championship in his first year on the team back in 2007 under Malachy O’Rourke, who enjoyed a short spell in charge of the club before taking the reins at his native Fermanagh.

Looking back, Dunne says: “Ah Malachy was just unbelievable to be honest, you knew straight away when he was involved with the Gaels that he was going to go on to big things, he was just excellent.

“When he spoke you listened and everything was top class, nobody in Cavan Gaels has a bad word to say about Malachy.

“He was loved and it’s just a pity we didn’t get him for much longer. Fermanagh came calling after the first year with us and it was hard for him to turn down his home county. Malachy and ‘Dropsy’ [Leo McBride] were two serious operators in fairness.”

Cavan Gaels were rampant at the time, claiming four titles in six years before Dunne became involved. Dunne himself went on to win six senior championship medals with the club.

“They were in county finals nearly every year in that era. If you didn’t get to a county final it was nearly a bad year, that’s just the way it was. The older lads were driving it on, and then there was a good crop of young players who came through at one time. Of the minor team I was on, I’d say eight or nine of them ended up playing for Cavan seniors.”

While Dunne had to bide his time before playing for Cavan – he had to wait until 2012 to get a run out in the league under then-manager Val Andrews – he said it was always an aspiration of his to line out in the Breffni blue.

“It was always an ambition since I was a young fella. I was football mad, my cousin Mickey [Graham] is over the Cavan team and I’d have gone to watch him when I was young. He wasn’t the most prolific scorer but he definitely gave defences plenty of problems. He played for Cavan for a long number of years and was captain of Cavan Gaels when we won the title in 2001, which was the catalyst for our years of success. He must’ve been man of the match in four or five senior championship finals, he was a very handy footballer.”

A whippet in the footballer who shunned the weights rack, Dunne says his relatively light frame was possibly one reason why he wasn’t drafted into the squad at an earlier date. Still only in his early thirties, he says the move away from free-flowing football was another reason why his intercounty career stalled prematurely.

“I was 23 or 24 when I made the breakthrough with Cavan. It took me a while to adjust, I wasn’t the biggest of players, I was small or light, but after that first or second year out of minor I really kicked on, and was happy with how I was playing in Cavan club football. I was top scorer in the Championship for a couple of years in-a-row so I knew I had the ability. I was just waiting for the call basically.

“I was never mad into the gym really. I didn’t want to bulk up and lose that speed and agility. I thought that’s what gave me an advantage, I was quick over five or ten yards and felt I was quicker on the turn than anyone who was going out to mark me.

“I was happy enough once I got the ball in my hands, once I had that space. When I started doing weights I felt sluggish and that I wasn’t as sharp, but I probably didn’t push myself the way I should’ve done in the gym. But that was my take on it at the time. It’s different now – you have to measure up strength-wise or you won’t be playing intercounty football.

“When the game ended up going defensive and forwards had to track back as well, that stuff didn’t really appeal to me. That was one of the factors that made me decide I was going to step away from it at that stage.”

Dunne won a Leinster Junior Championship title with Cavan in 2012 (yes, you read that right). They entered the competition as a tool for giving panel players game-time, but the scheduling of the games left a lot to be desired.

“We wouldn’t have trained a pile for that competition, it was mainly an opportunity for fringe players to put their best foot forward.

“It wasn’t straightforward to be honest with you because all your games were away from home and played mid-week.

“I remember the year we won it, going down to Wexford on Wednesday night and it was a nightmare going down there and then getting back home. It was two or three in the morning before we got back. It was a good competition anyway, it was definitely an experience.”

Dunne likely would’ve made his Championship debut in 2012, but an ankle ligament curtailed his progress and he had to wait for the following year’s Ulster Championship preliminary clash agains Armagh. He gave the Orchard defence the runaround and scored exactly half of Cavan’s overall tally of 1-15.

“The League basically rolled into the Championship and I was playing really well at that stage, I was very comfortable with being part of the team.

“It was one of those days against Armagh. The first ten minutes I actually had a bit of a ‘mare. I missed a 20-yard free nearly in front of the goals, then I kicked one that hit the post and crept in and everything just seemed to flow after that.

