HEAD in his hands, staring at the ground, Niall Cahalane was in total disbelief.
He had just watched Castlehaven lose a seven-point lead in the 1998 All-Ireland club senior football semi-final against Erin’s Isle, and there was nothing he could do about it.
The suspended Cahalane was sat in the stands at Semple Stadium in Thurles, as his team flirted with what would have been the club’s first-ever All-Ireland final appearance before the county boys lost the girl of their dreams to the city slickers, who swooped in late and broke Haven hearts.
Two Erin’s Isle goals in those dramatic final minutes, the controversial second from Niall Crossan is still a talking point 20 years on, denied the West Cork men, and Cork star Cahalane was helpless watching on.
‘Any time you have to sit out an All-Ireland semi-final, it’s tough,’ Cahalane told The Southern Star.
‘It’s really the one that got away from us because if we had a full compliment of players that same year, I felt we were as good as what was left in the competition.
‘Castlehaven completely dominated that game. As far as I remember all our scores came from play and we put up a huge score, 17 points, and we were dominant.
‘We were up seven points, up five points, always in control, but then the match turned in a matter of minutes.
‘Looking back on the goal – the was it or wasn’t it a goal – and the manner of it, that defeat was a hard enough bullet to bite.’
Cahalane was serving a 48-week suspension following an incident with the referee after the 1997 county final replay defeat against Beara at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. He was a driving force in that Haven team along with Larry Tompkins and John Cleary, and that team is regarded as one of the club’s finest.
‘Because of our age profile and different things, it was one of the strongest teams and panels since Castlehaven hit the senior ranks in the late seventies,’ Cahalane explained, but that’s as close as the club has ever come to reaching an All-Ireland club final.
Erin’s Isle late smash-and-grab snatched a 2-12 to 0-17 win, and a place in an All-Ireland club final. Twenty years on, Cahalane admits he does feel guilty not being able to help his team-mates.
‘There was a sense of regret after that game, even more so from my point of view because there was f**k all I could do about it,’ he admitted.
‘If you were out there you could do something about it, but I wasn’t. I probably cost us a little as well not being able to participate.
‘From me, there was and still is a small element of guilt as well. You’d think of it sometimes. It gets easier, it gets better, but it never goes away.
‘I’d have done anything to be out there. No player wants to sit in a stand in an All-Ireland semi-final. You want to help your team.
‘The lads had given it everything, they left it all on the field, and it’s one of those things that when your luck isn’t in, then it’s not in.’
This Sunday, Cahalane is assistant manager to Harry Redknapp in the AIB’s The Toughest Rivalry that sees Castlehaven and Erin’s Isle meet in Moneyvollohane in a rematch of that 1998 semi-final.
When Redknapp spent a few days with the club before the summer, Cahalane imparted as much knowledge as he could to the former Spurs and West Ham manager.
‘I’m not too sure if my knowledge or knowhow will do him any good,’ Cahalane laughed.
‘Management is management, and no matter what, you manage it, whether it is work or sport or whatever, it’s about applying your skills to a different code.
‘Harry will get on fine. He is a peoples’ person, a charismatic guy, good conversationalist and good fun – he’d get on fine in any walk of life.’