Cavan senior hurling manager Ollie Bellew. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cavan senior hurling manager Ollie Bellew. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Bellew relishing return to Cavan

By Cian O’Connell

Sporting connections happen: a team and a management set-up dovetail nicely. So that essentially is why Ollie Bellew is back as Cavan senior hurling manager.

Reaching the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park illustrated what could be achieved through resourceful planning. Having stepped away for the 2022 campaign, former Antrim U21 boss Bellew is preparing for another stint on the inter-county beat alongside Tomás Mannion, who is still hurling for Castlegar in Galway.

Maximising Cavan’s potential is Bellew’s objective. “It is not an arrogance or anything, but we know if we are organised, and if the structure is good with good people around us that we can make it happen,” Bellew says.

Cavan’s first competitive encounter beckons on Saturday in Division 3B of the Allianz Hurling League against Longford.  “We don't have to win leagues or championships to be successful with Cavan because Cavan have traditionally been finishing bottom of the heap every year,” Bellew adds.

“They have been the lowest ranked county for so long, but we saw what can be done in the two years that we were there that if you bring a bit of structure and organisation. Tom is outstanding in his coaching and outstanding in his tactical preparation.

“Once that is thrown into the mix you get the best out of these lads because there is real hurling talent there. They are talented players.”

Bellew, though, stresses the value of the resilience Cavan hurlers demonstrate. “It is easy to be a Galway hurler, an Antrim hurler, a Kilkenny hurler or Limerick or whoever it is,” Bellew states.

“You go back every year and you are winning games, you are getting good crowds. You think about these Cavan fellas, traditionally they are getting beat week in, week out. Some of the beatings are quite bad, but they keep coming back.

“That tells you all about their passion for the game. They are real, real hurling men through and through. The level of support you get from the clubs and the board is unbelievable, it is fantastic.

“So the basic ingredients are all there to work with and I'll tell you something they deserve a bit of success. They never throw the towel in as hurling men - they do love the game.”

Cillian Sheanon in action for Cavan in the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cillian Sheanon in action for Cavan in the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Bellew does too. On the trips to training hurling dominates the phone conversations. The steely belief that something can be achieved matters deeply.

“I do love it,” Bellew responds. “You have to call a spade a spade, Cavan hurling has traditionally been bottom of the pile, it certainly was when we arrived in 2020, and it has gone back there last year.

“You are basically going in at the bottom so maybe you don't feel as much pressure as you would with other jobs - certainly.”

Bellew remains hopeful, though, that Cavan can embark on an adventure. “Your targets are what you make them so I definitely feel a bit more pressure this time than we did two years ago,” he says.

“We took Cavan hurling to Croke Park for the first time since 1909, I think, something like that for the Lory Meagher Final, and we just missed out on promotion from Division 3B in 2021 also.

"There is a sense of expectation that something will happen this time again. It is not an overwhelming sense of expectation or pressure, it definitely is a bit heavier than before, but they are that passionate about the game and their hurling that you feed off that enthusiasm.”

Undoubtedly demanding days occur, but Cavan hurlers remain defiant. “You feed off that energy when you are going training,” Bellew says. “It is a hard shift when you go two hours down the road and two hours back after working all day and then getting up for work tomorrow.

“Still there is never a day that you want to take a session off or you want a day off. You are always buzzing and ready to go, you're sacrificing your weekends so you are up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

“They are just brilliant people, really enthusiastic and full of energy. They want to be the best that they can be, they absolutely relish it.

“The one thing for sure with this team is they will give absolutely everything every time they go out. If it is good enough that is great, but if it is not we will go home to work on it, to improve for the next day. You just can't ask for more than that.”

Joe Baldwin and Ollie Bellew embrace after the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Joe Baldwin and Ollie Bellew embrace after the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Four clubs compete at adult level in Cavan so it is vital to ensure players are adequately catered for. Those who hurl for clubs in other counties contribute handsomely according to Bellew. “We have two of the Sheanons, who play for Cuala, their father is a proud Cavan man - Johnny Sheanon,” Bellew says.

“Then we have Dillon Mulligan from Kilmacud Crokes, who is in there. They are great lads, they are up once a week, and then at the weekends for matches and preparations. Cavan seems to attract a lot of good people too.

“We have Canice Maher in from Kilkenny - a former All-Ireland minor winning captain. We have Nicky Kenny, who has just finished with Cuala, he is going to be hurling with Cavan this year.

“You get people, who married into the county. So a passion for hurling is there, and thankfully we are creating a good, professional environment for them to come into.

“You don't want it to be a mess and them not attracted to it, you want them all in because they will be great future coaches and ambassadors for Cavan hurling.”

In the summer of 2021 Bellew and Mannion opted to depart the Cavan scene. It was a difficult decision, but Bellew is delighted to return.

“To be honest the physical demands of travelling from Castlegar and Belfast to this job four times a week is utterly exhausting so after the Lory Meagher Final in 2021 we just chatted about it and we were both burnt out,” Bellew recalls.

“I think if we had left the decision a few months longer we may have stayed, but we decided to step down just because we were knackered.

“We stayed away last year, we didn't go to any of the games, but we were still in touch with the players because we have a good relationship with them. So when Liam McCabe the county secretary phoned last year and said to us about going back, we gave it a bit of thought, but it didn't a lot of persuasion to be honest.

“We had often said did we do the right thing stepping down in 2021? We weren't sure whether it was the right thing to do, it turned out that it was because we needed the break and the players needed a break.

The Cavan team before the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
The Cavan team before the 2021 Lory Meagher Cup Final at Croke Park. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

"Now we are back and we are back to square one, we are rebuilding again.”

That is also part of the attraction too. Through his work at every level of the game Bellew has tried to assist and develop hurlers so currently the Cavan U20 panel are all training with the seniors.

“This time we have actually brought in the U20s into the set-up because we wanted to take a longer term view on Cavan hurling,” Bellew explains. “We don't want to just go in to use the old hands and maybe do well for one year and that is it over and done with again.

“We want to set up a culture now where boys want to play for the county and they see the benefits of being county hurlers. We want this thing to run a lot longer and that Cavan hurling won't fall away again the way it did in the past.

“So we have a lot of boys to work with from the U20 panel, we have the whole panel in with us. We have all our Cavan based players with us over the winter, we have been going since November.”

It can be awkward getting everybody together for collective training consistently, but Bellew isn’t looking for excuses.

“The problem lies in the amount of work around Cavan town and the college situation - basically a lot of boys are away up in Dublin or Galway, even some in Sligo during the week,” he adds.

“So you don't have access to your entire panel midweek, the weekends are great. During the week your numbers dip a bit, but you still have to get as much done as you can.

“We create networks for our players so they can train in other places in colleges or universities or with a club team if they are away working in other parts of the country.”

Finding solutions and staying positive is an approach that continues to serve Bellew well. Hope is in Cavan hurling hearts.