“I think any forward would say that, once you get on the scoresheet, they settle. The longer the game goes on and you haven’t scored, the more it gets into your head that ‘I haven’t got a score’.

“The quicker you get up and running, the better for your own confidence. If you kick one or two early on you won’t be afraid to pull the trigger, whereas if you miss one or two you’ll go into a bit of a shell.”

The pundits gushed over Dunne’s performance on The Sunday Game highlights programme that evening, and he was a marked man for the rest of the Championship, albeit it didn’t hold him back.

“That was the thing, it was a completely different change. You knew you were getting that extra bit of attention. I’d done well in the league but we weren’t coming up against the same calibre of competition either. After that Armagh game, people probably realised they’d have to mark me a bit tighter.”

Dunne scored five points on their second day out against Fermanagh, but their Ulster Championship campaign came to an end with a one-point defeat to eventual champions Monaghan at the semi-final stage. The Farney County, managed by his former Gaels boss Malachy O’Rourke, carved out a surprisingly comfortable victory over Donegal in the Ulster final, so it’s definitely a case of what might’ve been. He has vivid memories of one of the big near-misses of that period.

“It was a game that hinged on a few mistakes, it was definitely one that got away.

“We were winning by four or five in the first-half but we gave a bad kick-out away and they got a goal and that brought them back into the game.

“We’d beaten them in the League and Championship so we were very confident, but when the goal went in, it shifted the whole momentum of the contest.

“We were playing well but gave them a foothold in the game and couldn’t claw it back. I remember in the last play of the game, we played the ball in and Beggan caught it and was crowded out by our lads.

“He must’ve taken about 20 steps and I’ve always said that, but at the time we had our chances and didn’t take them. Monaghan went on to win Ulster and it was a bitter pill to swallow, seeing what they did to Donegal in the final and knowing we could’ve been there.”


Cavan dusted themselves down and embarked on a qualifier run, the highlight being a 1-22 to 1-20 victory over Derry after extra-time at Celtic Park. It remains one of Cavan’s best victories of the last decade.

“You always remember those big championship games and the Derry game was massive. I’d say it was about 30 degrees up in Celtic Park, it went to extra-time and there were bodies flaking all over the place.

“It was great to get over the line because we knew London awaited us in the next round and we’d have a great chance of beating them and getting into a quarter-final.

“So it was massive to go to Derry and get the win, especially as it was a young enough Cavan team at that stage. There wouldn’t have been much expectation going up there, they were a Division One or Two team so they were highly fancied. It was a big scalp and gave us plenty of confidence.”

As expected, they brushed aside London to set up a last-eight clash against Kerry. Dunne got the Breffni Blues off to a perfect start with the opening point of this game after four minutes, but it was a false dawn and the Kingdom controlled most of the remainder of the contest, running out 0-15 to 0-9 victors.

“Kerry were obviously a quality side, but in the first-half we froze and gave them too much respect. We got off to an okay start but went 15 or 20 minutes without scoring and the game was already over by the time they went six or seven ahead.

“We regrouped at half-time and said we’d try to win the second-half and we did that. You’ll always wonder, but at the same time there were definitely more gears in Kerry.”

It was a frustrating afternoon on a personal level as that aforementioned score in the four minutes proved his only score of the contest. He was tagged by ace man-marker Shane Enright, but the main problem was that the ball wasn’t coming his way.

“Enright was sticky enough alright, but I felt confident early on and kicked a point straight away. But it was just one of those days where the ball always seemed to be going to the other side of the pitch. I couldn’t get into the game after that first point. I felt I was sharp and had the better of him, but I just couldn’t get the ball in my hands unfortunately.”

It didn’t detract from what had been a stunning debut season and he earned an All-Star nominee. It wasn’t a token nomination either – he’d genuinely been one of the stars of that year’s championship.

“Even to get a nomination was massive in Cavan. Myself, Cian Mackey and Killian Clarke were all nominated and there was a lot of hype in the county at that stage, so it was nice.

