By Niall McCoy
THE curse of the burning trousers. It might sound like a dodgy Harry Potter knock-off picked up in Jonesboro market back in the day, but around Drumgoon it was a legend that continued to grow with every passing heartbreak.
Championship success would elude the club, the curse predicted. And it seemed to be an accurate one. That was until a 23-game unbeaten championship streak resulted in four championship trophies. The Cavan club’s story is entertaining, if anything.
Knock the calendar back 20 years and the warnings of the late Jack Yorke seemed to hold more weight. The Éire Óg club looked destined to win their first ever adult championship trophy in 2000 before Eamon Gaffney found the corner of the net in the final seconds to send the Junior title Cornafean’s way. What was that about burnt trousers?
No better man to tell the story than former GAA President and noted orator Aogán Ó Fearghaíl.
“Jack was a neighbor of mine,” said Ó Fearghaíl. “There was a parish league tournament, four teams, back in the ‘50s when one end of the parish would play the other end and so on.
“The lads used to tog out on the side of the pitch and the final ended in the typical fashion, with a good row. All hell broke loose.
“Some fella set fire to the grass and the trousers of ones of the teams were burnt. The Priest, who was President of the club, was very cross and very upset and it was said that we would never win anything.
“Jack Yorke was the only man I ever heard keeping that story going.”
For Jimmy Reilly, the current club chairperson and the captain in 2000, a prank half a century ago had nothing to do with the loss. It was more down to some mystery additional time.
“We were ahead by a point and there was four or five minutes played over and next thing the goal went in,” he said.
“We lost by two and they played seven and a half minutes over.
“All I heard that year was that you have to lose one to win one. It had to be the year that I was captain that we lost it!”
Ó Fearghaíl had his own tales of woe from his playing days. And it seemed that they would forever be confined to the shadows of parish neighbours Cootehill.
“We are a small club and we are in the same parish of Cootehill, the club of Charlie Gallagher and the great three-in-a-row Senior Championship winners in the 1950s.
“We hadn’t won anything at all and it was very easy to make excuses to yourself. We weren’t good enough and if all else failed there was a curse to fall back on.
“I played for 12 years for Drumgoon in the championship. It was just knock-out then and I never played on a Drumgoon team that won a championship game, never mind a championship.I played 12 championship games and lost all 12 of them.”
But in 2001, the club changed irrevocably – and it wasn’t because the curse was lifted, no it was down to the stunning work of a group of players under the guidance of manager Paddy Bates.
They picked themselves off the floor and got back to the 2001 county final where Kildallan waited.
It looked like business as usual with their opponents leading with just four minutes remaining, but 97 years of hurt would be sent packing in eight glorious minutes as Drumgoon hit 1-4 without reply, Eddie Jackson crowning victory with a goal three minutes into additional time. Championship silverware was finally on its way to Boyle Park.
Reilly was watching on from the sidelines at Breffni Park as injury curtailed his involvement.
“I had fluid in my knee that year so I wasn’t playing all the time and I did my cruciate too,” he said. “Eddie Jackson got Man of the Match in the final.
“It was brilliant, just unbelievable. I just can’t explain how good it was.
“You have your good years and your bad years and that was just one of those great years.
“You had the two Hannons (Colm and Michael A.), Jim McNally, Keith Fannin. It was just a very good team.”
Very good indeed, because not only did that final win secure the club’s first adult championship, but it also sparked an incredible unbeaten run that would see them also collect Ulster and All-Ireland Junior titles, a Cavan Intermediate title with their incredible run only ending in the 2002 Ulster Intermediate final when they lost out to Monaghan outfit Sean McDermott’s.
After the county final celebrations died down, the side prepared for their provincial quarter-final clash with Armagh champions Belleek.
Freed of the weight of history, the side opened up and sent the Orchard side packing 3-17 to 0-5 at Cremartin. Phillip McDermott, sent off in the 2000 Cavan final loss to Cornafean, was named Man of the Match.
The semi-final wasn’t played until the following February and despite missing the then county players Eddie Jackson and Colm Hannon, the side got past Newry Mitchel’s to set up a final date with Monaghan champions Doohamlet who had trounced Tyrone’s Dregish in their semi-final.
Shamrock Park was packed to the rafters and it was the Breffni side who were left celebrating as Bryan Bates’s first-half goal helped Drumgoon to a 1-13 to 0-10 win.
