By Tom Byrne
As Cathal Heneghan reminisces on childhood memories of supporting Roscommon, his passion for the yellow and blue is clear.
“My first memorable moment watching my county was in 2006 down in Ennis,” he says. “I was a seven-year-old sitting behind the dugouts as Roscommon won the Minor All-Ireland. That made me want to be out there.”
Heneghan began his underage football with local side Michael Glaveys in Ballinlough, where various mentors, including his father James, taught him the basic skills of the game.
“I was taught when you are not doing great, don’t get too down and when you are doing well, don’t get too high,” he says. “The main thing was to keep level-headed.”
“The club is where you start out and it’s where you first learn to play. You learn the skills off previous club players who gave everything for the parish. It’s not a big parish so you get to know everyone along the way. You meet new people every day, whether it be at training or playing games, and these people turn into your friends for life.”
Heneghan plays as a forward for both club and county, basing his playstyle similar to the famous Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, a footballer that Cathal has looked up to since a young age.
“I know people say it a lot but the club really is everything,” he says. “It’s where you start and it’s where you finish too. You are playing for your family, friends, neighbours and everyone in the community. You have the chance to bring a smile to people’s faces and to create a buzz around the parish. You have your ups and downs too but your intent is always to give 100 per cent for the jersey and everything that goes with it.”
As the young Glaveys player developed, he started representing his county at underage level, which included games in the Ted Webb cup and the minor championship.
Heneghan made the step up to senior club football at the age of eighteen, and recalls how much of a difference he noticed, compared to the underage game.
“I was only a light fella at the time and I came on at half time of my first senior club match. It is a big step up from minor, even under-20. You are playing against bigger and faster men who aren’t afraid to hit you.
“As a forward you have less space to work with but you do learn quickly; things like when to run and when not to run, and when to kick and when not to kick.”
In Heneghan’s debut season his side won the Intermediate county championship, the Connacht championship, and made it to the All-Ireland club final in 2018.
“It was phenomenal stuff, to be honest,” he says, recalling an unforgettable journey. “Winning the Connacht championship was like a dream come true. Just to see everyone coming onto the pitch with tears of joy when the final whistle went. We were a junior club only a few years before. It brought such a smile to people’s faces,” he says.
Glaveys defeated Fuerty in the county final and Galway side Claregalway in the Connacht final before facing Tyrone’s Moy in the All-Ireland club final.
“We beat Kilanerin (Wexford) by two points in the All-Ireland semis. They had Mattie Forde in their side,” he says. “I remember the ball landed to Mattie at the end of the game in the square and he took a shot. If it went in either corner we would have been knocked out, but lucky enough it didn’t.
“The final whistle went and there was absolute pandemonium. I can’t even put it into words what it was like winning that match. Just knowing that you, your teammates, your family and your parish are all going to Croke Park.”
Glaveys were ultimately defeated by Moy and Tyrone footballer Sean Kavanagh, but the experience of the journey was significant. “I know we didn’t win the final but if you offered that run to people in our club ten years ago, they would have bitten your hand off for it,” he says.
“The homecoming after we lost epitomises the community. It was like we had won the World Cup. The streets were packed out and bonfires were lit. It is just an incredible memory to have.
“We have pushed on a small bit since then in the senior Roscommon championship but there is more in us as well. We have a couple of players in the senior county panel now that are well capable of bringing Glaveys to the real top in the next few years.”
Heneghan completed his Leaving Cert in Dunmore Community School in 2018 and earned a scholarship to NUI Galway to study Engineering, where he subsequently won the Fresher’s All-Ireland with the college in 2019.
“I knew I wanted to play with NUIG and I knew I wanted to win a Sigerson. In my first year, we got to the league final, which we lost, and then we got to the All-Ireland Fresher final and won it,” he says.
Heneghan scored six points in the All-Ireland Fresher final against DCU.
“It was such an experience to go all the way. It is a very high standard, you are travelling the whole country playing against quality players. What also makes college football is that you get to socialise with your teammates after games and get to know each other more.”
After impressing for club and college, Heneghan was asked to a trial for the Roscommon senior panel. The forward impressed, and was asked to join Anthony Cunningham’s squad ahead of the 2019 season. Heneghan was now living his dream as a senior Roscommon footballer.
“Growing up I was watching my favourite players Diarmuid Murtagh, Ciaran Murtagh, Donie Shine and Enda Smith play for Roscommon. Now I was playing with them, which I wouldn’t have believed when I was fourteenth or fifteen.”
After his All-Ireland college victory, Heneghan went back to Roscommon training eyeing a championship debut, which arrived in May 2019.
“Once college football finished up I went back into Roscommon training, fully committed for the championship. I was hoping that I would get my chance as I had a good year on the pitch,” he says.