“Myself and Killian went to the All-Star trip to Boston the following year – there were lads who’d won All-Stars both years so they needed players. It was a great experience. I met lads from the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo. I already knew Cillian O’Connor a bit, his cousin Paul plays for Cavan Gaels. It was good to interact with those lads as I wouldn’t normally have got chatting to them.”

Defeat to Kerry was disappointing, but Cavan seemed to be on the right track and they achieved promotion from Division Three in the early months of 2014, with Dunne shooting the lights out. However, and he wasn’t to know it at the time, he wouldn’t play another Championship game for Cavan following that infamous pre-match brawl against Armagh in the first-round of the Ulster Championship. He was forced into watching from the stand after sustaining multiple fractures in his hand, but he’s fairly philosophical about what happened.

“It was one of those things that escalated fairly quickly. When you look back, it’s stupid to get involved in something like that.

“It ended the year for me, I was club captain and missed more or less the whole season. It’s a hard one to take but you have to get on with it.

“Lads were just flying everywhere and coming in from every angle, it happened so quickly and there was no stopping it for a few minutes. These things can be dangerous, if someone clips you from behind and hits you in the wrong spot. None of that happened fortunately, there were a few slaps thrown but nothing too major at the end of the day.

“Initially I didn’t think it was too bad. I ended up back in the parade, walking behind the band and I called the physio over to get a bit of tape on it. When I took the glove off, the physio said, ‘no you’re gone’ and we couldn’t even get the glove back on. It was a bit of a disaster to be honest with you. I watched the game from the dugout and went to the hospital as soon as the game was over.”

Scans revealed that the injury was worse than initially thought and that was it as far as the inter-county season was concerned.

“I went to Santry the next day. Two bones were completely shattered and the options were either removing the bone and putting in hard plastic, or letting it heal. I was advised to let it heal but it was a slow process, it was just one of those ones that took time. It was sore but I took a few weeks off work and went on a bit of a holiday.”

Cavan’s season came to an end in the qualifiers against Roscommon, a team they really struggled against during the Terry Hyland years.

“We were down a lot of bodies that day, six of seven members of the starting team. We already knew it was going to tough to get over the line, we found it hard enough against Roscommon when we were at full tilt, so we knew it was going to be difficult and they gave us a fair trimming.”

Dunne stuck around for another season but game-time was in short supply and he called it quits in early 2016. He was still only in his mid-twenties but it was the right decision for him at the time.

“I saw very little game-time in 2015. I knew I was good enough to be playing and it’s probably well-known that Terry and I didn’t have the best of relationships.

“I didn’t feel that full trust from him, I never felt he thought I was good enough to be there. I wasn’t enjoying it and between that and the blanket defence I decided to pull away from things.”

“When I was an u-21 footballer, Terry was over that team and didn’t pick me either. Then Val Andrews called me into the senior panel, and I couldn’t really be dropped by Terry as I was playing well, he kinda had to keep playing me.

“But when the injury came, I just couldn’t get back into the team. There’s no bad feelings or anything, that’s just the way it is and he’d probably have a different take on it.”

Dunne was, however annoyed, that Hyland stated in an interview that the forward ace had elected to go travelling. Dunne tweeted that it wasn’t the case, so it’s fair to say there was no love lost between the pair.

“I didn’t know he’d said that but when I was at work on the Monday morning, I was asked ‘what’s the story, are you going travelling?’ I said it was news to me. There was no reason to come out and say that when it wasn’t true but it is what it is.”

Dunne says that a few of his former teammates tried to coax him into staying, but it was never going to happen unless Hyland reached out to him personally.

“A few of the lads had been on to me, and one of the team coordinators, saying ‘don’t be making any rash decisions’. Terry rang me and said ‘sit down and think about it for a few weeks and we’ll sit down and have a coffee’. I’m still waiting for that phone call to come, and that made my mind up for me – if he’d wanted me badly enough he’d have given me that follow-up phone call.”

It’s a shame how things worked out, and he freely admits he’d have loved to have represented the county for an extended period.

