September 17, 1993
Niall Cahalane - A Chunk of Castlehaven Rock
His presence is so vital to the Cork defensive set up
Cork's perennial game plan which has revolved around Larry Tompkins ever since the Eadestown football engineer arrived Leeside has been deposited in the litter bin. As if Billy Morgan hasn't had enough injury scares to worry about with messrs. McCarthy and Fahy running out of time, the prospect of the Rebels lining out against an effervescent Derry team without the services of Niall Cahalane is almost unimaginable. Billy Morgan's position looks a bit like Ayreton Senna being nudged out of the pits of Silverstone and being advised of the non-availability of a change of tyres should it spit rain. Somewhat of a handicap?
A Cork team without the guiding influence at the back of the Castlehaven defender represents an appaling vista for not alone the county's team management but for all Cork fans and their fellow travellers in the G.A.A. world. For Cahalane is a crowd pleaser, an unusual tag to be attached to a defender, but no less true than it is a when attached to the likes of Joe Brolly, John O'Driscoll, Damien Cassidy or Barry Coffey. Sunday's final will have something missing if Niall Cahalane fails to make his peace with his troublesome calf muscle. The neutral supporter straddling the mass of earth between the deep south and the far north will wish him God's speed to Croke Park's starting blocks.
For perhaps the first time ever in recent times, Cork will enter into an All-Ireland decider with a degree of experience lodged to their account which is greater than that shown on their opponents balance sheet. Even if the Reds pull in under the Hogan Stand and plonk themselves in front of the nations paparazzi minus the famed Cahalane, they'll still be top heavy in the 'seen it all' stakes compared to Championship pretenders Derry.
Extrapolation is always a dangerous practice in sport and especially when one attempts to use National Football League form as a factor in the equation so in essence, Sunday's tet-a-tete is anyone's game on Championship form. It's too close to call even for the rabid punters of a gaelic hue, but how does Niall Cahalane himself view this weekend's high profile decider? "I honestly feel we've a relatively good chance considering our greater experience but like all would-be champions we'll need the rub of the green to win it just like Kilkenny in this year's hurling final. Every team needs to get the breaks".
Niall Cahalane oozes an unwavering belief in his team mates to do the business on Sunday. Still, there's a clear understanding in his own mind that the Oak Leaf County represent a colossal hurdle for Cork to overcome if Sam Maguire is to be reclaimed by the outgoing Munster champions. "I watched them in their semi final win over Dublin and they were quite impressive especially in the last ten minutes or so. I only saw bits and pieces of them in action during the Ulster Championship but they look good all round" offered the injury plagued left corner back.
Asked to split a few hairs in his assessment of the opposition, Niall is the archetypal journalist's pal despite pressing claims from his brief as Auctioneer with Cork based Irish and European Auctioneers. "Derry are particularly strong in the half back line, midfield and to a lesser extent in the full forward line. Their half forwards didn't have the best of days against Dublin but in fairness to them they were largely bypassed as a unit. Their forwards as a whole, I think, are better than they looked in the semi final".
While expanding his outwardly positive views on the Derry lads, Castlehaven's Cahalane reminds the interviewer that such opinions are par for the course down south and indeed right across the county in line with the new perception of Ulster football as a whole. "Teams that come out of Ulster are no longer underestimated when they come down to Croke Park, not like they used to be. After Down and Donegal's All-Ireland wins there's been a whole new reassessment of Ulster football and there's no doubt about it that their success has been good for the game of football", the medal laden Corkman added.
With more than a handful of All-Ireland final appearances behind him, this despite the fact that he's still a young thirty years of age, Niall Cahalane may have backed the wrong combination in Ulster (Donegal at the start of the year) but he insists that his money was always riding on his home county to win out in Munster. Just how good does he rate this current Cork teams and what have they got that smacks of All-Ireland winning champion material?
"It may be a cliché but I still say that we've got a nice blend of youth and experience. Five or six new lads on the team will be playing in their first All-Ireland Senior final, they've just won their first Munster Senior medal and they're hungry for more. The arrival of the new fellas has given the older lads on the team a new lease of life because they (the older players) don't want to get the run-around at training and are putting in an extra effort as such. Everyone on the panel is very determined to do well".