“I was delighted to get my debut against Leitrim in the Connacht championship. I came on with ten or fifteen minutes to go and kicked a point. I remember the point going over the bar and jogging back with a smile on my face knowing that I had finally got up and running with my first championship point for Roscommon. It was something that I have thought about since I was about five or six, so it was something else, to be honest. One of my dreams came true that day, and knowing my family were up in the stands watching that moment. The hard work had finally paid off.”
Roscommon would go on to become Connacht champions the same year, beating Mayo in the semi-finals before defeating Galway in the final. He was a substitute the day Roscommon overcame Mayo in MacHale Park, ending a 33-year wait to defeat their neighbours on home soil.
“The emotion and scenes after that final whistle, knowing that we are not here to take part anymore, we are finally stamping our authority in Connacht,” he says.
But if Heneghan was on top of the world, a major blow came a week after the Mayo win. The forward suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury (ACL) while playing for his club, which would rule him out for over a year.
“I knew it wasn’t good, it was the first time I had to be stretchered off,” says Heneghan, remembering the pain. “I got an MRI scan in Ballinasloe. I was sitting down for dinner with my family when I received the bad news that the ACL was gone and that it required surgery. I was very upset, knowing that you are gone from the highest peak right down to rock bottom. It was a nine-month process of returning to play, so it was a tough one to take. It took the life out of me for a couple of weeks but I just wanted to get back playing as quickly as I could.”
The injury didn’t dampen Heneghan’s joy when Roscommon won the Connacht title, beating Galway in Pearse Stadium.
“You knew you were involved, you knew you were training but in the back of your head, you are thinking that I could have been out on that pitch,” he says. “But watching Roscommon win a Connacht final and beating Galway in Salthill was something you dream of. I have the Connacht medal so it gave me a taste of what’s to come, hopefully. If I have the desire, work hard and do everything I am asked to do, hopefully one day I will be able to play in a Connacht final for my county.”
Heneghan underwent surgery for the injury in July 2019, and would spend the coming months recovering, getting support from people around him, and trying out new hobbies.
“I tried to turn the negatives of the injury into positives,” he says. “Fair enough I didn’t get to play with Roscommon for the guts of 12 to 15 months, but I had time to do more things like going out with my friends and playing golf. Everyone was so supportive when I suffered the injury. It shows people do care.
“From the minute I went down injured on the pitch I got nothing but absolute, undivided attention from everyone. From the people at Roscommon Gaels that day who stretchered me off, people in the hospital and people from my club, the support has been unbelievable. I will be forever grateful for it to be honest,” he says.
The recovery process, he says, included physical and psychological torment.
“It’s a very psychological injury, the first few months are a mental battle,” he says. “I had small, tedious exercises to do. You would lose your mind if you kept doing them. That feeling of making my championship debut was my motivation, I want to get back to that moment and more.
“My Roscommon teammate Ultan Harney did his ACL a week after me so we did all the rehab together and helped each other along the way. The first time I got running I couldn’t stop smiling, and then when you get to kick a ball again it is a completely different story. It took me around six months to kick a ball on my left foot again.”
Getting the confidence back in his injured leg was the main objective as he played senior club championship games with Michael Glaveys last summer.
“It was tough as I was giving my heart and soul for it but it wasn’t working out at the start. I’d say I only got my confidence back in my left leg about three months ago. I remember I played my first championship game for my club last summer and I could only hand pass the ball that day as I knew a darting pain was going to come when I tried to kick it. It is all about getting back into it and getting your confidence back,” Heneghan says.
After the club season had finished, he was back training with his Roscommon teammates, to his great relief.
“I knew myself that I wasn’t going to be pushing for a place in the Roscommon team last season as it was more about getting back training with the county and getting the confidence back once again. I was learning my positions and runs to make as I hadn’t played for Roscommon for over a year. The main aim for me was to try and return to my previous level. Hopefully, when we return I can finally push for a place on the starting fifteen.”
Roscommon manager Cunningham, whom the 21-year-old has great belief in, had backed Heneghan when he suffered his setback.
“Cunningham is 100%. He is a very good motivator and gave me great support especially when I had the injury. He gave me the belief that there will be more good days ahead for me in a Roscommon jersey. Ian Daly, who is one of the Roscommon selectors gave me great encouragement also,” he says.
Heneghan hopes a bright future lies ahead, and for now, he’s keen to get back to his best and aims to be pushing for a starting place once the league begins.
“I have looked up to some of these Roscommon footballers since a young age, so hopefully one day someone will look up to me the way I looked up to them,” he says.
“I hope to be there or thereabouts next season in terms of starting and playing. I’d like to think that every year you want to push yourself to be the very best you can be. You always want to be pushing for a starting fifteen jersey and show people what you can do.”