Two trophies in the cabinet, and another one to play for as an All-Ireland competition was hastily arranged following the success of the Cremartin Tournament.
It was back to the Monaghan venue for an Easter Monday meeting with Wicklow’s An Tochar. A solid defensive showing against the wind in the second half secured a 0-9 to 1-5 win and the shot at more silverware.
Mayo side Belmullet stood in their way in May 2002, Cremartin again playing host in the first ever All-Ireland Junior Club final.
Not for the first time, Eddie Jackson got a crucial goal while goalkeeper John O’Reilly was again in inspired form.
For Jimmy Reilly, the experience was everything he dreamed of – especially as he had made it back from injury to start in the 1-14 to 0-12.
Ó Fearghaíl said that the journey was shared throughout the community with the club colours adorning every pole in Drumgoon.
“My wife and myself were running a small business called Maudabawn Cultural Central. The team meetings would always be held in it and there was great excitement.
“People remember different things but what I remember is the colour.
“Some will remember blow by blow, kick by kick, my memories are somewhat different because I was a young administrator at Ulster level and I had seen this happening in other places but never in my own.
“We had never seen it like this before. Fertilizer bags being cut up, anything that could get blue and yellow together.
“The fun, the excitement, people who had never watched a football match before coming to our games.
“We had crowds at training. I remember as many going down to watch the training as we’d have at the league matches. So it was just a wonderful time.”
The good times continued to roll. No sooner had the All-Ireland celebrations died than the Intermediate Championship was starting out.
Driven on by the belief that they had something special, Drumgoon were not to be overawed by moving up a level.
Ballyhaise were dispatched emphatically in their first game with Bryan Bates and Paul McCabe hitting the net before Seamus Morris’s crucial goal helped them to a one-point win over Ballinagh.
Goalkeeper John O’Reilly was the hero in the final group game against Drung before they held Laragh United to just four points in the quarter-final.
That set up another meeting with Drung, who had also come out of the group stages, but there was to be no revenge as Drumgoon recorded a 0-12 to 0-8 win.
That left Denn standing between them and another title, just five months after they had collected the All-Ireland Junior crown.
It may have been low-scoring, but an 0-8 to 0-6 win put the seal on a remarkable period of success for the club.
It could have become even better too, but after Ulster wins over Derry’s Newbridge – after a replay – and Armagh’s Clann Eireann, Monaghan’s Sean McDermott’s proved a step too far in the provincial final.
And so came to an end that incredible unbeaten championship run. From the 2000 heart-breaking loss to Cornafean, their next loss would not be until Easter Monday 2002.
For Reilly, it wasn’t a case of one title releasing the pressure valve, more just down to the talent available.
“It wasn’t the fact that the pressure was off after that county junior win,” he said.
“The team that was there was exceptional on paper. You’d strength all over the field, Eddie Jackson, Colm Hannon, Adrian Crossan, Paul Crossan.
“You’d had power and you had young athletes. They wouldn’t have the physicality of teams now, the average age was early 20s, but they had the ability.”
For Ó Fearghaíl, while the curse made a good tale – the real reason for the club’s golden period had a much more logical explanation.
“Back in the early 80s I, along with a few others, set up our own juvenile teams. They took part at u-12 and u-14 for the first time.
“The first team to ever win a championship of any sort was in 1986 and quite a number of that underage side were on the team that went on to have so much success in those couple of years.
“From ’88 to ’91 we won quite a number of cups at u-12 and u-14 and all the players that played in the All-Ireland winning team came from that era.
“I was the teacher in the local school at the time so I taught all those lads and I coached them.
“Things began to gel, we got the taste that we could win at underage, it then built up and we had great wins at u-16 and minor.
“Those lads came of age then. You can look back and say it was one good team. It wasn’t, it came from two to three different teams from 1986 to 1991.
“Paddy Bates was manager, a very good organiser and very good at man-management. All these things came together.
“For every single one of those wins, they’d come to the school on the Monday morning with the cup.
“The children were so excited. We had never experienced anything like that before.”
So if there is one surefire way to shut down rumours of a curse, it’s to win four championships at county, provincial and national level.
A truly stunning team, a truly glorious period. The magical unbeaten streak of Drumgoon.