Obviously gung-ho about his team's chances of denying the province of Ulster a hat-trick of national Senior titles, Niall continues to wax lyrical on what he knows best about (auctioneering apart of course?). Just how good though is the 1993 Cork squad? As good a Cork team as he's seen, Niall exclaims. "We've been gradually improving all year. Some people have said that our opposition has been good but maybe the games went our way because we were very good on the day. We beat Mayo and Kerry quite convincingly even though it might not have been reflected on the scoreboard and the same goes for Clare and Tipperary", explained the long serving county stalwart who first broke through on the Senior club scene in 1979 when alongside the likes of the Collins brothers Christy, Bernard and Anthony, he figured on the Castlehaven team which lost to the 'Barrs in the county final. Thankfully county Junior and Intermediate title wins in earlier seasons had cushioned the blow that later arrived.
1981 was a good year for young Cahalane with celebrations unfolding on both the local and national fronts. Born and reared in the East Cork hamlet and from a G.A.A. orientated family, eighteen year old Cahalane figured at left corner back on the Minor All-Ireland winning team of '81. John Cleary, Colm O'Neill, Eoin O'Mahony, Tony O'Sullivan and Anthony Davis were also on the team alongside the also current Blackrock hurler who then proceeded to help himself to an Under 21 medal with Castlehaven.
In such good company on the domestic and national scene, Niall was bound to prosper and duly did. Totally determined, fully committed and eager to learn and perfect his craft, he graduated to the county Under 21 side in 1984, taking his place at full back on the side that beat Mayo on a 0-9 to 0-6 scoreline. An out and out defender, apart from the occasions when he lines out in attack for Blackrock hurlers, Niall Cahalane enjoyed a bumper year in 1989 too. A player that has served under Cork county team managers Eamon Ryan, Denis Coughlan, Bob Honohan and Billy Morgan since first making his debut with the Rebels in 1983, the Castlehaven stalwart struck National League and Cork Senior gold in '89. the cream of the crop that year though was his All-Ireland medal win when Mayo were stymied at the final hurdle.
An All-Star in 1987 and '88. Niall Cahalane has been projected as a gaelic games "hard" man who revels in the physical exchanges, the close quarter stuff where lines drawn between raw aggression and naked violence is paper thin. Cahalane himself shies away from any such pigeon-holing, instead insisting that he's a committed player who doesn't believe in shirking his responsibilities. Getting to the ball first is what shapes his style of play, his supporters insist.
Thrown in at the deep end and left to either sink or swim down in Australia for the Compromise Rules Test of 1986, Cahalane played as stylishly as a salmon swims in a brook. Under the management of Kevin Heffernan, he blossomed as an International but it's in the red jersey of his home county that he has made his name. Two B & I Awards testify to the facts that even in great Cork combinations he has shone in his own right, in his own department and niche. A man that has never been dropped by any team manager at any level, his only breaks from the hurly burly of top class football fare have been the product of suspensions or injury, both of which have restricted his involvement while conversely whetting his insatiable appetite for gaelic games competition.
Keeping his direct opponent scoreless and finely judging when to move off his own man to meet an incoming opponent have been the trademarks of the Cahalane game plan for ages. Sadly as the big day at Croke looms, he's troubled with the worst possible injury a corner back could be troubled with. Ankle and calf muscles are to a speedster what a good right hand is to a naturalised southpaw under lights at Madison Square Garden. Indispensable parts of one's armour. A great believer in doing the simple things rights and playing in a fashion that leaves complex football a non-starter, the Castlehaven and Cork defensive lynchpin is confidence personifled when the banter concerns Cork G.A.A. Inc.
Disappointed to lose out at the penultimate stage of the 1989 All-Ireland Club Championship in Baltinglass of Wicklow, Niall in the best and most simple of English used in this part of the world "just can't see us being beaten, even though throughout the country people are fancying Derry". Confidence, the building block of success. If only Niall Cahalane could bottle it.
Written by the Hogan Stand Magazine
17 Sept. 1993
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