The Leeside legends series: Niall Cahalane was as tough as they come

The Leeside legends series: Niall Cahalane was as tough as they come
Niall Cahalane challenges Kerry legend Seamus Moynihan in a tough Munster championship clash.

NOT many Gaelic footballers of the present generation would have the commitment to play at the top level to the age of 40, but in Niall Cahalane, Cork has a man who defied all logic.

Born in Castlehaven near Skibbereen he has been involved at his local club for over 50 years winning his first medal at the age of seven.

Niall Cahalane of Cork tussles with Jack O'Shea of Kerry. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Niall Cahalane of Cork tussles with Jack O'Shea of Kerry. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

The year of 1981 was a special year for Cahalane’s history as his club clinched the West Cork Minor championship, but it was the performance of their U21 team that really stunned GAA people in Cork.

Castlehaven with nine players of their winning minor team of that season took on the mighty Na Piarsaigh in the Cork County U21 championship final and against all the odds blitzed the city side.

Niall’s longevity in top-class football can be put down in part to starting to play senior football for his club at the age of 17.

Niall Cahalane, Larry Tompkins and a young Damien Cahalane.
Niall Cahalane, Larry Tompkins and a young Damien Cahalane.

His first taste of success came in 1989 when Castlehaven defeated the Barrs in the Cork County Senior Football Championship final following a low scoring contest.

Five years later came the final that every West Cork football fan wanted to see — a local derby clash between Castlehaven and Skibbereen.

The final was one of the most competitive games ever witnessed in Cork and after 60 plus minutes of compelling football the teams couldn’t be separated.

In the words of Cahalane winning the replay was one of the high points of his illustrious career.

“First of all I was a captain and not alone were we playing our great rivals and neighbours we were also playing lifelong friends and former schoolmates,” said Cahalane.

In the present climate, attendances have dropped to an all-time low but for these two games, 30,000 packed Páirc Uí Chaoimh which was a credit to both clubs.

“Thankfully we won the replay and looking back to be captain of my club to win that final was a dream come true.”

Joe O'Driscoll getting away from Niall Cahalane.
Joe O'Driscoll getting away from Niall Cahalane.

The county final of 1997 was one of the blackest days in Cahalane’s career when his club lost to Beara as a controversial incident after the game saw him cited.

Cahalane was caught on camera shouldering referee Niall Barrett and the indiscretion on that day resulted in a 12-month suspension.

“That was the lowest point of my career as I had let myself, family, and club down at the one time.”

The suspension almost forced Cahalane to quit the sport but the charismatic Caslehaven man decided to return to the sport he loved.

“It was a horrible time but with the help of family and friends I decided to return and learn from it.”

On the inter-county side, Cahalane is also regarded as one of the greatest players ever to wear a Cork jersey.

The Castlehaven man began in 1981 with an All-Ireland Minor medal as the Rebels defeated a highly rated Derry side.

Following a three-year wait, Cahalane was once again back on the steps of Croke Park when he captained Cork to the All-Ireland U21 football title with a win against Mayo.

At senior level, Niall was introduced in 1983 as a sub against Kerry but again he has to wait as Cork didn’t win an All- Ireland until 1989 when they defeated Mayo.

It was Senior All Ireland number two the following year when Cork defeated Meath in another thrilling final as the pure artistry of Cahalane was recognised with All-Stars in 1987 and 1988.

Cork captain Niall Cahalane celebrates with manager Billy Morgan following the Munster final win over Kerry in 1995 at Fitzgerald Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cork captain Niall Cahalane celebrates with manager Billy Morgan following the Munster final win over Kerry in 1995 at Fitzgerald Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In recent years the decline in Cork football has saddened Cahalane but is still hopeful the good times will return.

“We are living in difficult times as the youth of today go through the motions of life and looking back, my father (John) and mother (Maureen) enjoyed the simple things in life and were very proud of the service I gave to Cork football just the same as I am of my own kids.”

Niall Cahalane rises high against the Barrs in 1992.
Niall Cahalane rises high against the Barrs in 1992.

Niall acknowledges the role of a wife is very important if you are to be successful at sport.

“My wife Ailish is steeped in football tradition and so I am lucky we all sing from the same hymn sheet.”

Cahalane resides in Wilton with his wife and children. Damien and Conor are part of the Cork senior hurling squad and Jack was a dual minor in 2019, while Maebh has pulled on the county colours at senior in both codes.

A successful businessman in the word of auctioneering the way Cahalane speaks about the sport and his family epitomises the true gentleman he really is whose contribution to the Cork football will never be forgotten.

Niall Cahalane in action for the Haven against Douglas in 2003. Picture: Dan Linehan
Niall Cahalane in action for the Haven against Douglas in 2003. Picture: Dan Linehan

FACTFILE:

Niall Cahalane won his first medal with Castlehaven at the age of seven.

He captained Castlehaven to defeat Skibbereen in the Cork Senior Football Championship final of 1994 before an estimated crowd of 32,000.

Cahalane received football All-Stars in 1987 and 1988.

He was on the Cork Senior Football team that won the 1989 and 1990 All-Irelands.

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