Cian Mackey might never have got to play in an Ulster final if he’d stayed in London two years ago and listened to the voice in his head telling him there was more to life than football. A three-year stint running the ‘Cheers’ bar in Ballyjamesduff, which he remembers as “good craic but late nights and not a lifestyle for me all” had left him restless.
He was 30, with 13 unfulfilled seasons in Breffni blue behind him, and went back to the plumbing trade where work took him to London in 2017, thinking his inter-county career was probably over. Then Mattie McGleenan, then Cavan manager and ex-Tyrone footballer, came calling.
“He dragged me home, so he did,” says Mackey.“I was thinking about (staying in London) because at the time things weren’t going great and you start thinking there’s more to life than football.
“Those things go through any footballer’s head when you’re not getting to any finals or not winning anything. Now I’m home and working for a recruitment company. In hindsight it’s great being home and being part of it and enjoying the build-up to an Ulster final.”
Tomorrow’s sellout game against Donegal is Cavan’s first since 2001 and Mackey, an inspirational force off the bench in both the drawn semi-final against Armagh and the replay, had a lot to do with getting them there.
They were four points down against Armagh the first day but clawed their way back, Mackey kicking a late equaliser to take it to extra-time and then doing the same at the end of extra-time to set up a replay. But he snatched at a good chance right at the end of extra-time which could have stolen the win. The miss gave him nightmares.
It took me until about the Wednesday to get over it because it was the easiest one of the whole lot to score, in my head.
"I was told that if I’d kicked it, Holla (Ciaran Brady) would have missed the final (having been red-carded), so the boys had a joke that I did it for him! Once we got over the line the second day I didn’t feel as bad.”
Mackey again sprang from the bench in the replay and the old-timers, himself and fellow 32-year-old Martin Reilly, combined for a late Mackey point which drew the loudest roar of the day from the Cavan fans.
The flame-haired veteran has earned folk hero status on the Breffni terraces, but despite feeling he’s got a full game in him, he’s had to accept a new impact sub role under boss Mickey Graham, whom he played alongside at the start of his career, which coincided with the end of Graham’s, in 2005.
Mackey admitted: “You want to play as much as you can. The way it is at the minute that’s the role he has me in, though if Mickey asked me to start in the Ulster final I’d take his hand off. I feel I still have the legs for the 70 minutes, he feels it gives us a better impact me coming on.
“Possibly the game opens up slightly more by the time you come on but the game is still 120 mph and every team uses all their subs so there’s plenty of fresh legs running up and down.”
Cavan kicked 23 points in the replay, and added to Armagh’s 17 it was one of those very rare occasions 40 scores were registered in an Ulster SFC match. So the Breffni boys seem to have come a long way in the six years since the ‘black death’ jibe from Joe Brolly, who slammed their defensive style back in 2013.
“It probably did (annoy) Cavan people a wee bit,” Mackey says.
“But the position we were in with the so-called ‘black death’ was that we needed to do something to change what was going on, because the way we were playing wasn’t working. The ‘black death’ story brought us to our first All-Ireland quarter-final that summer.
“It brought us from Division 3 to Division 3, and then Terry (Hyland) started to slowly evolve to be more attacking, but then we were getting beaten. It’s all about getting the right mix, you can’t just go gung-ho and attack because you’ll be beaten anyway. We were going nowhere fast and what Terry did was get us hard to beat and winning games.
That got confidence up and now the boys have found a nice blend of defending and attacking football and knowing when to get back, that’s the big thing.
Mackey credits Graham with having “a good football brain” and himself and Dermot McCabe have earned the respect of the dressing-room. The addition of Martin Corey, a brother of Monaghan defender Vinny Corey, was a crucial development for Mackey who won a first Cavan club SFC title under the Monaghan man with Castlerahan last year.
Good things come to those who wait and with club success finally coming to him, and now a first Ulster final appearance, there’s a sense that things are coming together nicely for Mackey.
“I’m a long time waiting for that luck to turn. That was our fifth final with Castlerahan in the space of seven or eight years, and the third in a row. Winning is a habit so when you get to finals and you lose you think ‘here we go again’ but in the last final we thought ‘let’s go for it’.
“Some of the boys have kind of brought that into Cavan now too. We think let’s go for it, there’s no point in just sitting back trying to defend a lead. Those days are gone. You have to go out to win a game rather than go out to not lose and we are embracing that in Cavan now.”