“Absolutely, I’d have loved to have stayed on but the problem was I knew I should’ve been getting way more game-time than I was getting. I’d never sat on the bench before and knew I was good enough to be playing so I wasn’t going to be happy sitting around on the bench and getting a 15-minute cameo here and there. That didn’t appeal to me given the sacrifices you were making. Things definitely would’ve been different if I’d have had the trust of the manager.”

It wasn’t the end of his footballing story, however. Winning a league and championship double with Cavan Gaels in 2017 was a particular highlight, especially as they reached the blue ribbon Ulster Club final, where they lost to Sleacht Néill.

“It was a hell of a year, probably the best I ever had in a Gaels jersey. We never lost a League or Championship game in Cavan. Was it the best Cavan Gaels I ever played on from a technical viewpoint – definitely not but it was just one of those years. We’d a lot of lads available as there weren’t many involved with the inter-county panel, and once we got off to a good start in the league, momentum kicked in and there was just a real buzz about the place. It was a great year in fairness.”

Cavan legend Jason O’Reilly managed the team that year, and he played a big part in their success.

“Jayo is a great character and a great people person. There would’ve been 35 or 40 lads on the panel and with numbers like that, some lads will drift off. But he managed to keep everyone happy and the reserve team won the League and Championship as well. Some of the training games were tougher than Championship games we played, so he definitely knitted it all together and got a good response out of us.”

They came undone against Sleacht Néill in the final, no great shame given the pedigree of the Derry team.

“We’d actually played them in 2014 in the first round of the Ulster club up in Owenbeg and only lost by a point or two, that was the year Peter Canavan was over us.

“We were confident enough because of that game, but we found out they’d kicked on and I suppose that’s because they were more seasoned than us. They were definitely the better team on the day but we didn’t perform the way we could in the first-half.

“The second half was a much-better showing from ourselves but they’d some class players. Shane McGuigan probably scored 1-4 or 1-5 and Brendan Rogers and Chrissy McKaigue bombed up from defence. They’re a serious club team and were close to winning an All-Ireland club, so it was a big ask to beat them. We gave it our best shot and it just wasn’t good enough that day.”

When Mickey Graham was appointed as Cavan boss ahead of the 2019 season, he asked Dunne if he’d like to give the inter-county scene another go. However, there was always only going to one answer.

“He texted me the night he got the Cavan job, to ask me if I’d dust off the boots. I just said I think that ship has sailed for me. But I’d a really good relationship with him and when he came on board he changed the whole set-up. He only wanted lads who wanted to be there and that’s the road he went down and they’ve reaped the rewards, they got an Ulster Championship out of it. I suppose they were unlucky to get back-to-back relegations but they did get an Ulster title and that will be remembered more than the relegations.”

Drawing a contrast with intercounty football during his playing days, he says that it’s become much more professional.

“There’s a full-time strength and conditioning coach employed by Cavan County Board, Andre Quinn, he’s supposed to be excellent and drives serious standards.

“We probably didn’t have that and there wasn’t the same player buy-in and that’s the difference. When you look at the physiques of the current Cavan players, the difference is obvious and you can see the work that’s gone into it. In our day, when we went back to the club, that was basically the end of the gym work but now the lads keep on working away. That’s probably the difference from my day, the talent wasn’t any worse but the work ethic wasn’t the same.”

Dunne is tipping his toes into the world of management, taking the reins at Junior Championship hopefuls Drumlane. It eats into his hours, but so far it’s going well – and who knows, maybe he’ll be back on the intercounty scene at some stage in the future, this time behind the sidelines.

“Last year I was still playing and I got a bad knee injury in training and it kinda sickened me. I’d already been thinking that my time was coming to an end and I got an opportunity at Drumlane. It’s an exciting wee job to get in fairness, it’s only 15 minutes down the road and they’re a really good young group. I weighed up the options and decided to take the plunge and go for it. It’s completely different than playing – it’s full on, you’re dealing with the team, the club itself, stats men and so on. There’s a lot of planning and analysing involved so there’s a lot more to it than playing.”

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere

No tags for this post.

Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW